On 2011’s Songs for the New, Steve Koester’s remote-Catskills folk/rock group Two Dark Birds released a heck of a nice collection of expanded-palette chamber folk and earthy rock with a dash of weirdness, reminding us that the Band – that most towering peak of Catskills rock – were often a lot closer to the spirit of Aaron Copland’s Americana than to Pete Seeger’s. If you think that the Band abided the “anyone with a beating heart can do this” principle of folk populism, try learning the song “Jawbone” sometime. It will set your beating heart to arrhythmia.
Two Dark Birds’ “progressive Americana,” for lack of a better genre descriptor, isn’t really progressive in its methods and myths; it doesn’t tax the old forms and tropes of folk and roots so much as widen their purview geographically and chronologically – allowing, say, Appalachia and New Orleans to speak freely of their common suffering and their unique ways of singing and dancing about it.
In a way, the unspoken idea of this suddenly hopping genre of chamber folk is to desegregate two parallel American traditions. The old folkies and dirt-floor-stompers washed behind their ears and went to church on Sundays, too, where they might have sung in the choir and exposed themselves to the neurologically transformative agency of European counterpoint, and to a lot of dark reverb and ghosts. They might also have played baritone or tuba in a marching band, and absorbed some ideas about crude territorial arrangement and the brass farts of war from the essentially American forms of Sousa.
All of which is say that a literate, haunted modern folksong with a delicately arranged brass quartet behind it – or a choir, or a percolating laptop – is a natural expression of how America has always mussed up the high and the low. Then add rock ‘n’ roll – any and all of it, from Carl Perkins to the Replacements – and you have a good idea of where Two Dark Birds come from.
None of that explains the heavy-themed but light-touch charm of Koester’s songwriting, which you’ll just have to check out for yourself. The old/new, high/low, pedestrian/oracular voice that so many youngsters strain so hard to achieve these days comes easily to Koester, who has probably read more John Crowe Ransom and Flannery O’Connor than they have.
Exciting news, to me at least, is that Koester and Two Dark Birds are recording a set of new songs with Woodstock’s production wizard (now that Todd has fled) Chris Maxwell. The Arkansas native made his name playing anything but wistful Americana in the jagged junkyard, New York City hard-rock band Skeleton Key in the ’90s. But before that, Maxwell was the principal songwriter and clever guitarist of the excellent Southern Gothic jangle band the Gunbunnies, whose after-the-fact, just-for-the-record release Great Big Diamond is ripe for reconsideration and restoration, for anyone interested in the discovery and recovery of lost gems.
Many years thence, the veteran commercial composer/producer Maxwell has made a sort-of return to his roots with his soon-to-be-released record Arkansas Summer, which I have been fortunate enough to preview. It is an absolutely shimmering collection of personal songs in elegant, wildly diverse and imaginative settings, a portion of which could be described as masterful Baroque Americana. I don’t have to strain my brain to hear the magic that Koester and Maxwell might make together; why, I can hear it right now.
Maxwell and Koester will step into a church to make some magic together, each with his own band, on Saturday, October 3 at the Old Glenford Church. This is an exciting new venue located on the same property upon which the now-legendary Hudson Valley Sudbury School benefit shows have been going down on the last Friday of each month for years. For this show, Two Dark Birds will perform in their “Mountain Quintet” lineup, featuring Koester on guitar and vocals, Jason Mills on percussion, Carrie Bradley (the Breeders) on violin, Sibel Finn (Fab Faux) on cello and Josh Roy Brown (the Trapps) on lap steel.
Maxwell performs with his current trio, featuring Dan Hickey (They Might Be Giants) on drums and Jesse Murphy (Brazilian Girls) on bass. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Admission costs $10 at the door. All ages are welcome. Food and beverages will be provided by the incomparable Mor Pipman and Much Mor Bread. Adults may B their own B. The Old Glenford Church and Hall are located at 210 Old Route 28 in Glenford, just outside of Woodstock off Route 28.