This post is about the superb show last Tuesday by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and openers Birds of Chicago and David Wax Museum. But I would be remiss if I did not first acknowledge that last week, the world of folk music lost two beloved artists: singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and Brown Bird’s David Lamb. Newspapers have eulogized Winchester as “a honey-voiced singer who wrote thoughtful songs with deep Southern roots[,] . . . plain-spoken and succinct,” and a “tunesmith of lyrical, sensitive ballads.”
Less well-known but no less admired by friends and fans was David Lamb, half of the indie-folk duo Brown Bird. A tribute concert for Lamb, held last week in the band’s home base of Providence, Rhode Island, drew, by one estimate, a thousand people. The tattooed troubadours (as NPR dubbed them), who toured last year with Trampled By Turtles, mixed American folk with eastern European rhythms, crafting songs both haunting and high-spirited.
I will leave the tributes to the professionals and simply remark on the enduring power of music — including the music of these two men — to remind us of home and propel us through tough times. Louisiana-born and Memphis-reared Jesse Winchester wrote “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” in Canada, where he had moved to avoid the draft. The song conveys a yearning for the south he left behind — not sugar-coated and romanticized, yet romantic in its embrace of the tumbledown, ramshackle parts of the place that was home: I think I hear a noisy old John Deere in a field / Specked with dirty cotton lint, and beyond that Field runs a little country creek, and there you’ll Find the cool green leaves of mint.
The government is open for business again! In celebration of the return to normalcy — or what passes for “normal” in these mad times — I think we all need a little David Wax Museum. Polarizing rhetoric is rending the nation, with tea-sodden reactionaries warning of the death of democracy. In response to that movement’s antagonism toward immigrants (I mean, really?), I offer the sonic syncretism that is David Wax Museum’s music, which draws from American and Mexican folk traditions to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.
A while back, I was chatting with a friend who had not heard of The Lumineers. I directed him to “Stubborn Love” and “Flowers In Your Hair,” and after giving the band a listen, he asked if I knew David Wax Museum. I didn’t. And I had been missing out on what NPR’s Bob Boilen aptly calls “pure, irresistible joy”.
Before I launch into an exposition of the awesomeness of this band, I’ll provide a little context. I tend to react to new music in one of two ways. The songs that immediately get stuck in my head (think “Blurred Lines”) tend to lose their appeal after a few weeks. The music that takes more work at first — for instance, Alt-J’s intricate, morphing textures, or Bon Iver’s falsetto murmurings of impenetrable lyrics — ends up rewarding my effort by revealing an unfamiliar but gorgeous soundscape.
It’s not often that a band falls in the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of my short- and long-term music fixations. But David Wax Museum was both love at first listen and a love that has, so far, withstood the test of time. Initially, I was hooked by their Appalachia-meets-Veracruz rhythms and harmonies, and the accordion-pumping, jarana-strumming exuberance. But the more I listen, the more I am drawn to this rich tapestry of American folk and Mexicon son, with sprinklings of rock (the electric guitar makes an appearance in their latest album). There is an infectious joy in David Wax’s singing and Suz Slezak’s harmonies combined with fiddle-playing and quijada-rattling.