A parade of known musicians performed little-known songs Wednesday in a marathon attempt to shed some light on the genius of record producer and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith, the man best known for compiling, during the 1950s, 84 pre-Depression recordings that became the “Anthology of American Folk Music.” This was the third, and most likely the last, of producer Hal Willner’s Smith extravaganzas (the first two were held in London and New York in 1999), and many of the performers put considerable thought into how to approach the murder ballads, hymns and blues that filled the evening. When all was said and done after five hours and 10 minutes, concert’s historical importance far outweighed the actual perfs.
Smith’s “Anthology” was reissued in 1997 by Smithsonian/Folkways, and it’s importance was immediately reflected in its registering the top spot among reissues in the Village Voice’s annual critics poll. To folkies, this is a holy grail, just as “Nuggets” is to 1960s garage rockers and the “Complete Robert Johnson” is to blues fans; a good 90% of the music performed appears on the compilation.
Smokey Hormel and Bill Frisell, the two guitarists who held together this behemoth with consistently interesting work, led a well-prepared band of horn-woodwind player Ralph Carney, D.J. Bonebrake on drums and alternating bassists Larry Taylor, Adam Dorn and Eric Mingus. Several of them have experience in the bands of Tom Waits, and it showed as they clanged and chugged their way through songs that, when many of us heard them on vinyl decades ago, sounded like recordings of static and scratches with music in the background. Fiddler Richard Greene, a bluegrass legend, was a furtive spark in much of this dark material, and his leading of a string quartet, with a wordlessly cooing female chorus, on Hoyt Ming’s brilliant 1928 instrumental “Indian War Whoop” was a highlight.
The percussion-heavy approach — even the stringed instruments were thumped — began with the first tune, Clarence Ashley’s “The House Carpenter,” performed with a dark melancholy by Todd Rundgren and Robin Holcomb. The better performers used a similar tone as subtext and shaded it one way or the other: Richard Thompson made gripping a wordy number with an assist from fiddler Eliza Carthy; David Johansen, the former New York Dolls leader who now fronts a band called the Harry Smiths, has developed a gritty country blues voice; and Elvis Costello, well, he did his usual acoustic thing. The most often recruited backup singers, the McGarrigle Sisters sang beautifully throughout the night.
Those who broke away from rendering Smith’s work within a simple folk framework had mixed results. Adam Dorn accompanied one of Smith’s short films with a composition built of samples, several of which were “Anthology” recordings, and composer Philip Glass accompanied three of Smith’s shorts with a delightfully hypnotic run on the baby grand. Mary Margaret O’Hara delivered mysterious yelps and hoots over some blues jams in the most tedious part of the night.
Clarinetist Don Byron, accompanied by just bassist Percy Heath and Frisell, brought a lightness to evening with three interludes, the best of which, the Middle Georgia Singing Convention’s oddball tune “The Song of Love,” was saved for last. The Folksmen, actually Spinal Tap in folkie garb, delivered some much needed humor in the first act with a Kingston Trio-styled goof.
Beyond Marianne Faithfull, Bob Neuwirth and Glass, few artists put Smith or the music into context or even attempted to explain their personal connection to a number. Garth Hudson ended the evening at 1:15 a.m. with a rambling multi-genre’d jam on the Royce organ. A quite fitting conclusion.