Freak Folk Flies High

SF Gate | by Derk Richardson

A new generation of flower children keeps psychedelic folk alive

My parents never heard their record collections come back at them refracted and renewed through the counterculture of my generation. They didn't listen to Woody Guthrie, so they didn't realize what Bob Dylan was up to. And other than ironic recycling as lounge music, the easy-listening sounds of Ferrante & Teicher and Andre Kostelanetz didn't inspire much reinvention by baby boomers. I, however, am living through the disorienting but delicious experience of listening to a significant chunk of my college-years soundtrack being salvaged and reimagined by a corps of young musicians, many of whom were born after the Sex Pistols broke up. Thanks to Devendra Banhart, Iron & Wine, Josephine Foster, Sir Richard Bishop, Six Organs of Admittance and others, I'm beefing up the long-undernourished "psychedelic folk" section of my CD shelves. I still listen to flower-power bard Donovan, doomed British folksinger Nick Drake, iconic SF acid-folk-rockers Jefferson Airplane and "American primitive" fingerstyle acoustic guitarist John Fahey. Obviously, so do Banhart, Foster, Bishop and others in the freak-folk scene. Paralleling what the Strokes, White Stripes and Black Keys have done with garage rock and blues rock, these freak-folk artists have immersed themselves in the bent sounds and visionary spirit of the late-'60s and early-'70s. Their curiosity stems from the same sort of countercultural questioning of values and priorities that motivated Beatniks and hippies in the last century. Their enthusiasm -- which manifests itself not merely as dressing up in mommy and daddy's Renaissance Faire finery but rather as inhabiting an entire world view and expressing an original voice -- is contagious. It has caused me revisit my affection for the Incredible String Band, early Tyrannosaurus Rex, Syd Barrett, Pearls Before Swine and Michael Hurley and the Holy Modal Rounders, and to discover the diaphanous beauty of Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs, 1970 one-album-wonder fairy-tale-spinners who had disappeared into cult status only to reemerge in the new millennium as heroines of a new generation Folk Explosion Although denizens of indie labels and noncommercial radio, the new psychedelic acoustic folk artists number too many to count. Stateside, they include the experimental Currituck Co. (guitarist Kevin Barker with recently added drummer Otto Hauser), the one-man band Apothecary Hymns, the sister duo Coco Rosie, the bewitching Philadelphia chamber ensemble Espers, New York City's Animal Collective, Brooklyn's White Magic, Monterey-based fingerstyle guitarist Sean Smith and San Francisco's own Vetiver, Faun Fables and harp-plucking phenom Joanna Newsom, among others. Overseas representatives include English oddball Scout Niblett, Italian band Jennifer Gentle and, if you unbend the category a bit in the Nick Drake/Sandy Denny direction, there's Scottish singer-songwriter Alisdair Roberts and Britain's Kathryn Williams, Adem and transplanted Italian-Icelandic thrush Emiliana Torrini. Historically, freak folk follows -- but doesn't derive from -- the anti-folk movement that sprang up in the 1980s and '90s. Updating the acoustic and social-protest aesthetics of Guthrie and Dylan with punk-inspired energy rather than singer-songwriter sensitivity, anti-folk musicians like Lach, Roger Manning, Carmaig DeForest, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Hamell on Trial and Kimya Dawson and Adam Green (of the Moldy Peaches) rose up as a lo-fi musical-opposition force during the conservative Reagan-Thatcher era. While some avatars of anti-folk gained widespread followings and a degree of celebrity (Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked, Ani DiFranco), the New York City-rooted-but-transatlantic scene takes pride in its "up-yours!" under-the-radar status. The new flower children, on the other hand, look further into the past and tap an extraordinary range of influences, from the British Isles folk of Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and just about anything produced by Joe Boyd through the Delta and country blues of Leadbelly and Reverend Gary Davis to Fred Neil's bluesy folk-jazz and Tim Buckley's rococo improv-folk-rock. Freak-Folk Inspiration "Nick Drake is a saint," Devendra Banhart told me last summer during a front-stoop interview outside the San Francisco apartment he shares with Vetiver's Andy Cabic. But then he went on to sing the praises of his mother's record collection and everyone from Roscoe Holcomb and Mississippi John Hurt to Robbie Basho, Karen Dalton, John Phillips, Ali Akbar Khan and Ali Farka Touré. Last winter, as the media-anointed poster boy for freak folk, he told The New York Times, "If there's anyone we relate to, it's our moms and dads, and older hippies, people into Eastern philosophies and New Age." Sonically, Banhardt's scene coalesces around acoustic guitars, often played solo in alternate tunings. Unconventional song structures, harmonic drones and dissonances and kaleidoscopic swirls of additional instrumentation (such as cello, harp, violin, banjo, sitar, fuzztone electric guitar, harmonium, organ and bells) create the crucial hallucinogenic effects. When lyrics are involved, they often have to do with rivers and seas, forests and paths and almost microscopic examination of biological phenomena and human bodies. Or, as Banhardt summed it up for me: "A moth antenna looking like a leaf and then a leaf looking like a moth, or a seashell looking like an ingrown nail -- that's why it's appropriate to use the word 'psychedelic,' which just means heightened sensitivity. ... That's the main gist of it -- everything is connected." Guitarist Sean Smith plays strictly instrumental music in the tradition of Fahey, Basho and Peter Lang, but he alludes to that same sensation of connection in the song notes to his new self-titled CD. For one piece he writes, "Looking through the pines upon the pseudo-disguised industrial/commercial developments, I glanced to a dark grove of trees and realized, with indescribable visions, that I had begun to be dealt coincidental consequential challenges and would not soon be rid of them. Perhaps, for the first time, my existence was affirmed and presented to me." For another, he quotes architect/author Gyorgy Doczi: "When we look deeply into the patterns of an apple blossom, a seashell or a swinging pendulum ... we discover a perfection, an incredible order, that awakens in us a sense of awe that we knew as children." Perplexity and wonder. Inquiry and discovery. Sometime in the 1970s, I found those elements missing for me in pop music. For some years, jazz seemed to offer more direct musical expression of life as a fundamental mystery. The new freak folksters share that mission of deep questioning. It seems to emanate from their bones and sinews into their music. That's why their acoustic psychedelia, though rife with aural echoes of the past -- sometimes eerily so -- resonates authentically, even with someone who's heard it all before. When Donovan, the "Mellow Yellow" mystic of the 1960s, took up a brief San Francisco Bay Area residence at Café du Nord last summer, he emphasized, in several conversations, the recurrence of the bohemian impulse "in direct reaction to society's hypocrisy and greed" and added, "the events that happened in the '60s are not so much historical as still unfolding." As war, corporate commercialism and attacks on civil liberties continue to rage, so the freak flag still waves. Here's a very selective freak-folk, flower-power discography: Roots The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (Smithsonian Folkways) Donovan, Summer Day Reflection Songs (Castle) The Incredible String Band, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter (Hannibal) John Fahey, The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick (Water) and The Best of John Fahey, Vol. 2 1964-1983 (Takoma) Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (RCA) Syd Barrett, The Madcap Laughs (Capitol) Nick Drake, Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake (Hannibal/Island) Linda Perhacs, Parallelograms (The Wild Places) Vashti Bunyan, Just Another Diamond Day (DiCristina Stair Builders) Tyrannosaurus Rex, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair ... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows (A&M) Branches Various Artists, Golden Apples of the Sun (Bastet) Devendra Banhart, Rejoicing in the Hands and Nino Rojo (Young God Records) Currituck Co., Ghost Man on Second (Drag City) Josephine Foster, Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You (Locust Music) Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) Six Organs of Admittance, School of the Flower (Drag City) Sir Richard Bishop, Improvika (Locust Music) Sean Smith, Sean Smith (Isota Records) Emiliana Torrini, Fisherman's Woman (Rough Trade) Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)