Future folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 16, 2003) – Every year the long-running Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y., kicks off with a day-long new artist showcase, featuring a few dozen performers who gain entry through a curated application process. The festival promoters take the showcase very seriously, and festivalgoers are polled to name their three favorites. The poll-winners then are invited to perform on the Main Stage the next summer.

For the last few years, Falcon Ridge has sent out the three winners a few months before the festival – which takes place this year on July 24-27 at the Long Hill Farm as always – in a preview tour to help garner enthusiasm for the festival and presumably for the future of folk.

If the show at Club Helsinki on Thursday night was any indication, that future is less than promising. On the plus side, there was a lot of youthful energy and sincerity on the stage that night, with two trios, Girlyman and We’re About 9, and one singer-songwriter, Rachael Davis, all of whom were serious, cheery and clearly devoted to their craft.

But in each case the performers seemed to have a long way to go before they will be truly ready to rub shoulders with the terrific Main Stage headliners found annually at Falcon Ridge by virtue of merit rather than popular vote.

Not that they haven’t been paying attention to those headliners. The Baltimore-based trio We’re About 9 has clearly spent time studying artists like Richard Shindell and the Nields. Indeed, if the show proved anything it is that there is a whole new generation of performers who, instead of being directly influenced by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, are now the artistic spawn of ‘90s avatars like Dar Williams and The Story.

The group’s lead singer and songwriter, Brian Gundersdorf, writes dramatic ballads in the vein of Shindell. He has a gift for narrative lines and melodies that flow naturally in and out of choruses, but he has yet to learn how to nail the dramatic impact of Shindell’s ballads. The best he could do, on “Albany,” in which the narrator gambles $50 that “you’ll never make it to Albany,” just left a listener thinking, so what, why would you want to?

Second-generation folk musician Rachael Davis, who grew up in Cadillac, Mich., has been traveling with her parent’s folk group, Lake Effect, since age eight. Davis, who was accompanied by an acoustic guitarist, has a lovely voice, but both her material and stage presence lacked character and distinction. In spite of her years of experience, she seemed embryonic, like her songs, which were more suggestions of songs than finished products.

Brooklyn’s Girlyman brought the curtain down on the evening with an eclectic set of songs reflecting its members various approaches and interests. The group was formed when solo performer Nate Borofsky moved into an apartment with Tammy Greenstein and Doris Muramatsu, who were already performing as a duo. Perhaps they meant to acknowledge these roots with their opening tune, “Handle With Care,” by another group of musicians who had independent careers before joining forces. Had they approached the song with some sense of humor or irony, the gesture might have worked, but the humorless, calypso-folk arrangment of the Traveling Wilburys’ nugget only highlighted the fact that this was no folk supergroup.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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