Leap day folk concert brings obscure musical genre to life


Author: Nicolette Gendron


Often overlooked, the heterogeneous genre of folk music must be experienced firsthand in a setting removed from mainstream society and with live artists, in order to be fully appreciated. Contemporary bands Bon Iver, the Civil Wars, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Iron and Wine all fall to some degree under the “folk”  genre and represent folk’s growing popularity and variety. On last Wednesday night, in honor of Leap Day, Highland Park’s cozy studio on York called “York 5209” hosted a four band folk set consisting of Homesick Elephant, Shane Cooley, Adam Smith and Bunnies & Kitties. Perfectly in line with folk’s tradition of personal, lyrical and acoustic qualities, each performance brought to life a different element of the genre.  As Sara Kelly, singer in the Highland Park folk duo Homesick Elephants, explained, “All you need is two people, a guitar and harmonies.”

Although under the heading of the same musical genre, the bands and individuals who performed shared their own unique musical identity with the audience. In a Rolling Stone article reviewing Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes performance at the 2011 Lollapalooza music festival, lead singer Alex Ebert describes how his band wants “to remind people of being in elementary school – just the innocence of singing and making noise and just . . . participating.” This emphasis on innocent, carefree participation in musical creation pushes listeners to get out of their comfort zones and to participate in what initiates the intimate experience of folk music.

Drawing from the folk genre’s emphasis on visceral experience, the concert was appropriately held in a local, intimate studio. The loft studio, with raw exposed beams on the ceiling, had a small raise in the floor that served as the stage. Audience members sat in a mixed assortment of plush chairs, couches and love seats. Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling beams and the walls were interspersed with chalk drawings and odd paintings of ghouls and spirits. The audience members had free access to coolers of beer throughout the evening as well.

A small group of 20 gathered to share and engage in the experiential nature of folk music. The audience members ranged in age but not in accoutrement. Many viewers donned American Apparel clothing and circular-framed glasses in the style of John Lennon. A coffee table at the foot of one of several couches was covered with books ranging in subject matter from the music business to finding one’s life purpose to memoirs of music legends like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. The studio felt like the home of someone who was incredibly fond of music and art. But considering folk music’s ability to couple music and poetry into a singular art form, the setting of York 5209 does not come as a surprise.

When the two performers comprising the evening’s first band, Homesick Elephant, emerged from the audience and walked onto stage, the husband-and-wife duo’s melodic music along with their clear love for one another mesmerized the audience. Each song revolved around the simple facets of life, like wife Sara Kelly’s favorite orange dress or the couple’s love letters. The dependence on harmonies, which serves as the soul of folk music, brings to life the handcrafted, poetic nature of the lyrics.

The second act, singer Shane Cooley, created his own folk infusion of country and rock. His song “California” was revitalizing and rousing as it told the story of an individual finding a place of liberation. On his website, Cooley notes that his inspiration comes from the idea that “there’s always a song that just fits the way you feel at that exact moment. I like writing songs like that.” In this way, Cooley’s inspiration returns to folk music’s emphasis on poetic lyricism and the need to tell a story.

However, it was the third act of the night, singer Adam Smith, who stole the show. Nothing about folk music is ostentatious or domineering, but Smith’s skeletal presence along with his haunting voice left a lasting impression. A hat covered Smith’s shaggy hair while his John Lennon-inspired glasses obscured his eyes. In the gentle glow of the Chinese lantern’s red light, Smith exposed his personal demons, black magic, love and angels through song. He appeared almost as an arch angel, stoic and severe in all black but ethereal with a voice that warmed the room and indulged the audience in rapture and reflection.

Each of the bands engaged the audience in open dialogue throughout the concert, especially the last act of the night, Rafael Bustamante’s one man show called “Bunnies & Kitties.” The remaining members of the audience formed a circle on the floor around Bustamante, returning to Ebert’s idea of the folk music experience as being in “kindergarten.” At one point during his set, Bustamante asked Kelly to join him in singing an old Spanish folk song. Without even counting to three, the duo launched into song and pulled the lyrics from one another as if telepathically. At the end, Bustamante and Kelly opened their eyes and smiled. Looking around, the rest of the audience members had the same expressions of enchantment on their faces. The audience at York 5209 appeared incredibly content, as if the music itself had filled them, putting them at incredible ease like a glass of warm milk did before bed in kindergarten. 

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