Summer folk in the winter
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 16, 2002) – On Sunday night, in the second of two separate shows that took place that day at Club Helsinki, a crowd got a wintertime taste of the summertime delights awaiting those who attend the annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in July in nearby Hillsdale, N.Y., in the persons of the Nields, the Kennedys and Susan Werner.

Falcon Ridge isn’t about folk music as an ossified tradition, but rather folk as process, as a living organism reflecting the lives and concerns of contemporary practitioners and listeners. In this guise, the sort of music one hears at Falcon Ridge is perhaps more accurately called “new folk.” While it resembles old folk in its reliance on narrative ballads, melodic simplicity and acoustic guitars, new folk also acknowledges the realities of its audience’s life experiences, so that in the music heard on Sunday, influences including jazz, rock, country and Cole Porter were in abundance.

The husband-and-wife duo of Maura and Pete Kennedy kicked off the lively evening with a pleasant set of their mostly original compositions that heavily draw upon the folk-rock tradition of the mid-‘60s, when groups like The Byrds added Beatlesque melodies and pop rhythms to the traditional-style folk repertory. Both Pete and Maura play acoustic guitars, and their arrangements emphasize the chiming, ringing sounds of the strings and their personal, upbeat harmonies.

The Kennedys acknowledged folk’s political territory with a pointed version of “You Can’t Kill Hope with a Gun” and broadened the musical scope beyond the Anglo-Irish tradition in a Middle Eastern-influenced song called “Sirens,” featuring some very Turkish-style lead guitar by Pete Kennedy which devolved into a funk riff by Maura – played while standing on a chair in the audience – before Pete showed off some dizzying guitar chops connecting Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.”

Susan Werner played a middle set of original material on guitar and piano, at both of which she excels. In fact, there is seemingly little at which she doesn’t excel. She has a rich, versatile voice, at its jazziest capable of cabaret-like swoons and at its sultriest able to glide like a soul singer. Her writing, both lyrically and melodically, is economical and sharp, and she is a master of multiple styles, ranging from pop to blues to bluegrass to jazz. She is also an inspired frontwoman, going off on a funny and intelligent riff about the difference between Richard Rodgers’s songwriting partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, before playing several of her own, standard-style originals.

Helsinki regulars Nerissa and Katryna Nields batted cleanup and after a few tentative numbers, they honed in on what they do best as a duo – stirring ballads like “This Town Is Wrong” and “One Hundred Names” that show off their keening harmonies and Nerissa Nields’s unusual melodic twists.

Throughout the evening the performers mixed and matched with each other, sitting in instrumentally and lending harmonies that opened up the music and tied it back to folk’s essential role as music to be shared among friends. It was this aspect more than any that was inspiring and worth celebrating on a winter’s night.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 18, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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