“The Great Folk Scare” is how the late singer-songwriter Dave Van Ronk jokingly referred to the 1960s American folk music revival. But there was nothing to fear Sept. 29 at Manhattan’s Town Hall, where a who’s-who of folkies past and present gathered to celebrate the sounds of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Entitled “Another Day, Another Time” (after a lyric from Bob Dylan’s “Farewell”), the all-acoustic three-hour concert was organized by the Coens and their longtime music supervisor, Grammy-winner T Bone Burnett, as a benefit for the nonprofit National Recording Preservation Foundation, which preserves and archives historically significant audio recordings from America’s past.
The star-studded lineup, which ran the gamut from folk legends Joan Baez and Bob Neuwirth to rockers Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and latter-day folk/country acts like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, drew a suitably star-studded crowd including Glenn Close, Jesse Eisenberg, John Cameron Mitchell, Tim Blake Nelson, Julianne Moore and Paul Rudd. But true to the democratic spirit of the music on display, and of The Town Hall itself (built in the 1921 as a forum for poetry readings and political discourse), the night was just as much about the discovery of auspicious new talent, who received equal billing and equal time at the mic.
Set in Greenwich Village in 1961 in the days just before Bob Dylan’s arrival on the scene, the Coens’ film follows a Van Ronk-like troubadour (Oscar Isaac) who has the talent but not that intangible something extra required to make it in the music business. Isaac and co-stars Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Stark Sands did their own singing and playing in the film, recorded live on set (a la “Les Miserables”). All (save for the absent Timberlake) flexed their vocal muscles again on stage Sunday night.
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As on the “Llewyn Davis” soundtrack, Brooklyn bluegrass quintet The Punch Brothers reprised their duties as house band, kicking things off with their spin of the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” — a song, emcee John Goodman later noted, not heard in the Coens’ new film (but rather in “The Big Lebowski,” which marked the directors’ first collaboration with Burnett). Welch and Rawlings followed with lovely versions of the traditional hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and Welch’s “The Way It Goes,” before being joined by ex-Old Crown Medicine Show frontman Willie Watson for a barnstorming rendition of “Midnight Special.”
Another “Llewyn Davis” cast member, Garrett Hedlund, introduced three up-and-coming acts: the Milk Carton Kids, Secret Sisters and Boston soul/folk/jazz quartet Lake Street Dive, whose “You Go Down Smooth” brought down the house with lead singer Rachael Price’s husky, powerhouse vocal. Announced as Timberlake’s “understudy” for the evening, Costello then entered with Isaac, Driver and Burnett for a spirited “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” the lone original composition on the “Llewyn Davis” soundtrack.
Among other first-act highlights: Decemberists singer Colin Meloy joined Baez and Welch for “Joe Hill,” while The Avett Brothers brought things to a finish with a three-song set capped by the rousing “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.”
After intermission, Jack White showed his unplugged side on a cover of Tom Paxton’s “Did You Hear John Hurt?” and his own “We’re Going to Be Friends.” Then Smith, looking resplendent in black and denim, her long stringy hair falling every which way about her, lent her plaintive voice to Anne Bredon’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” a song she said she imagined Mulligan’s “Llewyn Davis” character “sitting back, smoking a cigarette and listening to,” much as she first heard it herself, covered by Baez, whom Smith hailed as the “undisputed humble and pure queen” for “the disenfranchised mavericks of 1963.”
In a wonderful cross-generational melange, The Avett Brothers, Lake Street Dive, Baez and Rawlings flanked Smith for a moving version of her activist rock anthem “People Have the Power,” prompting the singer to remark, “All these people…I don’t even know who half of them are!”
Marcus Mumford, heard but not seen in the Coens’ film as the title character’s deceased singing partner, went a capella with the Punch Brothers on “The Auld Triangle” (a song recorded by everyone from Dylan to The Pogues) in gorgeous six-part harmony. Mumford also played Kleenex-box drums to accompany Baez on “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry” and dueted with Isaac on “Dink’s Song,” the traditional folk ballad first recorded by musicologist John Lomax in the early 1900s that becomes a haunting refrain in the Coens’ film.
But the breakout star of the evening’s second half was indisputably Rhiannon Giddens, lead singer for the North Carolina string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, who held the capacity crowd spellbound with the folk standard “Jack of Diamonds” and a medley of two Gaelic-language traditionals.
At the mellow after party at the Bowery Hotel, “Llewyn Davis” producer Scott Rudin said the concert was “like watching the whole history of an art form unfold in front of you,” while visibly moved CBS Films co-prexy Terry Press added, simply, “I can die now.”
“Those musicians are profound,” said Burnett, who admitted to being in tears for much of the show. “To see everyone putting out that level of generosity was just incredible.” The long tall Texan also had special praise for Giddens, whom he likened to seeing Dolly Parton in one of her seminal early performances at The Roxy in L.A.
As the night wore on, Baez could be found still singing her heart out in the Bowery courtyard, backed up by Giddens (also, it turns out, a mean fiddle player) and others on impromptu performances of “Long Black Veil” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Like the hugely successful “Down From the Mountain” tour spawned by the soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Burnett is optimistic about the possibilities of taking “Another Day, Another Time” on the road. An edited, 90-minute version of the Town Hall performance will also be broadcast on Showtime on Dec. 13, one week after “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release.