Digging the roots

Pub date March 28, 2007
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Whinny, moan, or emote weakly, if you will, at the prospect of so many bland acoustic guitars — singer-songwriters have it rough, warbling softly alone on a big stage, so often the first to get slapped with the "you suck" stick. The worst scenario is too easy to picture: cliché love ballads about the lady or lad up front with the wine spritzer, uncompelling bellyaching about dead pets, lame chord progressions, an unexamined affection for James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel. You’ve got a friend — who wears khakis. So consider it a good fight when singer-songwriters and those who love them wanna bust the stereotypically sensitive mold à la Jay Farrar, Britt Govea, and Marc Snegg. The last started Nevada City’s Grass Roots Records and is sincerely trying to shine a light on songsmiths succored by the rocky, roaring shores of the sweet South Yuba River with, this week, a traveling songwriters revue including Mariee Sioux, Lee Bob Watson, Alela Diane, and Casual Fog.

Can one expect thin song stylings from clotted brains? "That’s not what’s going to be going on at our show!" Snegg protests on the horn from up north. "Each of these songwriters has strong songs, though I guess singer-songwriters sort of get a bad rap.

"The original thing came up because I’m looking around and seeing what’s happening here, what people are doing anyways. I’m trying to congeal and coalesce it into a thing that’s a tour or a record, something that’s a lasting picture of a moment."

You can’t blame the dude, with all the talent pouring out around his hometown, from Joanna Newsom and Noah Georgeson to Hella and the Advantage, many of whom are not only solo artists but bandleaders as well, as Snegg puts it. The ex–UC Berkeley art major heads his own Sneggband, has already had Watson and Hella vocalist Aaron Ross into Dana Gumbiner’s Brighton Sound studio for new albums, and plans to pull in Sioux by April. His latest project: partnering with Nevada City promoters to bring touring and Bay Area bands to the town.

FOLK YOU Snegg isn’t the only wild-eyed seer bringing together two different NorCal scenes with, in his words, "musical momentum" and a few acoustic guitars. Folk Yeah Presents’ Govea has been putting on quiet and increasingly louder shows at Big Sur’s leafy Fernwood Resort and the woody Henry Miller Library for the past two years. The Crime in Choir performance on March 24 laid the heavy down at the first show of the ’07 season, continuing the move toward the harder psych-rock that closed the series last year. "I didn’t want to barge into Big Sur making a big ruckus, but as it turns out, the locals really like to head-bang," the Monterey promoter says as he hurtles down the coast, promising a pair of Chris Robinson shows and a big outdoors bash with as yet unnamed German electronic artists. He’s also folked up about a Mt. Tam performance around the time of Monterey Pop’s 40th anniversary, a very rad, free Earth Day concert at the Henry Miller Library on April 22, and more shows in "exotic" locales closer to San Francisco, including his first in the city with Howlin Rain and a Mission Creek Music Festival night that should have Red Hash heads humming.

"What keeps it unique is the marriage of LA and San Francisco that comes — an interesting mix. The metaphysical fight goes back to Laurel Canyon and Haight Ashbury, but once everyone gets to Big Sur, it’s nothing but hugs. And other things," Govea adds merrily before breaking up amid the pine needles.

FARRAR OUT Also unfurling a louder, prouder sound is Farrar, who’s been working the other side of the folk acoustic spectrum and mining a kind of Midwestern country-soul for years, in Uncle Tupelo and solo and now once again with Son Volt. The band he cultivated while former UT cosongwriter Jeff Tweedy nurtured his Wilco has birthed an admirably multitextured new CD, The Search (Sony/BMG), full of songs seeking insight amid post-9/11 wartime ("The Picture"), soullessness ("Automatic Society"), drugs ("Methamphetamine"), and other trad forms of escape ("Highways and Cigarettes").

"I probably read too much current events in the paper," Farrar, 40, says from St. Louis. "And some of those topical issues do find a way into the writing. ‘The Picture’ is a song like that. There’s a line — ‘War is profit / Profit is war,’ and that’s kind of being borne out by companies like Haliburton moving to the Middle East where the money is being made."

The title song seemed to best tie together his thoughts about this moment. "I mean, I didn’t want to call it Methamphetamine!" he says, gracefully allowing that, yup, Uncle Tupelo once lived together, subsisting on ramen, and contrary to rumor, their house did not have dirt floors.

Farrar isn’t working "Handy Man" territory yet, but it’s safe to say his partying days are behind him. He’s currently reading S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones, about the band’s somewhat infamous 1972 tour, though not for inspiration for his own travels. "Heh-heh, it can definitely be used as a reference point. I think most people who have done as much touring as I have tend to get that out of the way the first couple years. Eventually, you find rhythm that works."

What’s working for him now is playing with a band, a new lineup that includes keyboardist Derry deBorja, who can replicate everything from a banjo to a flute. "I guess having a band," Farrar says with no little irony, "is the one true way to make sure that no one mistakes you for someone that came from American Idol." *


Fri/30, 7 p.m., $5 suggested donation

Mama Buzz

2318 Telegraph, Oakl.

(510) 465-4073


With Spindrift and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound

Sat/31, 9 p.m., $12 advance

Fernwood Resort

Hwy. 1, Big Sur



Fri/30, 9 p.m., $25


1805 Geary, SF