Hebrew School

Red State String Band at Sunny’s

“Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it.” –Utah Phillips

The Red State String Band (l to r: Ben Stowe, Laura Feddersen, Mike Mermin) got their name when band members realized they all hailed from Republican strongholds. Thankfully, they made it to New York.

A while back I alluded to a reemergence of folk music in the city, and speculated on what that might mean, in that particular case with regard to singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. The truth is that this reemergence (or is it simply a persistence?) extends far beyond what might be termed “folk” and in fact back to its roots: traditional American song, African American spirituals, bluegrass, country and the like.

New York City doesn’t even have a full-schedule country radio station. Yet whether bar-hopping through the Lower East Side or staggering one’s way through the erstwhile hinterlands of Brooklyn, one would be hard-pressed to avoid a whoop and holler, the snap of a washboard, or the twang of– well, anything that goes twang. At small venues like Banjo Jim’s in Manhattan, the current schedule smacks of ragtime piano, copious use of words like “river” and “mountain,” and Odetta night. Crossing the East River, Buttermilk’s monthly Cashank hootenanny (featuring the music of Johnny and Williams, respectively) continues to bring out of the woodwork crowds of boot-stompers, weekend jamboree warriors, and innocent bystanders like myself looking for fun without the expense of certain pretensions.

But aside from reiterations of the “old-timey” (the worst of which may be superficially mechanical in execution), New York is indeed nurturing an emergent pocket of artists who use these canons as a means of further creative juicing. They’re writing new material with eyeballs on the various traditions, using song structure as an emotional container for music that is completely relevant and often profoundly personal. They’re recontextualizing forgotten early-radio classics and giving them urban sensibility. And some of the most convincing ones are slightly out of their minds.

If it seems too facile to draw a line between the current state of affairs in New York City and the folk scare of the ’60s which produced Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Smokey and his Sister et al., I can only connect the following dots: big corporate music in its birth pangs, and the same industry some forty years later at its death knell. Both sets of circumstances meant artistic fertility for New York musicians, so much so that, particularly in the light of obscurity, one might confuse the products of one era for the other.

* * *

I honestly don’t think I’ve been to Sunny’s since I performed there with the Murrays in 2000. It’s a little less cobwebby, the atmosphere a little less rarefied. There’s now a large back room for bands to play, but it seems to have come at the expense of the availability of Rheingold beer in bottles. And it goes without saying that there was not a Fairway grocery store, nor a gargantuan Ikea opening in a month. Oh well.

But it also goes without saying that it’s still Sunny’s, packed like hell with honest-to-God humans on a cold and rainy Friday night, miles from a subway stop. The Red State String Band plows into an uptempo number, hushing the unhushable and quickly rendering mere seat-dancing unthinkable. Comprised of Mike Mermin on guitar and vocals, Laura Feddersen on fiddle, and Ben Stowe on banjo, they stand somehow in the midst of this old and new I’ve been trying to shed light on. Funnily, they do this in a venue which accomplishes the same in atmosphere, Sunny’s being an ostensible remnant of merchant marine hangouts of that pre-radio era of folk and country.

Red State held court for two sets, mixing traditional standards with originals written by Mike Mermin. The interplay of stylistic modes was sublime, and the musicians nothing less than serious professionals who have clearly honed their craft over a lifetime. They carried with them such a respect and devotion for their material, which varied in subject matter from drunken husbands, to ships at sea, to romantic love. The original tunes used these tropes of storytelling to underscore the timeless quality of these emotions.

Joined by Anna Leuchtenberger on accordion and vocals.

At the end of the night (and to my relief), Sunny’s is still Sunny’s.


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