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Friday, 02 December 2011 18:38

Concert review: Pokey LaFarge, Ryan Spearman and Betse Ellis deliver a folk music clinic at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Thursday, December 1

Concert review: Pokey LaFarge, Ryan Spearman and Betse Ellis deliver a folk music clinic at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Thursday, December 1 Nate Burrell
Written by Robin Wheeler

"American music is alive and well. This is the new classical music," Pokey LaFarge emphasized partway through his first-ever concert with Ryan Spearman. Appropriate, since they were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Folk School of St. Louis at the Sheldon on December 1 (an event welcomed by KDHX).

Noting that even though he may "wear funny clothes and talk funny," that there's more than nostalgia to the music he, Spearman and opener Betse Ellis were playing. "Music is really good until you put a label on it," he said. "Be an artist, not a museum piece."

Wednesday's show was anything but a museum piece. While it didn't lack in the bare bones of Midwest-borne American music, each artist brought vitality and new perspective to music that all too often is written off with the "old-timey" label.

Kansas City fiddler player Betse Ellis played without her band, the Wilders, performing traditional Ozark tunes that ranged from sing-along spirituals ("Heaven Bells are Ringing"), her own instrumental compositions ("Riverboat"), and reworkings of classics (two versions of "Pretty Polly").

With self-deprecation, Ellis explained that she "can sing and play fiddle for five seconds at a time." For a singer who can vocally harmonize with the fiddle she's playing, Ellis didn't give herself nearly enough credit. Her hollered calls on "Pig on a Stone" were classic Ozark. For "Longtime Traveling" she set her fiddle aside, opting to utilize the Sheldon's acoustics that warmed her voice, heart-felt and clear.

Ending her set, Ellis offered a song she grew up with but refused to tell its origins. As she played a rousing stomp with snarled lyrics about playing fiddle, doing a British jig and speaking the King's English in quotations, scattered gasps spread through the audience as people realized Ellis was turning the Clash's "Straight to Hell" into an Ozark stomp -- but with all of the fire of the rock 'n' roll original.

Clearly, Ellis can do more than sing and play fiddle at the same time for five seconds. In her final number, she did both for over five minutes, not missing a string, a note, a stomp or one iota of the gut-wrenching rage and suffering that's the backbone of work songs, spirituals, blues and all American music. "Yes, that's a folk song," Ellis said before thanking the audience with a smile.

After her set, LaFarge and Spearman settled into chairs on stage. LaFarge started the night with some rare mandolin playing that chirped above Spearman's honey-thick guitar on "Kentucky Woman Blues." Quipping about his mandolin skills, LaFarge said, "You've got to be out of tune to be authentic."

Two pinnacles of classic American music in the same city, they'd never shared a stage. They took it as an opportunity to present their favorite compositions, including ones that don't often make it to the stage.

LaFarge's powerful tenor easily fills the Sheldon, and it wouldn't take much for him to overpower Spearman's deeper, quieter voice. For Spearman's "Haley Mae", Spearman's grizzled girl song/murder ballad/suicide song, his voice was at the forefront, with LaFarge offering restrained harmonies that veered into a high lonesome wail.

At first glance LaFarge and Spearman might appear to be completely different artists. The good, clean son with the bright voice and pressed dress clothes, Brylcreemed hair and shined boots. Next to him, the unshaven, long-haired growling man in a pinstriped suit, shirt untucked, gruff-voiced. And yet, they can both sing about the same core subjects and feelings -- LaFarge picked up the murder ballad with his revision of "Frankie and Albert" -- with the same authenticity. The texture changed from rough to glossy, but the message remained, defying labels and appearances.

The boys followed Ellis' punk lead on Spearman's "Policeman," with the composer on lead vocals and fiddle, LaFarge on guitar and response harmonies. Before the song, they elaborated on the song's relevance to the current Occupy movement with themes of civil liberty, policy brutality and anti-corporation sounding relevant to any stage of America's rebellious history. American music does, indeed, live. Especially in times of strife.

They ended the night with Ellis joining them for three songs, including the Missouri classic, "Molly Put the Kettle On" with a two-fiddle assault and "Goin' to German." LaFarge said he didn't know if the original composer meant Germany for the war, or Germantown, Tennessee. They opted for the latter, ending the night with a raucous, stomping joy stronger than hurt and rebellion.

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