Fringe-minded Arthur fest enlivens Broadway with a focus on folk.
By Richard Cromelin
Times Staff Writer
October 21, 2006
“I’d like to thank the cockroach who joined me for that one,” Greg Weeks said Thursday after his band Espers finished a song during the opening concert of the Arthur Nights festival. Weeks had been visited by the insect as he crouched on the stage floor with his electronic keyboard, adding some spacey trills to a folk ballad by the Philadelphia-based group.
Such are the perils of commandeering a faded downtown movie and vaudeville emporium on short notice. But despite this and other small drawbacks, the Palace Theatre on South Broadway proved to be a harmoniously funky setting for the most ambitious yet of Arthur magazine’s extravaganzas of esoterica.
Of the nearly 50 performers scheduled to play over four days through Sunday, only Devendra Banhart, who brought Thursday’s show to a joyous peak, and the Fiery Furnaces, on deck to play Sunday, have what would be considered substantial drawing power beyond the cult level.
So it’s remarkable that in the city where England’s similarly designed All Tomorrow’s Parties failed to establish an outpost after a couple of tries, Arthur has now mounted three significant showcases of fringe music in little more than a year.
Jarring juxtaposition is usually the operating principle, and it’s in force over much of the weekend, but the heart of Thursday’s concert amounted to a themed program spotlighting various facets of the underground folk movement.
Los Angeles-based Banhart is the standard-bearer for this thriving scene, but his hour-plus performance Thursday took him far beyond the acoustic roots and the image of the eccentric sprite that won his initial following.
His set progressed from light, lilting shuffles buoyed by four- and five-voice harmonies by his band members through classic folk-rock (David Crosby’s “Traction in the Rain,” Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) to some hard-driving, rhythm-heavy versions of favorites from the Banhart songbook.
At the end, with the crowd finally on its feet, the strikingly dark-suited, dark-bearded singer was shaking maracas à la Jagger on “I Feel Like a Child,” and looking like a rock-star-to-be.
But the most Arthurian moment came earlier in the set, when Scottish folk-music icon Bert Jansch joined Banhart and his band for two songs.
Though it was a bit of a no-brainer (Banhart sang on Jansch’s new album, “The Black Swan,” and his guitarist Noah Georgeson produced the record), it was the kind of special mix you hope for at a festival such as this.
And the pairing conveyed a sweet sense of community and continuity as the generations met for “My Pocket’s Empty,” from the new album, and a song from Jansch’s influential ’60s-’70s folk-rock band Pentangle.
Jansch, who has been hailed as a hero by an army of rock guitarists, preceded Banhart with the kind of solo performance he’s been doing for decades. But he usually plays tiny rooms such as McCabe’s on his infrequent visits to the area, so this larger setting was a welcome showcase for his restrained virtuosity and modest personality.
Always aiming for harmonic invention and emotional statement rather than empty flashiness, Jansch, 62, moved from traditional folk songs to blues to originals, adding some political weight with “Let Me Sing,” about Chilean martyr Victor Jara, and “The Old Triangle,” about capital punishment in Ireland.
Espers are inheritors of Jansch’s pioneering work, and the sextet preceded him with a chamber-folk performance whose female vocals suggested both Pentangle and the Incredible String Band.
And what about the famous Arthur eclecticism? Well, drag performer Jackie Beat followed Banhart with a short set, and the main showroom opened with the heavy, power-trio riffing of Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers.
Arthur Nights was originally planned for the Echo and its new sister club the EchoPlex, but when the latter encountered construction delays, it was moved to the 1,050-capacity Palace, which was colorfully thronged Thursday by a coalition of scenemakers and serious-music geeks.
They discovered that the theater’s second stage is on the fifth floor, requiring a ride in an antique elevator or a walk up many steps.
But the room, with its art-space feel, large windows and bean-bag chairs, was a perfect setting to bask in the experiments of such noise manipulators as Axolotl and Grouper.
And things figure to get much more eclectic these final two days, with Beastie Boys associate Money Mark and the Sun Ra Arkestra sharing the bill tonight with folkies White Magic and Six Organs of Admittance. Sunday’s highlight looks to be the rare solo performance by Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio.
Just watch your step.