Unearthed from the archives and now restored with new videos, a post in which Mahlerman treats us to some outstanding Americana…
The tradition of playing music at home, all but dead in broken Britain, flourishes still in atomized America and produces, along with the reality-wannabies, a never ending stream of talent in the performing arts. And the music they produce usually has a perfectly natural feel to it, as something does if you are familiar with it, and it becomes as natural as breathing. The first two bands below can all play each other’s instruments, and this skill adds to the homogeneity of the whole group. The therapeutic value of introducing kids to music at an early age has already been proved beyond doubt, most recently in Venezuela with El Sistema, now producing spectacular results in Scotland of all places. It makes me wonder again at the folly of successive recent governments who have seen fit to marginalize music tuition and appreciation in schools, to the point where music no longer exists in many of them.
Performing music from the Piedmont region of Carolina, the Carolina Chocolate Drops enjoy a huge following by keeping alive the string-band playing of that area. Played not just by Caucasian musicians from Appalachia but, as black fiddler Justin Robinson explains ‘the black folk get left out of the history books, but they were a big part of the string tradition’. Here, the wonderful foot-tapper Cornbread and Butterbeans will give you the flavour.
Another trio and sometime quartet of multi-instrumentalists, The Low Anthem hail from Providence, Rhode Island, and produce a sepia-tinted soundscape of Americana using such musical museum pieces as Pump Organs, Jaw Harps, Musical Saws and a Stylophone to create a ravishing old-world sound, quite unique in modern music, and sitting somewhere between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, with a twist of The Band. Earlier we featured the quirky beauty of Charlie Darwin on these pages; today the grave beauty of To Ohio from the same period.
They broke the mould when they made poet/musician Stephin Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields. Recently hailed by the NY News as ‘one of the greatest American songwriters to emerge in the last two decades’, his actual worth, though considerable, lies somewhere below that high-water mark. Here, a particularly spooky piece that, in a couple of minutes, sums-up his off-centre charm with words and music in harmony.
It makes you blind, it does you in,
It makes you think you’re pretty tough,
It makes you prone to crime and sin,
It makes you say things off the cuff,
It’s very small and made of glass, and grossly over-advertised,
It turns a genius to an ass, and makes a fool think he is wise,
It could make you regret your birth, or turn cartwheels in your best suit,
It costs a lot more than it’s worth, and yet there is no substitute,
They keep it on a higher shelf, the older and more pure it grows,
It has no color in itself, but it can make you see rainbows,
You can find it on the Bowery, or you can find it at Elaine’s,
It makes your words more flowery, It makes the sun shine, makes it rain,
You just get out what they put in, and they never put in enough,
Love is like a bottle of gin, but a bottle of gin is not like love.
The actress and singer Anna Kendrick is a big girl now, but back in 1998 on the stage of Carnegie Hall she was just 13 when she remade the Showboat classic Life Upon the Wicked Stage with the ample help of the Kit-Kat Girls from Cabaret. Appearing completely at home up there, we can only imagine what Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II would have made of this ‘update’.