Monday, July 21, 2008

Frank Fairfield and A Hawk and A Handsaw at the Echoplex

Coming home from the show at the Echoplex Sunday night (July 20) I had the same feeling of rich reward that comes from time spent in an art museum. All the senses were fed... the head, the heart and the soul.

I, frankly, wasn't surprised by the small turnout at this show with the competition all over town from Feist and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at the Bowl, Jesus and Mary Chain at the Gibson and Eleni Mandell at Tangier, not to mention the fabulous Flying Tourbillon Orchestra at Little Radio's Summer Camp.

The Echoplex can be really comfortable with just a small gathering of serious fans and this was one of the best experiences I've had in this place (and there have been many others). You could wander about in the pitch-black, cavernous middle space of the club and go to the bar, sit a while and still meander right up to the stage at any point of the evening. Though everyone was clustered up at center stage for A Hawk and a Handsaw.

I've already posted about Frank Fairfield, but just to reiterate, he's the interpreter of traditional folk/blues americana of the early twentieth century who opened for Fleet Foxes at the Echo on June 28. Unfortunately I missed his set that night, but it was all anybody was talking about when I got inside. Even Robin Pecknold mentioned it a few times during Fleet Foxes set, explaining how Frank just rode his bike over from Glendale with a banjo, a fiddle and a guitar on his back, got up on stage and recreated a perfect, authentic, original roots music to a stunned crowd.

Robin wrote me last week that Frank has signed on to accompany them on their upcoming Sept. Oct. cross-country tour and he couldn't be happier to get to introduce this incredible talent to the rest of the country. To see him perform is to understand why!

Frank Fairfield just saunters out on stage, looking vaguely like some Dorothea Lang portrait from the dust bowl, come to life. He sits in a chair, puts his fiddle across one knee and begins bowing insanely, like a man possessed. Just as you become mesmerized by the bowing and the sound, the bow strings snap and the spell breaks. He quietly states, "Oh Wow, I broke the strings", gets up, gets another fiddle and bow, sits back down, begins again, and're right in his spell again.

He performed a range of old traditional folk, railroad songs and blues numbers like "The Cigarette Blues" in a voice that seemed so 'of another era', you'd swear you could hear scratches of an old 78 in the background.
I haven't really seen a lot of banjo players live in my life, but if this guy isn't one of the best, I would fall down dead if I ever saw a better one. Hypnotic doesn't even come close to describing what I felt watching his fingers blur into complete abstraction, so rapid was his picking. It lifted you right off the floor!

I introduced myself to him before his set and he said he hoped I wouldn't be disappointed. Afterwards I could only burble to him something like, "great, amazing, terrific, wonderful". I must have looked like a happy idiot. Wait a minute, that's exactly how the Echo audience looked that night in June.

Benjamin Wetherill was next up, in the unenviable position of having to follow Mr. Fairfield, but playing a set so different he was able to stand on his own as a singer/songwriter. It was easy, in the context of the other two performances, to see him as a more standard folk singer, with just his lilting, ultra-rapid vibrato singing and a guitar. But after listening to some recorded selections on his myspace page where he's augmented by clarinets, oboes, horns and things, it has much more in common with the Balkan-style frenzy whipped up by A Hawk and A Handsaw. With only a guitar, I'm afraid I didn't pay close enough attention, but I couldn't help but notice his remarkable voice. It's quite an expressive instrument and he flexes it with confidence and ease. I was also surprised to read he is from England as there was no trace of a detectable accent in his singing.

The set provided a great audio resting point between the vivid voyage to the past provided by Frank Fairfield and the carnivalesque vibrancy of A Hawk and A Handsaw, who came on stage next. The audience gathered at the front of the stage as four truly gifted artists took their places. I don't know for certain, but I think they all play with Beirut, they certainly all looked familiar. Leader of the band is Jeremy Barnes, who plays percussion in Beirut and here plays the accordion, while his feet handle the percussion. He is most ably assisted by Heather Trost, who is a stunning violin virtuoso who also sings occasional harmony. Ross Condon (who I feel certain is the brother of Beirut frontman Zack Condon) plays mandolin, violin/fiddle and clarinet. He not only resembles his brother, but appears to have the same instrumental proficiency. The fourth member, who's name I don't know yet, is an extraordinary trumpet player (who also plays violin and sang his own composition as the first encore selection). I am such a huge fan of Beirut that they could have been a carbon copy and I would have loved it, but instead, they adhere much more closely to authentic Balkan/gypsy music, the result being a facinating offshoot of Beirut that stands comfortably on its own. It's like being at a great eastern European wedding reception, only better... there's no wedding! The audience was entranced and demanded encores.

There seems to be no limit anymore on what influences can be comfortably fit under the umbrella of indie-rock. Classical, ethnic, world music, jazz, blues, folk, old rock, psychedelic rock, new rock, every rock. Who knows what's next. That's what makes a concert like this one so mind-expanding.
Great night!


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