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Old Press

'A Mighty Wind' blows in Westchester, too; the local folk scene blossoms.

June 22, 2003


More Heartfelt Songs, More Gigs as Folk Scene Grows

The monthly, folk-oriented "Songwriters Circle," held at the small yet popular Funky Bean Caf here a few Saturday evenings ago, featured five earnest and disparately talented musical artists who took turns entertaining a capacity crowd of around 40 listeners despite interruptions that were more endearing than distracting.

Kathleen Pemble, a Peekskill resident with long, curly hair, sat at an electric piano with her audience just a foot or two away from her, and began the instrumental introduction to her song "Unsteady Heart" when a waitress loudly intoned "I need a carrot cake" to the cafs owner and jack-of-all-trades Chris McGinnis. With a wry smile Ms. Pemble commenced singing, and the ambient noise in the former post office and speakeasy suddenly disappeared, as if by magic. Similar interjections of "Chicken Parmesan!" and "I need change!" and "One piece of quiche!" at the start or midway of other songs later on elicited chuckles from performers and listeners alike, rather than grumpy disappointment or voiced outrage.

Later in the evening, Mr. McGinnis jumped behind a drum kit in the corner and began swinging a beat while K. J. Denhert played her uptempo song "Open Your Heart," summoning an image of Al Defemio accompanying the jazz musicians at his Yonkers night spot long ago.

If theres a secret to why folk musicians-or, to be more specific, contemporary singer-songwriters playing primarily acoustic instruments-continue to find an audience, regardless of numerous obstacles and challenges, it is because theyve learned to flourish anywhere possible and under all circumstances.

"The important thing is that were getting our songs heard," said Ms. Pemble, 41, who has long played guitar and keyboards but only started performing her heartfelt original compositions for audiences three years ago.

A subsequent weekend performance at the Funky Bean nets Ms. Pemble, the two musicians in her backing band Up State and Todd Giudice, another singer-guitarist on the bill, exactly $40.20 for their nights work-decent wages, actually, said Ms. Pemble, who emphasized shes simply grateful that Mr. McGinnis and his wife Michele are providing a place for the area folk scene to grow.

The fickle preferences of the public, scant radio airplay, low to invisible CD sales and even the derisive parody of Christopher Guest's acclaimed film "A Mighty Wind" cant seem to stop Ms. Pemble and the dozens of other serious folk performers living in Westchester from picking up their 6- and 12-string guitars and singing their songs.

In fact, the folk music scene in and around the county seems to be expanding.

"Theres been a definite increase during the past several years in the number of places where these kinds of musicians can play," said Lisa Grey, a radio marketing consultant in Ossining who closely follows the work of acoustic singer-songwriters. Theres a larger audience for contemporary folk today, she thought, because of a post 9-11 need "for more substance in things and a better sense of community."

"And the singer-songwriters you hear today produce music that has more meaning than a lot of pop music," added Ms. Grey.

Around Westchester, the open mic scene, where most aspiring performers get their start and more established artists test out new material, is fairly active. The Funky Bean Caf now has open mic slots three nights a week, noted Ms. Grey, with sometimes more than twenty people lined up to play, and even venerable venues like the Towne Crier in Pawling and the Turning Point in Piermont have evenings bi-weekly devoted to performers ready to take what is usually a two-song go around with an audience. Before they closed, the Common Sense Caf in Port Chester and Dannys Caf in Ossining had regular open mic nights, too, and the High Street Roadhouse in Rye even ran one for a while before discontinuing it earlier this year.

Several notable folk-oriented performers with national followings have originated from or been based in Westchester, like Christine Lavin (Peekskill), Dar Williams (Chappaqua) and Richard Shindell (Valhalla), but their apprenticeships in the early- and mid-1980s took place down in Greenwich Village when Jack Hardy was leading the Fast Folk movement there.

Ms. Lavin, in recalling, with some lament, that there werent any open mic haunts in Westchester where young singer-songwriters could hone their art when she was growing up, remarked recently by phone from her Manhattan home that "the best thing you can do as a performer and a songwriter is to be around other performers and songwriters every chance you get," adding, "If youre smart, youll see what works for others, and youll learn even more on stage."

Once somewhat established and able to draw a good audience, folk musicians in the area begin to vie with better known acts for bona fide gigs at places like the Emelin Theater in Mamaroneck, the Mainstage Coffeehouse at the Westchester Arts Council in White Plains, the Walkabout Clearwater Coffeehouse in Katonah, PJs Caf at the Pelham Jewish Center in Pelham Manor and the Watercolor Caf in Larchmont.

Being able to open or headline at the bigger venues in the area means that substantial breakout popularity, although never certain, may be nearing, and the Westchester artists and acts presently in this category, said Ms. Grey, are Sloan Wainwright, K.J. Denhert, Terence Martin, a duo called Open Book and Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, which performs this weekend for the second year in a row at the Clearwater Great Hudson River Revival, one of folk musics premier festival gigs.

Also enjoying growing notice are Marc Von Em and Fred Gillen, Jr., leaders of two of the countys memorable post-punk rock groups in the early-1990s, (Emerald Zoo and The Rain Deputies, respectively) who have since unplugged and thus swayed some of their numerous fans in becoming converts of a musical genre that doesnt inspire as much pogoing or crowd-surfing.

"I definitely rather play to 30 people who are really listening as opposed to 300 who are partying and hollering over my music," said Mr. Von Em, a Peekskill native. (Ms. Pemble, in her teens, was his baby-sitter, and after decades of not seeing each other the two musicians became reacquainted when both appeared at an open mic session at the Towne Crier three years ago.)

Perhaps the most lauded performer in the area folk scene today is Mr. Martin. A Larchmont resident since 1998, he teaches English and philosophy at the French-American School of New York in Mamaroneck but spends weekends traveling around the northeast and playing gigs. His third album, Sleeper, was released this spring and reached #3 on the Folk DJ Chart this January, according to Ms. Grey.

"Making it in the folk music business is pretty tough now-there is almost a glut of people out there playing," said Mr. Martin, who is old enough to have been bitten by Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary during the early 1960s. "Plus, I dont think you ever have a keen sense of progress except in terms of your own songwriting. But theres a sense of community being created out there among musicians and others thats very stimulating."

Listening to the words in the songs of the areas folk artists, from seasoned writers like Mr. Martin to newcomers like Iris Cohen, a Pleasantville sound engineer in her mid-30s who first picked up a guitar only seven years ago, it is obvious that the topical and political songs that marked the 1960s folk movement are out of fashion. Instead, folkies today mostly recount the twists and turns of their romances and desires, which, to todays more apolitical audience, is more tasteful entertainment than a song about, say, genocide.

Michele Rubin, 42, from Open Book, said she and her duomate Rick Gedney, who lives in White Plains, focus in their songs on more than just the search for true love among 30 and 40 year-old adults.

"People in our age group," said the Yorktown Heights resident, "are looking for something to relate to in their lives; theyre looking back and ahead, trying to figure out where they should be going. A lot of people tell us they identify with our music because theyre at a crossroads where they will either remain the same for the rest of their lives, stuck in a mold, or will branch out to find what is truly valuable to them. How to make you life valuable: thats what we try to answer in our songs. Our music isnt about love per se; its about fulfillment, and waking up."

Every music scene has its true believers who unselfishly support and promote the artists, and John Platt, an executive at WFUV-FM who also hosts the Sunday morning City Folk broadcast, has helped boost the careers of some of Westchesters folkies on the radio. In the meantime, Billy Masters, a talented 41-year-old guitarist from Scarsdale now touring with Suzanne Vega, has produced studio recording by a number of the aforementioned area artists, including Ms. Pemble and Open Book.

Most folk musicians in the area, and, indeed, up and down the East Coast, know the benevolent haven of the Hammond House in Valhalla, co-owned by brothers Michael and Frederick Rock, the latter whom is the guiding force behind Tribes Hill, a folk music collective with nearly 30 active members and over 100 associate members.

Originally interested in presenting house concerts on his property, Mr. Rock, an art dealer who is known as Rick, began assembling a networking operation for the Tribes Hill collective last summer that would help musicians interact with each other more readily to swap information about gigs, venues, album deals, side musicians and more. "It had to be done because no one was giving these artists the support they needed," he said.

Although Mr. Rock hosts several day-long Tribes Hill gatherings each year, which help to raise awareness for the musicians in the area, he has been more instrumental in getting them wider exposure through efforts like organizing an artists booth at different folk festivals, issuing a compilation CD of the members songs and making the groups presence known at this years Folk Alliance convention in Nashville.

"Theres probably nothing more important for musicians to have than a forum where they can nurture their craft," said Ms. Lavin. "The scene for folk music thats building now in Westchester reminds me of what was accomplished in New York City during the Fast Folk days, which ended up launching a lot of big careers."

If theres a competitive, ego-driven zeal among these musical artists to best on another, its invisible, as they all seem to harmonize both on- and off-stage.

A recent meeting of the Tribes Hill collective at the Hammond House, presided over by Cadence Carroll, a percussionist-singer, was filled with business matters concerning the group's upcoming music festival, but it was also fun. Jokes were cracked and stories were told around a big wooden table as the members divided jobs and responsibilities among themselves, and, not surprisingly, they even broke into a chorus here and there of some songs.

Last week at Art in the Park, an annual Tarrytown event, Mr. Rock stood by like a proud parent as he watched several Tribes Hill stalwarts perform. All of the musicians and artists who played during the afternoon remained to hear their peers play, and even sang along from the audience.

As Ms. Rubin and Mr. Gedney of Open Book, now often teasingly referred to as "Mick and Ricky" a la the folk duo in "The Mighty Wind," began strumming their guitars at the start of their song "New Direction Home," a band at the other end of the park kicked in with a loud drum set. The two Open Bookers looked at each other and strummed a little harder as they began to sing.

The Tribes Hill Music Festival, open to the public, takes place on Saturday, June 28, at the Hammond House, 111 Grasslands Road, Valhalla, NY. The music, which opens with an hour-long open mic session, begins at 1 p.m. and lasts until 10 p.m. Performers will include Sloan Wainwright, K. J. Denhert and Terence Martin. Admission is $10; kids under 12 admitted free. Refreshments from Custom Cuisine will be on sale. For more information call (914) 347-8209 or visit online www.tribeshill.com.



by Thomas Staudter, The New York Times

updated: 3 years ago