Saturday, February 02, 2008

Old-time festival opener Martha Spencer is the real McCoy

With the revival of young bands playing old-time music, many on display at this week's San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, we are accustomed to seeing young urban sophisticated musicians imitating the sound and style of Appalachian mountain music.

Last night at one of the SFBOT kickoff concerts, we saw the real McCoy, Martha Spencer, a 22-year-old Blue Ridge Mountain sweetheart who fiddled, warbled and clogged her way into the hearts of a willing audience at McGrath's Pub in Alameda CA.

Spencer is a third-generation musician from the "crooked road" region of southwest Virginia, where she has long performed with her parents' family band, The Whitetop Mountain Band. Last year, she toured the country as part of The Crooked Road Tour. At SFBOT, she appeared as half of a duet with partner Jackson Cunningham. [Photo courtesy of Whitetop Mountain Band]

Spencer and Cunningham performed at at McGrath's Pub, one of the festival's 17 venues, while The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience kicked off the week's proceedings at The Independent in San Francisco. A full lineup of concerts, workshops, films and more continues every day through next Saturday, February 9. Festival Preview will be covering selected events.

Watching Spencer, fresh-faced and fetching in short print dress and cowboy boots, I was reminded of the girl singing "Shady Grove." Some come here to fiddle and dance, some come here to tarry. Spencer did all that and more. If she wasn't on her way to becoming an old-time music sensation, it is easy to imagine her among the girls at the square dance who also came to marry.

Much of the music was pure square dance—reels, hornpipes, and all manner of fiddle tunes, including a cajun number. Spencer alternated among fiddle, banjo and guitar and traded off solo vocals and harmonies with Cunningham, who shined on mandolin, guitar and banjo.

The repertoire also called on country duets, including a George Jones song; gospel, with Bill Monroe's "Crossroads" as a concert highlight; a murder ballad; and several heartfelt Spencer originals, "Echoes of the Blue Ridge" and "Home is Where My Mama Sings."

Spencer's voice had as many variations, from sweet and pure to big and throaty. On a raucous bluesy number, "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man," she leans back and holds a long note before breaking into a small yodel to end the chorus. Between songs, with her still developing confidence and richly accented speech, it was somethimes difficult to decipher her comments.

Several times during the evening, she put on enthusiastic displays of country dancing—not the graceful two-stepping one might expect, but loud, almost comedic clomping in her great big boots, sometimes while keeping her fiddle bow in full swing.

Cunningham was outstanding as Spencer's instrumental and vocal partner. With his overalls and aw-shucks manner, he looks the part of Spencer's country cousin. I'm not sure he is authentic as she is, however, having originated in Oregon. HIs mother was in the audience at McGrath's.

Earl Brother goes solo
The night opened with one of the leaders of the West coast old-time revival, John McKelvey, an original member of The Earl Brothers who is now breaking out as a solo act. Actually, his delightful set was far from solo, with Evie Laden from The Stairwell Sisters, members of First Base Stringband, and a rockabilly bassist rounding out a full sound.

There is no doubt McKelvey has talent, a droning vocal style on top of a driving rhythm guitar that works well solo or with a backing band. With his pork-pie hat, goatee and dark-framed glasses, he might be the epitome of the old-timey hipster type I mentioned earlier. Most nights I would have bought it big-time, but juxtaposed with Spencer he was striking a pose. She was being herself.

McKelvey's set included mainly original songs mixed with traditional material like "Cluck Old Hen," which cooked with the fiddles, banjo and bass backup. Later he joined Spencer and Cunningham during the latters' set, with Laden taking a spin on the clogging board.

All the mixing and matching seemed to be part of the festival's plan, where many of the program's concerts involve multiple bands and collaboration opportunities. McGrath's, a comfortable room well known to the Bay Area bluegrass community for its regular Monday night jams, will be back in the SFBOT mix Wednesday, February 6, with Ida Viper and The Barefoot Nellies.

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