Sunday afternoon, Modified filled to capacity for River Jones Music Label's Final Folk Fest. Seventeen bands and solo artists played to eager audiences, mainly sitting pretzel-legged on the rickety floorboards, hot beverage in hand, while wintery winds sauntered through the old house. This ain't your grandma's Woody Guthrie. This is Southwest-style folk 2.0: youngins digging deep for heart-wrenching lyrics, rootsy blues grooves, and voices that belt with delicacy, spewing southern accents as if born with such drawls. Folk, in this context, roughly translates to a singer with a hollow-body stringed instrument, usually sans percussionist and often in a button-down. Modified's stage trembled with the heavy foot traffic from this collective of mainly acoustic guitar-based musicians.
River Jones has made a name for himself and his pubescent musical prodigies, mainly tagging themselves as "folk" via his eponymous label. The label is now home to nine acts, if my counting is on point, that are based in the Phoenix area, including two of the night's showstoppers: Michelle Blades and Courtney Marie Andrews. To be sure, when I heard I was in for a predicted eighteen-act event, I could only imagine the horrors awaiting. My main premonition involved a bevy of feigned Conor Obersts with the quavering vocals and unstable temperament to match; achieving Dim Eyes at best. But, overall, I found myself pleasantly surprised by what was brought to the table, in both variety and substance.
Michelle Blades stood out as a jazzy Regina Spektor with a interchangeable flourishes of Blossom Dearie and Devendra Banhart. Blades began her set on guitar with The Pioneers backing her, promptly switch to ukulele and brought out Tobie Milford on violin and Erica Shafer on upright bass. Enrapturing the crowd, Blades finished her set by making a song with the audience providing improvised vocals and percussion, while she scatted and freestyled. Milford then took to the stage solo, with his violin looping and robust vocals. Milford talked about how perfect the day was for a fest, adding, "I'm glad to be classified as folk music, so I can be on bills as great as this one."
You Me And Apollo, actually just one guy with one guitar, was one of those pleasant surprises: lyrically sophisticated, with presence that seemed genuine. Courtney Marie Andrews took the stage next, with virtually zero lag. Andrews was fresh and solid in delivering material mostly to be found on her upcoming, and third, full-length record. She closed with "Darling Boy," stunning and gentle, and quickly made way for the night's ultimate closer, What Laura Says. The Lauras finished out the night as mellowed rabble-rousers on acoustic guitars.
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