Folkadelphia Session: Railroad Earth

A lot of what you read about Railroad Earth vibes with what we’re preaching here with Folkadelphia. We live in an era of music-making beyond traditional genre indentifiers, or alternatively, where “big” genres like “hip-hop” and “folk” have been exploded and splintered into near limitless gradations of “urban folk,” “Appalachian folk,” “country blues,” “cajun,” “nu-grass,” and so on and so forth until the end of time. There are also genre-inflected styles, like “electro-folk” or “folk-metal,” or any style that draws from the capitalized FOLK TRADITION. There is music that is incomparable, indiscernable, unrecognizable – sometimes you want to call it “folk” and sometimes you want to call it “hip hop,” and perhaps sometimes it’s not like either, a singular circumstance of creative collaboration and construction. Only an outdated, outmoded purist or traditionalist would bemoan the fate of the “big” genres. Come on now, we’re living in the post-post-post “Dylan goes electric” era (or whatever), beyond good and evil and classification, and we’re loving it. Diversity (in sound) is the spice of life anyhow, right?

Part of what we try and do with Folkadelphia, dear readers and listeners, is to introduce you to and refresh you on stellar songwriters and the highest caliber musicians. It’s as basic as that. These are people that are consciously keeping the rich history and legacy of folk music in mind when considering their artistic path, yet may draw upon it in vastly different ways. Taking a look at a few of our most recent Folkadelphia Sessions, we see Chris Kasper, CocoRosie, Quilt, Joe Kille, and Denison Witmer. I’m not sure that these ladies and gentlemen would ever share a bill outside of our radio show, but the fact is that they’re all incorporating folk elements in varying degrees into their music. In each case, the results are similar – people with something to say, stories to tell, and sounds to make.

That brings us back to our focus feature session of this week with Railroad Earth, who visited our studio in between playing back-to-back concerts at Union Transfer this February. On Last of the Outlaws, their new album and seventh overall, the recordings showcase a simple truth about the band –  that they are helluva good musicians and that they not only love playing together, but there’s darn fine chemistry happening there too. Beyond that, if we’re trying to classify the band’s sound, we’d be better suited using our time spinning the album again than wasting it on that fool’s errand. I read a review that described the band as “folk-pop-Celtic-bluegrass-roots-and-rock jam band from New Jersey.” They are stronger than that storm of oversimplified description. At that point, aren’t you basically saying that the band members are competent and skillful enough to navigate the waters of any style that might interest them? That they can integrate these stylistic elements into their unique Railroad Earth sound? I think so and their music, especially on Last of the Outlaws is the proof. There is really something for everyone within. At the core, stellar songwriting and high caliber musicianship.

We welcomed Railroad Earth, along with a battery of acoustic instruments in road cases, to our studio for a very special completely acoustic on February 25th, 2014.


Folkadelphia Session: Chris Kasper

Philadelphia is a true hotbed of musical activity. Cheap rent, collaborative vibes, an abundance of musically-minded people, and a solid support system for developing acts are just a few of the factors that help to make this city into a real deal music town. My favorite aspect of the greater musical community is, well, just that – that it’s a community. Philly feels tight-knit, but it isn’t exclusive or closed off to newcomers. It’s a support thing. Folks here play in lots of bands, they pop into each others’ recording sessions, and are always seeking ways to include one another in projects. Recently, I was thinking about the WXPN Performance Studio, the space where Folkadelphia, as well as Gene Shay’s Folk Show, World Cafe, The Key Studio Sessions, and most other WXPN-related in-studio sessions are tracked, and what musicians come through to record. I got to thinking that there is a contingent of local musicians that have spent a significant amount of hours in the room, that returning to WXPN is like coming home in a way. For these musicians and since the building’s construction, the space perhaps represents a safe zone for collaboration, experimentation, and uninhibited performance.

Chris Kasper is a Philadelphia local songwriter that we have looked for opportunities to include in what Folkadelphia does. We’ve seen how amazing he’s been working with WXPN on various events and we’ve listened to his four albums, especially his most recent Bagabones, with attentive ears, feeling considerable excitement at his impressive lyricism and turns of phrase. What has always drew us closer to Kasper is his collaborative spirit; many of our favorite Philly musicians play with or alongside Kasper, to name a few: Kiley Ryan (the two also work together with Foxhound), Phil D’Agostino, and Daniel Bower. For fun, you should construct a diagram where each of these musicians were connected to other bands they have collaborated with in some way, then expand from there, then expand from there, and so on. You’d need a lot of paper. What you’d get is a spider web of musical community goodness and that’s what Philadelphia is all about.

Towards the final days of 2013, Chris Kasper, along with Kiley Ryan on fiddle and Phil D’Agostino on bass, spent an evening recording with Team Folkadelphia. It’s a case of total chemistry, where the musicians are tight locked-in with each other, existing only in the present moment, and playing with a sense of joy. You didn’t need to give them a tour of the recording space, they’ve been here before.


Folkadelphia Session: CocoRosie

Photo by Rodrigo Jardon
Photo by Rodrigo Jardon

When I attended college, I opened my mind to ideas and culture that I had never thought about or been witness to before. I felt the need to absorb, learn about, and understand anything and everything that constituted “newness” to me. Definitely a cliched concept, but cliches are what they are for a reason, right?. As an active (and rather obsessed) member of WKDU, Drexel University’s free-format student-run radio station, I spent countless hours laying around on third-hand couches in the auxiliary listening room, or sitting crosslegged in the massive record and CD stacks, or crouching down to dig through piles of unorganzied music. I imagined myself as a sponge, taking in and retaining as much as I possibly could. I have a few truly vivid memories of hearing “band x” or discovering “album y” for the first time. In the chill of jaded music and music-industry thoughts and the bleakness of impersonal internet listening habits, I stoke these memories back to dark-red embers to renew the warm passion that comes from a simple love of music – discovering it, listening to it, seeing it, and sharing it – then I feel better.

While spending my time in that sacred windowless basement space, a band that throttled my conceptions of genre, style, instrumentation, and songwriting was CocoRosie. They continue to do so. The thing about the Sisters Casady and co. is that you can never stay comfortable for too long while listening to them. Once you start to figure it all out, they completely change the game by introducing new variables into their sound and challenging what you are hearing and believing about them. I first discovered their 2007 album The Adventures Of Ghosthorse & Stillborn and tried to grasp what I heard. It was not easy for my uninitiated ears. Too quickly and easily described as “experimental” or “freak-folk” to make sense, it is much more difficult to label the band. They write fairy tale stories definitely not meant for children, ballads that sound simultaneously antiquated and futuristic, hip-hop that eschews hip-hop conventions, folk music that disregards folk music instrumentation, and so on. In a way, CocoRosie take on everything and the result is a new sound. Not all of it is easy to listen to though. It is often violent in imagery, chaotic in sound, and jolting in transition. But the space between disturbing and serene is large and CocoRosie exist on that whole spectrum, sometimes during the same song or even the same minute.

On their fifth album, Tales of a GrassWidow, released last year and produced by former Folkadelphia Sessioneer Valgeir Sigurðsson, the Casadys and their collaborators maintain those inimitable and indescribable elements of their previous work, while expanding their focus to incorporate a greater pop sensibility. The album is a sleekly laminated collage of sounds, styles, and colors – what a journey.

At the end of 2013, CocoRosie spent the evening recording with us in the studio, giving us a taste of what their live show sounded like. Heavier on the hip-hop and dance elements, like beatboxing and synth pads, they showed us that even with their complex music, they can still bring a party.


Folkadelphia Session: Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors

Most of the time, you find the music before you find out anything else. Usually first contact in the musician-listener relationship takes the shape of waveform to eardrum via speakers or a headphone-like device. If our interest is piqued, we look up the name, we try and learn more about the band, we ask who are they, if they on tour, and what does the rest of their music sound like. The next stage in our musician-listener relationship usually involves concert attendance. To enjoy a new discovery in their live element is to strengthen your bond to the music. The next level in the relationship involves seeking out and finding likeminded fans of the band. This is where you express your passion for the band and, every once in a while, build a lasting community where music is the cornerstone. Who knows – you might turn someone on to the band and the cycle begins again

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes you find the fanbase first before you hear a single song from a band. Admittedly, that’s how we discovered Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. We kept running into people that would strongly recommend and lavishly praise the band. They were beyond passionate (and a little pushy admittedly – a good sign from a fanbase). Why would we ignore wold-of-mouth recommendations? We live for those special moments – to be let in on the (maybe) secret awesomeness of a group. We’re sure glad that these kind folks clued us in. We’re here to pay it forward to those of you who might not know about Holcomb and co. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors write and perform some of the most refreshingly honest, down-to-earth, and catchy pop & rootsy Americana music, especially on their most recent album Good Light. I think you’ll soon agree and join the neighborhood of fans.

Drew Holcomb, Ellie Holcomb, Nathan Dugger, as well as baby Emmylou Holcomb trick-or-treated at our studio door on Halloween of last year. Clad in Star Wars costume, they stopped by with their instruments for a lovely stripped down set. A gift from them to us and now to you, dear reader.


Folkadelphia Session: Denison Witmer (with Ross Bellenoit)

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005, probably around 8 PM – it’s a time dogeared in my memory. I cannot believe that it has been nearly a decade since I heard Denison Witmer for the first time. When I lived in New Jersey, I spent a lot of time at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, mostly seeing really bad mall punk-rock bands and inhaling too much second-hand cigarette smoke. I had a few very impressionable music discovery years there. That early summer evening in 2005, on the shore just off the boardwalk, remains one of the most formative experiences of that time period. Denison Witmer, from the Philadelphia area, opened the night. He was pre-selling copies of his forthcoming album Are You A Dreamer? which I promptly purchased (and listened to over and over in my dinged-up black Chevy Cavalier). Leaning against the on-stage monitor, I was amazed at how mesmerizing the simplicity of Witmer’s playing and singing could be. Lightly touched with reverb, the gentle songs kept flowing and drawing me in. I remember actually going slack-jawed when he hit certain chords – these angelic, dreamy, lighter than air bundle of notes. I left the concert changed (after staying for Rainer Maria).

Since that concert, Denison Witmer has continued to release engaging and wonderfully intricate albums – 2008′s Carry The Weight, 2012′s The Ones Who Wait, and his most recent, last year’s eponymous release. Each album is intimate, as Witmer invites you into a sacred and safe space. They radiate with a certain afterglow, vibrantly colored light that hits the evening sky as the sun sets. That’s what the albums sound like. You can’t just listen to one song, you are compelled to sit back, take a load off, and slide straight through these albums – the mark of a true professional, a most gifted songwriter.

Denison Witmer, joined by Ross Bellenoit, one of our favorite local guitarists, visited us in the studio late on evening in October of last year. We kept tracking songs, putting past woes and present worries to the side for the moment, and enjoying each other’s company, as the duo played the night out.


Folkadelphia Session: Jenny Hval

Sawtooth synthesizers, moody atmospherics, effected vocals, hypnotic drum patterns – these are not the elements that you normally associate with folk music or singer-songwriters. But there is nothing normal about the times that we’re living in. I know I frequently get on this blog-shaped pulpit and preach about how the boundaries of genre are too constricting in an age where musicians are blending, mashing, mixing, and manipulating sounds. Swap out a banjo for a drum machine, what’s the big deal?

Enter Jenny Hval, a Norwegian artist, musician, and poet, who brings along those synths and effected vocals and everything else to create sounds that are extraordinary. So what’s she doing on our show? Good question. Besides bringing you a platform to hear up-and-coming folk acts, we also want to inform you about truly imaginitive and smart songwriters. Last year when I heard Jenny Hval’s Innocence Is Kinky, I knew we had found an exciting artist and that you, dear reader, needed to hear her. Be advised: Hval doesn’t pull punches – she goes right for the gut with her words. Her songs have a penchant for shocking imagery, provocative language, and raw music to match (as well as potentially NSFW visuals). I’m not sure what you’ll feel listening to her music, but you’ll definitely feel something. I think that’s a rare quality nowadays and we’re here to celebrate it.

Jenny Hval recorded this Folkadelphia Session on November 8th, 2013 before her show at the Boot & Saddle. She returns to Philadelphia on May 15th to support Swans at Union Transfer.


Folkadelphia Session: Joe Kille

During his initial email exchange between WXPN’s John Vettese and Philadelphia-area musician Joe Kille, Kille, while announcing the album release of his solo album Arkadelphia, admits that he’s “not too good at the internet.” Something about that little amusing acknowledgement provides a rather poignant picture in my mind – I imagine Kille coaxing his dial-up to provide a few minutes of connectivity, hunting and pecking on the keyboard with two fingers drafting the note to Vettese. Of course, it’s probably the furthest from reality. I’m being influenced by the rustic, homegrown nature and magic of Arkadelphia, with its fiddles blazing and bass jumping, and converting Kille’s Southern NJ into backwater Appalachia.

John Vettese kindly recommended the group to me. The Morning River Band, a group that Kille is associated with and who we’ve featured on Folkadelphia before also told us to keep our ears open for the fiddle player. I’m glad they did because Arkadelphia, a smart set of timeless sounding country-noir songs, has become a favorite of mine. If you haven’t heard the name Joe Kille before, it’s time to put him on your radar. Start with our session, recorded October 2013.