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

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
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.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire