Posted tagged ‘Portland’

PDX Beats: Ah Holly Fam’ly

January 12, 2010

The Ah Holly Fam'ly that plays together in creepy smoke stays together in creepy smoke.

As commonly conceived, there are no more diametrically opposed musical descriptors than “folk” and “classical.”  The former term suggests a populist tradition, one defined by a decentralized mode of gradual, organic growth, whereas the latter connotes formal institutions, rigorous systems of compositional logic  and – especially to self-described folkies – can smack of exclusionary hierarchies and creative dispassion.  Of course, this opposition breaks down under even the most passing scrutiny, as classical composers like Kodaly and Brahms borrowed openly and enthusiastically from their national folk traditions, and folk musicians of all stripes have taken inspiration and structural leads from classical composers and conventions.

Johannes Brahms

Snow White

And then there are bands that demonstrate the fallacy of the classical/folk chasm by effortlessly straddling it with their music.  Bands like Portland octet Ah Holly Fam’ly…well, no, there aren’t really any bands like Ah Holly Fam’ly, whose idiosyncrasies are too genuine to be copied or cribbed.  But they do throw a light on the continuity between folk and classical forms, what with an instrumentation marked by flutes, strings and vocal harmonies that would be just as welcome in chamber concert setting as a certain kind of backyard, campfire-lit sing-along.  Add to that sound echoes of early Disney soundtracks (I can’t hear Ah Holly Fam’ly’s song “EIEIO” without picturing Snow White and the Dwarves whistling it while they work) and the perplexingly gossamer voice of primary songwriter Jeremy Faulkner and you get something like this, a track called “Lucky Peak,”the highpoint (bam!) of their tremendous 2009 album Reservoir which was itself an underheard highlight of the musical year:

You can learn more about Ah Holly Fam’ly (at least part of which – spouses singer/flutist Becky Dawson and the aforemnetioned Jeremy Faulkner – are an actual fam’ly…er, family) and purchase a copy of Reservoir on vinyl or CD at the website of their label Lucky Madison, which is in its own right a Portland institution, having put out notable releases from local bands like Horse Feathers, Alan Singley & Pants Machine, Point Juncture, WA as well as Talkdemonic, the drums-electronics-and-viola project of label head Kevin O’Connor.  But those are other stories for other times…stay tuned, or RSSed, or what-have-you.

PDX Beats: Portland Old-Time Gathering, Jan 13-17

January 5, 2010

(Folklife’s Asst. Director of Programs, Devon Leger, is filling in for Cary Clarke this week on PDX Beats)

It’s no secret that Portland, Oregon is the epicenter of a thriving revival of Southern old-time music in the United States.  Led by pioneering old-time band Foghorn Stringband, Portland has encouraged a homegrown DIY old-time music scene that encompasses frequent square dances, multigenerational old-time bands, and a trailblazing festival in the Portland Old-Time Gathering.

Poster for 2010 Portland Old-Time Gathering

Founded by Michael Ismerio, a young fiddler and square dance caller (check out his website; it’s got lots of tunes to listen to!), the annual gathering started as a bar concert and house party at Michael’s home and has grown to an event that brings over a thousand musicians and dancers from all over the US to Portland’s Norse Hall.  For three days from Friday-Sunday (Wed, Thurs and Mon events are held elsewhere), this large building is filled completely with music and dance.  The two ballrooms sell out quickly, concerts and workshops are packed, and every square inch and corner of the building is filled up with impromptu jam sessions.  In the past few years I’ve been attending this event I’ve jammed in the bathroom, the kitchen, closets, hallways, anywhere I could find place to sit or stand.

As a festival, Portland’s Old-Time Gathering is part of a new generation of folk festivals that emphasize community engagement and participation first and foremost.  Bands come from all over but are chosen by committee and the emphasis of the festival is decidedly independent and DIY.  Seattle enjoyed a similar festival recently with December’s Dare to be Square and other cities are following suit. The second annual Olympia Old-Time Music Festival will be held in February this year, for example.

Square Dancing at the Gathering

We encourage you to take a trip down to Portland to check out this one-of-a-kind event.  It’s a golden opportunity to hear some of today’s best old-time musicians in an informal setting.

Here are some videos from past gatherings to give you a feel for the event.

Lisa Ornstein (fiddle), Michael Ismerio (guitar), Curtis Alsobrook (banjo) at the 2009 Gathering

Hot jam at a Gathering after-party

Bill Martin, caller and webmaster for Bubbaguitar

Keep up with Portland’s trailblazing old-time scene at BUBBAGUITAR, local caller and organizer Bill Martin’s website.

And check out this great documentary (excellent interviews!) on Portland’s square dance scene from Seattle photographer Doug Plummer.

The New Portland Kid on the Programming Block: Cary Clarke

December 15, 2009

Nice ta meetcha. My name, as you might have gathered, is Cary Clarke and this, as you might also have gathered, is me introducing myself as the bouncing baby boy (read: caffeine-addled 29-year-old intern) of the programming team here at Folklife. In addition to being new to Folklife, I am also new to Seattle, having moved here only three short, windswept months ago from our sister city to the south — yes, I speak of the lovely, little, delightfully weird burg of Portland, Oregon.


As you may have heard from a bunch of fancy-pants news sources in recent years (when they weren’t busy buzzing about food cart culture), Portland, Oregon is widely regarded as home to one of the most exciting music communities in the country. While that reputation outside of Portland has largely revolved around the presence of a handful of (admittedly great) high-profile bands and musicians like The Decemberists and The Shins, in my seven years in the city I had the pleasure of plumbing the lesser-known depths and mapping the more outre expanses of Portland’s sonic geography in the way only a local can. And though I am excited by the prospect of getting to know Seattle and its sounds, I remain a proudly unreformed booster of Portland music. So expect to hear more from me about the guitar-pickers, laptop experimentalists, string-bowers, emcees and reed-blowers of Stumptown as we turn the pages of our calendars to 2010.

Potato Champion Fry Cart (Best Poutine Any Side of the Mississippi) / (Photo from the Oregonian)

As to how my love affair with Portland music began, I moved there in 2002 out of college to play in a band called At Dusk with two friends from middle school. Coming to know it as a musician and fan, I became steadily more involved and invested in the local arts community and went on to co-found an all-volunteer non-profit organization in 2004 called PDX Pop Now! dedicated to expanding interest and participation in Portland music. Every year since then, PDX Pop Now! has put on a three-day, free, all-ages, multi-genre festival of Portland music (sound familiar?) as well as a companion double-disc compilation album. We also developed an outreach program that carried the banner of youth access to music, putting on educational events and concerts in public schools and at City Hall, as well as leading a successful statewide campaign to revise Oregon Liquor Control Commission rules so as to make more performing arts events open to people under 21.

Jeffrey Jerusalem at PDX Pop Now! 2009 Festival (photo by Ben Johnson)

In the unlikely event that my posts here at Folklife leave you oddly thirsting to know more of my thoughts on Portland music, you can find them on a biweekly basis in the column “Our Town Could Be Your Life” which I have used — hopefully as more of an insistent-enthusiastic-nephew cardboard box than a bully pulpit — since 2007 to champion local musicians.

Fittingly, introductions made, I will leave you now with a song. I haven’t thought it out completely, but this here track’s a strong contender for my favorite of the past decade. It’s by Portland’s (surprise!) circuit-bending, Appalachian noise-folk visionary Brian Mumford, otherwise known as Dragging an Ox through Water (an act I’ve written about a few times before). The song’s called “Aces.” Check it:

You can order Dragging an Ox through Water releases on vinyl and CD through his website.

Dragging an Ox through Water at PDX Pop Now! 2008 (photo by Greg Borenstein)