Bube Dame Konig Mashes Irish, Swedish, and German Musical Traditions

Fraumländlein-Neue Folkmusik
CPI Music 005
* * * *

Ich spreche kein Deutsch.  I speak so little that I had to look up how to say, "I don't speak German," just as I had to use translation software to discover that the album title means "Pleasant Land," and that the band is curiously named "Knave Lady King." (The name is probably inspired by the German translation of the 1998 Guy Ritchie card sharp film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, but the band's website won't help much–about which, more in a moment.) Mysteries aside, I knew right away that much of the trio's the sound was as Irish and Swedish as German. This trio is so fond of old tales and musical traditions that is has worked with University of Leipzig poet Thomas Kolitisch, who has rewritten old lyrics–many of them Child ballads–so that the band could set them to new tunes that sound old. Now that's devotion! Some might naturally wonder about the project. Both Irish and Swedish music are alive and thriving. Isn't this akin to a tribute band paying homage to an artist who is still touring? And why buy an album in a language one doesn't speak?

The second objection is easily overcome–most North Americans don't speak Gaelic or Swedish either, so who cares if the song comes at us in German? As for the first, shouldn't the only standard be whether the music is done well? Make no mistake–Bube Dame König plays Irish- and Scandinavian-influenced music very well indeed. The trio consists of vocalist/flautist Juliane Weinelt; fiddler and hurdy-gurdy artist Till Uhlmann; and guitarist/fiddler/vocalist Jan Oelmann. Weinelt's vocals are quite reminiscent of those of Altan's Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh—clear, lovely, and fragile at one moment and muscular the next. Uhlmann's hurdy-gurdy is especially effective in setting danceable tempos, some of which evoke Breton music, and Oelmann runs Germany's only school for Irish traditional music and dance and knows his way around each. To get a sense of how Bube Dame König handles Irish music check out "Ebereschenbaum," a jaunty little ditty that highlights the time Weinelt put in with the Irish band Dizzy Spell. For a dose of Scandinavia try "Schnitter Tod," which is filled with ominous tones and evokes the industrial folk rock of early Garmarna. And, yes, there are some German folk songs as well, including the Lower Rhineland song "Kein Schöner Land" and "Wenn Alle Brünnlein Fliessen," which hails from 16the century Swabia. The mix of dark and light–a band staple–is very much in evidence on "Abschied," a parting song with the feel of an innocent wandering into a potentially foreboding wilderness. I wish I could tell you more about how many liberties the band has taken with old texts but, alas, the CD's tracks do not match well with those listed on their Website. The translations are better than my German–but not by much in some cases! But the feel and sound of this excellent CD need no translation. –Rob Weir

Try this YouTube clip to catch the band in a Swedish/German groove.


Drew Holcomb Rocks It

Good Light (2013)
Good Time Records
* * * *

Ever been to a show where the warm-up band blew you away? I'll bet you have if you seen Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors open for Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, The Avett Brothers, or Robert Earl Keen. Holcomb's been working hard for the past decade and it's starting to pay off. He's got a new CD coming out and his publicist sent me his previous release, Good Light, in hopes of drumming up some interest. It worked. I'm a fan.

Holcomb is based in Nashville, but he's far more than just another hungry musician hoping for a lucky break. Good Light is filled with the best kind of hooks: memorable melodies and stick-in-your-head turns of phrase. His band, The Neighbors, are topnotch–at home with rock and roll, country folk, or blues, and Holmcomb is like a cross between Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen; that is, some husk and spit tempered with some occasional optimism and gentleness. Good Light is an album of many colors–the Country ditty "Rooftops," the hard-driving "Nothing Like a Woman," the nasal Dylanesque "Can't Take It with You," the body-slapping "I Love You, I Do," and the soulful "Nothing But Trouble," with an organ screaming like it's trying to get back to Motown. And, man, can Holcomb write a memorable line. You don't have a lot of hope for the long-term viability of a relationship with this line: I've got nothing but trouble, baby/You've got nothing but time/We've got two hearts beating/For a good time…. I'm sure it will be. I'm also sure they'll regret it in the morning.

This is one of those albums that give you earworms–and your happy about it. Can't wait to catch Holcomb somewhere on the road. Here's a video from this album. Hear for yourself.
Rob Weir


Wadsworth Coney Island Exhibit a True Delight

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008
Wadsworth Museum of Art, Hartford CT
January 31, 2015 – May 31, 2015

Note: This review first appeared on the Website of the Northeast Popular Culture Association: www.nepca.wordpress.com

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008
Wadsworth Museum of Art, Hartford CT
January 31, 2015 – May 31, 2015
urlUnless you're a roller coaster enthusiast, curious foreign traveler, or local resident, Coney Island isn't high on most people's tourist agendas. Lots of people outside of greater New York aren't even aware that a newly christened Luna Park opened in 2010 or that minor league baseball's Brooklyn Cyclones play in the shadow of one of the park's two roller coasters. For over 150 years, though, Coney Island was the place to be seen (or in some cases, a place not to be seen).

A delightful new exhibit at Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum uses paintings, graphic art, film clips, postcards and other objects to show us Coney Island in its many guises. Curator Robin Jaffe Frank's exhibit is so thoughtfully arranged that wandering among its 140 pieces is akin to being in a living time capsule. For pop culture scholars, it's a textbook case of how to connect art, society, and history.

Coney Island has indeed been a "Dreamland," which was also the name of the area's third major amusement park. Coney Island's name derives from the rabbits that were the major residents in the days when Brooklyn was a separate city and still had working farms. The exhibit's first section, "Down at Coney Island 1861–1894" takes us back to the years when the first development took place there. It was, as we see in paintings from Samuel Carr and John Twachtman, not a place for respectable Victorians. It was remote–just as gamblers and the sporting crowd wished it to be–"Sodom by the Sea," as some critics dubbed it.

As we move to the next section, "World's Greatest Playground 1895–1929," we see Victorian outrage as the dying gasp of moralists whose cultural style was about to be eclipsed by Modernist sensation seekers. When George Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park in 1897, stern Victorianism was no match for mechanical horses, roller coasters, circuses, and fun houses. Reginald Marsh first painted Coney Island during this period, and only his death in 1954 deterred Coney's most prolific canvas chronicler. We find all manner of wondrous objects in this section–Tilyou's creepy funny face icon, gambling wheels, carousel horses, Walker Evans' photographs…. But if one had to sum the cultural transformation in a single image, Joseph Stella's "Battle of Lights" (1912–14) would serve well. (Pictured above)  It's a literal swirl of sensations, the likes of which must have dizzied early Modernists on the Tilt-a-Whirl ride. Think of the awe that those who grew up with gaslight must have felt when Dreamland opened in 1903 and workers threw the switch on 250,000 electric lights. Actually, you don't have to imagine; an Edwin S. Porter film shows us.

The Great Depression (and several fires) forced Coney Island to reinvent itself as "The Nickel Empire 1930–1939." Marsh was at the height of his powers then, but his images–and those of others including Harry Roseland, Paul Cadmus, and Lisette Model–show us that Coney Island was inexorably losing middle-class patrons as it became a refuge for those seeking cheap amusements.

The last two sections, "Coney Island of the Mind 1940–1961" (a riff on Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 1958 poetry collection) and "Requiem for a Dream 1962–2008" (after Darren Aronofsky's film) show Coney Island in decline–from the working-class bastion photographed by Weegee, Diane Arbus, and Gary Winogrand to a seedy relic from another time. Astroland opened in 1962, but Steeplechase closed in 1964. By 1975, New Yorkers were warned to avoid the subway to Coney Island, by then a repository of crime, grime, freak shows, and drugs. Even before Astroland folded in 2008, Lisa Kereszi's squalid photos captured Coney's coming demise.

A revival might be in the air. The Cyclone–built in 1927–remains standing and within eyeshot of a spanking new Thunderbolt. Hurricane Sandy did the area no favors, but the baseball team is popular, the annual "Mermaid Parade" continues to draw massive crowds, 35,000 people show up for its July 4 hotdog-eating contest, and it's still cooler on Coney Island's crowded beaches than in a fifth-floor walk-up. At present, though, Disney dominates the theme park social imaginary, Coney Island isn't among the nation's twenty top grossing  regional attractions, and its two amusement parks (Luna , Deno's) combined offer a third fewer ride thrills than Pennsylvania's Hershey Park. Small wonder that so many scholars and writers (John Kasson, Michael Immerso, Charles Denson,Kevin Baker, Sarah Hall, Stephen Millhauser, Alice Hoffman) dwell on its storied past. Before Disney there was Coney Island. It will surely remain vivid and vital in the memories of anyone venturing to Hartford to see the exhibit.-Rob Weir