Sunday, February 04, 2007

Freak folk: The new prog?

"Welcome to Dreamland." That was the title of David Byrne's freak-folk showcase at Carnegie Hall on Friday. I was in the nosebleed seats with Le Sweetie, and I pored over what looked like an interesting bill: Cocorosie (a sister act I knew about alrady), Adem (whom I'd never heard of), Veviter (ditto), Vashti Bunyan (folk cult heroine), and Devandra Banhart (the genre's biggest stah.

A decent overview of the genre can be found here. Basically, freak-folk draws equally from '60s folk and '60s psychedelia, giving it a modern feel while acknowledging the genre's early influences, which tend to be pretty cultish acts. Nick Drake, Donovan, Sandy Denny, and lesser-known singers like Bunyan and Linda Perhacs are stylistic forerunners. If Donovan's looking for a comeback, perhaps he should consider giving Banhart a call to collaborate. As for Drake and Denny, they are, alas, no longer with us, and thus they haunt today's freak-folk scene in spirit.

Anyway. The concert. Cocorosie were the most interesting; if you're a fan of Beck's cut-and-paste musical sensibility, you might like these gals. One sister's a baby-voiced quasi-hip-hopper; the other's an operatic soprano. And somehow, everything fits together perfectly.

Adem was plain fucking boring. There's no nice way to put it. He doesn't write songs. He doesn't play songs. He just drones. How did this guy get on the bill? Was Joanna Newsom not available? Why does he get to have Vashti Bunyan sing with him when maybe a Bunyan/Cocorosie collab would be more interesting? The mind boggles.

Veviter had that 1970s Laurel Canyon country/folk vibe going. They were okay but samey. And, after a couple of songs, dull. Okay, just bring on Vashti Bunyan already.

Bunyan was terrific, with a voice that suggests a duskier Sandy Denny and shimmering songs from both the 1960s and today. It's cool to see a 1960s one-shot cult artist come back. Bunyan mainly sat there and she introduced songs in an unassuming voice but it fits the songs. Bunyan does the same thing that latter-day Kate Bush has done--she makes the normal and everyday special.

And finally, Devendra Banhart. Finally, a freak-folker who's not afraid to a. show a sense of humor and b. rawk out. And I do wish he could've played a little longer, but he seemed more content to let the other artists have the spotlight, coming out to offer backing vocals at certain moments in the show.

Le Sweetie agreed that Adem and Veviter were "sleepy." So, at this moment, the freak folkers have the potential to become as adventurous and interesting as the best prog or as dull and self-indulgent and precious as the worst prog. Banhart is smart enough to crank it up and display star power as needed; Cocorosie is artistically curious enough not to limit themselves. Humor, energy, and variety--these are the qualities of the best artists of the genre.