Folk America, The Barbican, London

3.00

Old-time ramblers and other clichés

In a week when everyone seemed to fall back in love with America, a two-night celebration of some of the country's deepest musical traditions was well timed and, you might think, could hardly fail. But in spite of the prodigious talent on stage and the huge goodwill of an expectant audience, the whole thing fell somewhat flat – dragged down by the weight of its own earnestness.

Old, of course, is the new new. Authenticity lies in the makeshift and the homespun. Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour has done an invaluable job in opening up American popular music from the pre-rock'n'roll era, and in uncertain times, there's comfort to be drawn from jug bands and songs about 1930s mining disasters in West Virginia. There are lessons to be drawn, too, which is why the new US president references the past so much and why we are all – supposedly – making our own clothes and baking our own bread.

That's all great, but the danger of laying on such unashamed nostalgia is that you end up with a mixture of museum pieces and reproduction furniture, and it all gets far too reverential and conservative. With one or two notable exceptions, this was Folk America's overall effect.

Night one – "Hollerers, Stompers and Old-Time Ramblers" – harked back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, the set dressed like the front porch of a rural homestead, with washing on the line and hobo high priest Seasick Steve, who was MC for the evening, easing back in his rocking chair.

There was an edge to the old-time string band Allison and Chance. Pain and dignity were finely balanced in the striking voice of Diana Jones. Cedric Watson led a terrific zydeco band, complete with the awesome Washboard Chaz on washboard. The Wiyos were highly skilled vaudevillians, and Australian bluesman CW Stoneking, allowed in because of his American parentage, looked like Stan Laurel, sounded like Nick Cave, and succeeded in convincing you that he'd led the kind of life he was singing about. Seasick Steve did his gnarly stuff and there was a rousing finale involving all 21 musicians that brought the crowd to its feet.

The problems really set in on night two, "Greenwich Village Revisited". Seasick Steve had been a good fit the previous evening, but to have our own dear Billy Bragg compering a showcase of 1960s New York folk was slightly odd, even given his protest-singer credentials. Bragg was fine, but why not Roger McGuinn, who was around at the time and surely could have added these duties to the lovely rendition he gave of a handful of Byrds classics?

It was also a shame that McGuinn, probably the biggest star of the night, was on first, preceding two lesser survivors from the era, the sweetly bashful Carolyn Hester and the funereal Eric Andersen, and leaving the way clear for Judy Collins to hi-jack the rest of the evening with a display of grande dame-hood rather at odds with the collective ethos that had otherwise prevailed.

Collins's anecdotes – of Leonard Cohen turning up at her front door and playing her "Suzanne"; of creeping downstairs in her pyjamas in a house in Woodstock to overhear Dylan composing "Mr Tambourine Man" – should have charmed us but came across as name-dropping. And although she can still sing fabulously, she introduced a touch of Las Vegas to proceedings that was as ill-judged as the clichéd climax to the show – a group a capella version of "Amazing Grace" during which the other four singers appeared to squirm slightly under the queenly Collins's direction. Where was Dylan when we needed him?

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before