Thursday, December 24, 2009

Kirk Kelly, Go Man Go Antifest, December 19, The Studio at Webster Hall

I suppose I was seeking the holy grail of Antifolk the other night at Kirk Kelly's show recognizing the 20th anniversary of his record Go Man Go. The show on December 19 at Webster Hall's studio space, featured short sets from an extensive assortment of songwriters, including Kirk, Roger Manning, and Lach, who were among the crew of rejects from Folk City who in the mid 1980s came together around what they dubbed Antifolk.

However, it seems you can't go back in time. When I started coming around in 2004 and first became aware of the term Antifolk, to me it was connected to artists like The Moldy Peaches, Jeffrey Lewis, Major Matt, Nellie McKay, and Regina Spektor, where the seriousness of their songwriting was often balanced by a screwy, sideways perspective.

I always thought there was a straight line from those artists back to the early days of Lach, Kirk, Roger et al, but maybe that path wasn't as direct as I imagined. Much of what I heard the other night -- particularly from Kirk in the various configurations in which he played -- seemed tied more to traditional folk than to what I had associated with "Antifolk." Kirk's songs range over a variety of styles but two areas around which they tend to focus are labor and traditional Irish music. He expresses his political views fairly directly and I see connections to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others who were at the root of the "folk" genre. In fact Kirk covered a tune by another beloved "folk" stalwart, Phil Ochs.

One of the problems is that from the vantage point of today some of the distinctions in styles that were evident in the 1980s have blurred. Whatever was considered "folk" then very well must have clashed with the more strident, rebellious style of Kirk, Lach et al. But what happened after these antifolkers came together? Things centered around Lach's loft, then a variety of outposts such as Sophie's and the Chameleon. Then Lach went away for a year or something.

I have no way of really validating this but it is my sense that it was when he came back and established things at Sidewalk that a newer wave of songwriters associated with the later "Antifolkers" started forming. Now's the moment for that nagging "What is Antifolk?' question. It's really impossible to define what it was about that late 90s period that stands out so much and I hate lumping people together in categories. But without a doubt there was some kind of common sensibility running through the place that drew like-minded songwriters.

The differentiation was illustrated the other night when Jeff Lewis took the stage. For example, he played Will Oldham Horror one of his long, wordy patter-type songs, which mixes his ruminations about a life as an artist with a scene of being assaulted and raped by Will Oldham. What the fuck. To me this is a quite different angle than the kind of protest songs I heard from Kirk and the more straightforward styles of some of the other artists on the bill.

So, I'm suggesting there was a break in continuity between two periods, but in fact that's not entirely true, because, of course, the thread through it all was Lach. Lach created the atmosphere for all of this and with his personality and his own songwriting drew the people who came to play. So ultimately there IS a lineage to which we are all connected, one that continues today under the stewardship of Bee K. I still think it's a great scene and I'm glad to be part of the stream that runs from the 80s to now.

All that said, a bit more about what actually happened at the show the other night:

First off, I arrived early when some sort of filming of postmodern circus-y vaudeville performers was going on. All these slightly surreal yet spangly circus outfits clashed quite strongly with the rumpled Antifolk performers who were getting set up.

I quite enjoyed hearing Lach and Kirk play together (photo at right). They didn't quite announce themselves as The Folk Brothers, but I understand that's how they used to bill themselves. They gave a zesty performance with songs like Cigarettes and Whisky and a cool interpreation of the Velvet Underground's Femme Fatale.

There was a very solid sort of house band made up of John Kruth on mandolin and guitar, Dave Dreiwitz on bass, and Billy Figg on drums. They accompanied John S. Hall in what was essentially a cool country set, with songs like I'm Busted and Wallflower. I asked Lach if John had always been a country act and he sort of chuckled and explained that what he'd done with King Missile was more like spoken word over heavy metal. They also played with Lach and with Kirk and (I think) others throughout the night.

Erin Regan and Debe Dalton both played beautiful sets. Debe played a new song that she'd written during her time out of NYC. I have to hear it again to get the full gist--it has to do with missing her friends here in the City--and it seems as exquisite as anything else the young lass has written.

I really liked Kirk's song Go Man Go. He performs it with a ton of energy and chants out "Go Man Gooooouugghh" in this dramatic way. I will have to track down a copy of the disc.

Jeff Lewis did a couple of his illustrated movies--one about the Cuban Missle Crisis and another about the voyage of the Mayflower. He also played his "I Love Antifolk" song, sung to the tune of "I Love Rock n' Roll." I have to track down the lyrics to that. It was during Jeff's set that sloppy drunk girls started drifting in from Webseter Hall's upstairs rooms and disrupting things. Thankfully they soon moved on.

Kruth et al also played a set of their own which was pretty funky. Shows what you can do with a mandolin if you set your mind to it.

The complete bill--in the order they played as best as I recorded it, comprised: Roger Manning, Joe Hurley, Lach and Kirk, John S. Hall, Erin Regan, Kirk (solo), Debe Dalton, Lach (solo), Mike Rimbaud, Jeffrey Lewis, John Kruth, and Kirk again (with Paddy on the Railway[?]).

By the way, it was lightly snowing when we entered Webster Hall's studio around 7 p.m. There was a blizzard under way when we left well after midnight. A bunch of us ended up at a sports bar hunkering down with some fried food and beer.

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