Live at the Montague Book Mill, the other performers included Marielle V. Jakobsons, Amber Wolf, and Chuck Johnson.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Does folk music need to be pure to be true? This evening at a used bookstore tucked away in rural Western Massachusetts, a string of players incorporate various technological elements into their art, from the luminous amplified picking of Chuck Johnson, to the abstract voices and sounds behind Amber Wolfe’s soft country blues, to the full-on trippy video immersion of Marielle V. Jakobsons’ atmospheric soundscapes. It mostly worked — and sometimes wildly succeeded (Jakobsons) — but when the Baird Sisters sat down with nothing but acoustic guitar, banjo, voice and flute, you remember that magic can happen without artifice, too.
Chuck Johnson is not on the bill, but he’s playing when we get there, the Oakland-based finger-picker holding forth on amplified Fender Strat, spilling silvery American Primitive runs into deep wells of reverb, so that the notes blend together in pure dazzling tone. We just catch a few minutes of his set, but he’ll play later with Marielle V. Jakobsons, switching to bass.
Amber Wolfe, who lives in Northampton, comes next, pitting an old-fashioned, vibrato tinged folk voice (she sounds a bit like Josephine Foster) against a row of electronics, two effects boards, a hand-held recorder, a keyboard and possibly a few things I couldn’t see, all manned by a partner who kneels, back to the audience for the entire set. In the first song, you can hear some of those sampled sounds weaving through Wolfe’s elemental folk tunes, voices, whooshes and hums, though some of them might well have been the water going over the Bookmill’s rushing falls.
This all soon recedes into the background, though, as Wolfe plays. Her delicate features framed by tight ringletted curls, she looks like a Victorian doll, but her words are quietly bracing and strong. She sings one song that she’s recently performed in a play, getting at the slippery nature of the way women look versus the way they are — “You say that I’m beautiful asleep, but not awake, not awake.” She performed with an inward-looking quality, as if she’s testing out these melodies for herself, drifting off into trilling hums at the end of phrases, like she’d just as soon keep all this to herself. And yet, when she turns to a Spanish-language cover, there’s a vertiginous wildness in the way she sings, the emotion she conveys, even the way she slashes out guitar notes, not quite flamenco, but fired with the same fire.
Marielle V. Jakobsons follows, against a screen of abstract colors and shapes. The images come from a “Macro-Cymatic Instrument” Jakobsons has invented, a visual interpreter that generates analogue representations of the music she makes, translating sound into water, light and patterns. Tonight the imagery is pre-recorded, but catch her nearer home with access to her macro-cymatic instrument, and she makes the flow of visuals as she goes and different every time.
Jakobsons and Johnson perform much of the recent Star Core, released by Thrill Jockey in August, layering trippy washes of analogue synth over booming, birth-of-the-universe evoking bass notes, and top it with Jakobsons’ airy, evocative vocals, violin or flute melodies. “Undone” looms mesmerically, long tons of synth flaring then receding; the bass is not loud but so low and enveloping as to have a physical presence. She croons into the mic airily, dreamily, the words blending into serene swathes of tone, as calming as the bubbling, waving imagery on the screen behind her. “Sinking of the Sky” is next, another center-of-the-universe soundscape, this one with flute and violin, their shifting melodies slipping beneath layers of drone.
The Baird Sisters take a few minutes to follow, since Meg (of Espers, Heron Oblivion and some really wonderful solo work) is having trouble with a battery for her tuner. It’s the last technological issue of the night though, since the Baird Sisters make the most beautiful use of organic sound possible, distilling guitar, banjo, flute and voice into quietly thrilling folk music.
Meg and Laura Baird have been playing together since 2001, with three home-spun self-releases to their credit. The third and most recent, Until You Find Your Green, was originally put out by Grapefruit Records as part of a subscription series, but BaDaBing is reissuing it this fall, and lots of the set material comes from it – “On and On” with its hammered out banjo rhythms and breath-catching harmonies, the Civil War-evoking traditional, “A Soldier Being Home,” the hauntingly melancholy “Down Where the Waters Flow.”
The two sisters’ voices work very well together, but not, as you might expect, because they’re all that similar. Laura Baird’s voice is lower, earthier, bluesier, while Meg’s is high and clear and pure, like the ice on the leaves that makes them glitter. Together, there’s something enchanting about the way they blend, the here-and-now simplicity of traditional folk resting against piercing ethereal beauty. They do have a sisterly channel for unspoken communication, filling in the spaces around each other with unassuming, unshowy grace.
It’s a good night for technology, for colorful screens and unexpected field recorded sounds, but also a good night for simplicity, in the clarity of archaic rhythms and harmonies. But whether electronically assisted or technologically unadorned, the music is lovely and true.