Saturday, June 23, 2012

Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators, Ayr Mountaineers (The Kraken, 6/2/12)

On my way out to Saxapahaw one day, just taking a ride in the country, I passed the Kraken...  (wow, if I wanted it to, I could take this post in a MUCH more interesting direction)

See, the Kraken is a bar (okay, but still, an interesting bar)... and I thought, "What the hell is a hole-in-the-wall called 'the Kraken' doing out here on Hwy 54?" 

Then a few weeks later, I see Ayr Mountaineers are playing there, opening for Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators.   I had seen the Mountaineers at their regular Tuesday gig at Vimala's (you must go there!), and was impressed.  I had never seen Ms. Whalen with her current band, but was a fan (who wasn't) of Squirrel Nut Zippers.  This seemed like the perfect show for such a one-foot-in-the-country dive. 

The Ayr Mountaineers are a young band of mountain music revivalists. I know very little about this particular brand of roots music.  Being a native New Orleanian, the traditional music I grew up with went more like "Jock-a-mo fee-na-HAY / jock-a-mo fee-na-HAY / If you don' like what the BIG chief say..." and was heavy on brass and bass.  So I'm no expert on, nor can I really speak to the authenticity of, their music.  But I can tell they're very talented group of musicians, and their is plenty of soul in what they're doing.  I say revivalists, but more of the style... they're no mere bluegrass cover band.  Front-woman Ella Bertram (Whalen's cousin, btw) writes most of their music, and is a damn good songwriter (and singer) to boot. There's a pretty heavy reliance on accordion, and less on rapid-fire banjo plucking.  The vibe is more relaxed and cool, thanks to Ella's vocals.  They're taking the music forward, cutting shoots and planting new roots. 

Ayr Mountaneers put on a very fun show. They seem like kids, but they've obviously been listening to and playing this music for a long time.  Hey, I saw Harry Connick, Jr., and Kermit Ruffins play when they were literally just kids -- they grew up with their roots music, too -- and look where they're at now.  Keep it up, Mountaineers...  I'm starting to get this Appalachia thing a little but now!  Check out their self-titled debut CD, or go see them at Vimala's or elsewhere.  

Ayr Mountaineers...

I hadn't ever heard Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators.  Knowing SNZ, though, I imagined a sound that would also be somewhat of a throwback -- a bit jazzy, lounge-y, perhaps.  But when I saw only three people on stage (drums and two electrics, Katherine's being a little 4-string thing), I realized they would be much more stripped down.  

With this material, Katherine's voice is more sultry, more gritty than it was with the Zippers (or with her doing jazz standards).  This seems more like her own, natural voice.  It places her somewhere in the same ballpark as Sallie Ford or Kelly Hogan.  I've heard her music with this band described as "electric folk".  But really, it has less folksiness in it and more of a quiet, very primitive, rock'n'roll -- at least live.  It's usually somewhat sincere, occasionally quirky, sometimes both.  Her recent CD, Madly Love, has a bit of a country-ish feel, too.  Ms. Whalen and her Fascinators play a different kind of front porch music than her young cousin, but music that you could just as easily hear coming from a porch on a hot Carolina summer's evening.

Katherine Whalen and her Fascinators...

Ms. Whalen woos the parlor...
It turned into a right hoe-down!

The porch analogy for the music above is only fitting.  The Kraken, being just a couple of miles west on 54, is sort of like Chapel Hill/Carrboro's back porch.  It clearly used to be someone's house, and the stage area,  the old living room.  A support beam lies center-stage, not seeming to mind the commotion.  The old front doors (now "backstage") provide a quick load-in and out for the band, and a little ventilation.  I'm reminded of the old Benny's in NOLA, where you'd watch the best blues bands play, separated by the skeletal framing of an old wall, which had simply had the sheetrtock removed (place collapsed a year or two after Katrina).  The Kraken was semi-recently rebranded as such (used to be the Little Bar?), a fact I presume was related to the SNZ song of the same name.  In any case, it's a great little venue for bands like this... a casual place where you can plop down in a chair out front if you like, and listen to the music through the front doors, along with the crickets and cars passing on the highway.  Like any good back porch, it's a great place to spend a summer's night with music, libations, friends, and family.

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