Folk America, The Barbican, London

Old-time ramblers and other clichés
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The Independent Culture

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?