Folksingers offer hint of things to come at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 16, 2002) – No one would argue that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of talent on display on the stage at Club Helsinki on Tuesday night, when a triumvirate of up-and-coming singer-songwriters offered a buffet sampling of their wares as part of a touring preview of this summer’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, which will take place in nearby Hillsdale, N.Y., on July 26-28.

For five years running, Falcon Ridge has sent out on the road the winners of the past year’s new artists showcase, as voted by festival attendees. The tour gives the relative newcomers a chance to hone their acts before taking them to the festival’s main stage, as well as a chance to promote the festival each year with fresh, new faces.

This year’s crop, featuring Trina Hamlin, Eric Schwartz, and Zoe Lewis, was a talented, eclectic bunch. But the eclecticism didn’t just run between the performers. In just the four songs that each played in the first set, the individual artists displayed a variety of approaches and influences almost to a fault. They bounced from guitar to keyboard to other instruments, including harmonica and ukulele, they played songs based in pop, rock, blues, jazz – just about everything except what is traditionally thought of as “folk” – and they juxtaposed serious ballads, topical protest tunes, and humorous numbers, in dizzying, jump-cut fashion.

In just four numbers, Hamlin, a native of Minnesota who currently lives in New York, touched on Seventies folk-rock, Nineties pop-folk, vintage pop-soul and a searing a capella spiritual-blues. Her Berklee College of Music background and experience as a commercial singer showed. This isn’t a criticism – far too many budding singer-songwriters get by without the tools, especially the voice, necessary to sustain a listener’s interest over the course of a concert or a full-length album. No problem for Hamlin, who effortlessly jumped from the raw-roots primitivism of “Down to the Hollow,” featuring a Sonny Terry-style harmonica solo, to the sophisticated, Carole King-style melodicism of “You Can’t Remember What I Can’t Forget.” She had no problem maintaining focus, either, but one longed to hear her perform with the full band she obviously had in mind when she wrote these songs.

Eric Schwartz came out with both guns drawn for “Who Da Bitch Now,” a viciously satirical response to the Matthew Shepard, James Byrd and Abner Louima hate crimes, couched in a comic jazz setting. Schwartz had the manic, hyperkinetic stage manner of Robin Williams, and his performance was nine-tenths comedy and one-tenth music. In this manner he recalled Vance Gilbert, and like Gilbert he displayed a serious side on one tune, a piano ballad that succumbed to a saccharine sweetness that required immediate compensation from his versatile wit for his final number, “Hattie and Mattie,” about elderly, hash brownie-baking lesbians.

Zoe Lewis came from her native South coast of England by way of Provincetown, but her songs were a kind of living travelogue, strongly rooted in geography and character. “Lullaby on 24th and Mission” drew sustenance from the Latin quarter of San Francisco, “The Day that Snow White Said the F-Word” was an apt deconstruction of Disneyworld, and “Auntie Gladys” portrayed her tweed-addicted elderly aunt back in Britain. Lewis’s voice occasionally was harsh and off-pitch, although on her final number, “When the Developers Came to Tea” -- a swing-based novelty on which she played ukulele -- she was pitch-perfect and even scatted an impressive trumpet solo.

All three boasted distinctive personalities and worked them into their acts, which is an essential part of the singer-songwriter ballgame. None of them were run of the mill, but all of them are works-in-progress. They deserve their main stage tryouts in July. As to whether any of them will be able to parlay that into a main stage career, that remains to be seen.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 17, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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