2014 NERFA

(Northeast Regional Folk Alliance)

Conference Scrapbook

Bouts of Ecstasy

By Richard Cuccaro


Formal Showcases

Quad Showcases

Guerrilla Showcases

The Last Jam

2014 NERFA CD Reviews

Keith Greeninger - Soul Connection

Keith Greeninger strides through a rocky soundscape like a creator in command of wind, rain and thunder. His husky baritone is an anchor in a turbulent sea of life. This album boasts contributors such as keyboardist Bill Payne of Little Feat, drummer Ricky Fataar of the Bonnie Raitt band and guitarist Randy Ray Mitchell formerly with the late Warren Zevon. With each successive listen, it seems to get richer and more lush. Track one, “Good Day,” is a morale booster: It’s a good day to be on your way my friend / keep your head up / I know the sun is going to shine again. Declarations of love are everywhere in songs, but seldom are they stated so sweetly as in “Face of Love”: Isn’t it so unreal when we gaze upon the face of love / It’s never where we thought it was / can’t do everything we thought it does / what do you need to get you through? Keith shares the vocals with his 15-year-old daughter, Tenaya, on this one. “Shake It” is an exceedingly gratifying rocker the Stones would welcome in their repertoire. “Be My Baby” has more hooks than a tackle box. Besides a haunting melody, the instrumental licks are almost excruciatingly delectable. In “Guadalupe’s Eye,” we don’t know why death came to Sweet Rosa, but the tale is riveting:  Wipe the tear from Saint Guadalupe’s eye / don’t let those people see a good saint cry/ ’cause if they did, somebody might wonder why / Sweet Rosa had to die. This album in the headphones is going to make life around here a lot more bearable. Seeing Keith, a “left coast” native, on some local stages would help as well.

Irish Mythen - (self-titled)

Irish Mythen has a voice to rival any Irish diva. Maura O’Connell comes to mind. This album kicks off with “Gypsy Dancer” wherein we get our first taste of her raw power and sustain on longer-held notes. Track two, “Take Me to the Water,” is a quick-stepping  number with fiddle backup. It’s a standard pitch to a lover to pledge their love after which the singer, a wanderer, will stay forever. Irish’s singing raises it out of the ordinary. The album’s finale, “Sheila Doran,” is a magnificent a cappella rendition of a tragic murder ballad about a  lover’s triangle. Online research reveals that it was first made popular by Irish singer Christie Hennessy, whose recorded work once outsold U2. We’ll lay odds that Irish Mythen’s version surpasses even Christie’s. She has an impish, wickedly funny sense of humor that enlivens  her concerts. See her whenever you can.

David Jacobs-Strain - Live From the Left Coast

While the CD distributed at this year’s NERFA is not a new album (2011), it presents the current touring duo of David with Bob Beach on blues harp. It’s a nice introduction for anyone who might be unfamiliar with David’s live performance. A consummate guitarist and fine singer, his dedication to his craft makes him one of the top acts on the folk circuit. One of David’s signature songs is his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” It’s a staple of every blues singer, but David’s slide work and passionate singing make his version one of the best. In addition to the blues, there are wistful ballads to lost love like “Pescadero Beach”: the waves crash like memories on Pescadero Beach. The addition of Bob Beach’s iconic blues harp makes this a great album to own and savor.

Bernice Lewis - Checks & Love Letters

Bernice Lewis teaches songwriting, and her credo is “kill your darlings” (easy catch phrases writers are fond of, but need to jettison). She lives up to that credo on this album. Bernice is an erudite female musician who can rock a mean guitar and ukulele. When she sings in “I Wanna Be in the Band,” three chords or a jazz progression / after-midnight recording session / anywhere that you think I might fit, she isn’t kidding. While the song is an amusing take on a wallflower who got straight As but longs for a life in the fast lane, it carries the ring of truth. The title track presents another humorous refrain, a bouncy swing number,  this time about junk mail that she wishes were supplanted by checks and love letters: wouldn’t the world be a whole lot better if all we ever got were checks and love letters. “Wings,” in a more serious vein, is a wistful song about wishing for something beyond an earthbound existence: All those places feet can’t take you / Hakatai and shale / Standing in these lines can make you into something pale / I look up to the sky so blue from down here in my bed / I’d have wings, I’d have wings, I’d have wings instead.

Hakatai is a layer of rock deep in the Grand Canyon, where the song was written. The canyon has become a religion for Bernice, and she spends a tremendous amount of time there, both recreationally and as a guide. She’s a gifted writer and performer, and we hope to write a cover article on Bernice soon. Showing both her serious and humorous sides, this album represents her well.

Hiroya Tsukamoto - Solo

I noticed that Hiroya was chosen for a quad showcase at this year’s conference, so I checked him out on YouTube and, delighted with what I saw, snapped him up for the Acoustic Live guerrilla showcase. He’s an acoustic guitarist who tends to work in a new age/jazz format. His melodies are gorgeous. He’s fronted his own band and, with that group, has played at the Greenwich Village (NYC) Blue Note jazz club. The album is primarily instrumental. It kicks off with “Icy Day,” which is a short one-minute, nine-second prelude to his signature piece “Coast to Coast.” Treble notes trickle like raindrops and the elemental melody line ambles gracefully throughout. This pattern is repeated for various melodies and each is quietly absorbing in its own way. In concert, his on-stage manner is humble, offsetting his superlative musicianship. I love this album and will catch Hiroya’s live act whenever possible.

Aaron Nathans and Michael G. Ronstadt - Crooked Fiddle

The collaboration between singer/songwriter Aaron Nathans and cellist Michael G. Ronstadt  expands considerably on earlier efforts with their recent release, Crooked Fiddle. The opening track is a musical adaptation of a poem by Clarence Dan Blachly, “I Stood Upon a Hill.” I found that the interweaving overlays between cello and vocals invited favorable comparison to The Goat Sessions album with Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile and Stuart Duncan. Track two, “Cars Don’t Keep,” is an unforgettable ballad, a bittersweet memory of the irrational love between a young man and his first (and subsequent) vehicles: … in you I brought home my new son / kids grow up, but they live on / Now I clear out your back seat / I know cars don’t keep / I send you off on one last ride / I think I left my youth inside / I swore I would not fall so deep / but I am only human / I know cars don’t keep.

“If I Had an Axe” takes the legendary myth of Pete Seeger’s attempt to cut a sound cable during Bob Dylan’s set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and pairs it with Dylan’s severing his ties with early protest singers. It then effectively slides into an allegory about the schism between a father and son.

The Dylan link is explored further in the next track, a cover of “All Along the Watchtower.” Aaron’s vocal gives an expressive reading of this classic and Michael’s cello work adds some wonderful melodic improvisation.

The combination of Nathans and Ronstadt continues to yield impressive results.

Bill and Kate Isles - Still Beneath the Stars and Moon

This husband-and-wife team from Minnesota have put together a sparkling album of story songs that have a bluegrassy feel, with fiddle and dobro to spare. Their voices — his reedy baritone and her feathery alto — blend perfectly, as you’d expect from a couple whose relationship started with informal jam sessions. “Public Radio (A True Story)” tells the charming story of how they met.

“This Small Town” is a co-write and draws a picture of small-town America that we turn to as an ideal vision, especially when the truth can be on the dark side: In this small town I know everyone / If you want you can climb the hill and watch the setting sun / And in the day the clothes hang out to dry / And of course, there’s fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“She Kissed me in the Morning” is an allegorical saga that suggests a saving love that endures in spite of an oblivious recipient and finally grants a second chance: She kissed me in the morning, but then, I went along my way … There she meets in the twilight, and touches me as if to say / That she was watching, ever waiting, as I went along my way. It becomes more poignant when we learn that a heart attack resulted in an epiphany for Bill Isles  and he returned to music after a long layoff. He met Kate not long after that. The album boasts supporting musicians such as April Verch on violin and Michael Johnson on guitar.

Bobtown - A History of Ghosts

The members of Bobtown share a fascination with all aspects of history, including its darker corners. What they don’t have facts for, they’re not afraid to dream up. The underground denizens of “Kentucky Graveyard” get the full Halloween treatment. Untimely fates befall them: Fireman Fred was crushed to death by a train gone off the tracks / Otis Parson’s heart gave out while engaging in the act. Bobtown’s typically impeccable harmonies are combined with an eerie melody and various percussive  effects that recall Spike Jones. I especially enjoyed Katherine’s and Jen’s insertion: The Etzels and McDearmans, they got into a feud / Eighteen died on the Etzels’ side, the McDearmans: twenty-two. The female protagonist in “Oh, Undertaker” has passed on but somehow has fallen for the undertaker: You took my heart to meet its maker / Now I can’t get over the undertaker. Vocals combine with accordion to produce a lovely, lilting ballad. The title track is a beguiling song that makes good use of the harmony talents of Katherine, Jen and Karen. Without any specific account, it manages to allude to dark deeds lost to history: Ten men ride in the cold November sky / whiskey on their breath, blood on the trail …When all is said and done / the tide comes rolling in / Pages writ in rust, slowly turn to dust— drifting on the wind. This is a superb third album from this group.

Carsie Blanton - Not Old, Not New

If your taste runs beyond the pick and twang of folk in all its guises, then this album may work for you. Since I was raised on the American songbook, it works for me. Carsie has decided to try her hand at being a torch singer and it’s right up her alley. Songs from the ’30s and ’40s like “Two Sleepy People” proliferate. She absolutely knocks “You Don’t Know What Love Is” out of the park. As a child, I heard my mother sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” while doing housework, so many times that I can recall all the words without looking them up. Carsie more than does justice to the song. If anyone wants to argue that Not Old, Not New shouldn’t be included in a folk collection, we might refer him/her to Big Bill Broonzy’s quip, “I never heard no horses sing none of it!”

Chris LaVancher - Roadside Attractions

In an edgy, twangy voice, Chris Levancher tackles the image of the traveling troubadour and gives it one hell of a ride. Some people consider the use of a bus or train in a song to be cliché. Chris manages to make good use of these without creating treacle. In “Bus Ride West” he sings: Just outside of Little Rock / This ticket will get me to Dallas / Any further and I’ll have to walk / These Arkansas towns just roll on by / Past Benton, past Malvern, past Hope. “Lone Train Whistle” illustrates the downside of an extramarital affair: Mosquito buzzin’ around the bed / The smell of sex and a cigarette / She tries to hide the tears upon her face / He’s lying there, just pretends to sleep / Hoping she’ll leave before he has to speak / And a lone train whistle blows way down the line. No clichés here — just plain good songwriting. Jake Amerding and others do a great job of providing instrumental backup.

While some amusing photos in the CD jacket liner help illustrate the album concepts, the songs do an even better job.

Joe Craven / with Trio - All Four One / Mamajowali

There aren’t too many people who can embrace every musical category and make them work the way Joe Craven can. There’s basically a jazz connection, but no matter what form the piece takes, folk music is at the root of all of it. All Four One begins with a blues strut, “Up With the Crackadons,” Joe’s mandolin leading the way. This is followed by “Forrocious,” which seems to have a Scottish bagpipe tune at its core. The rest of All Four One continues in this vein, each track a joyous, jazzy celebration of some kind of folk/blues song. Mamajowali is the collaboration of Mamadou Sidibe (kamale ngoni, the hunter’s harp), Walter Strauss (six-string guitar) and Joe (percussion, fiddle, mandolin). It kicks off with an African-sounding instrumental, “Dust Devil,” riding rapid hand percussion, fiddle and guitar runs. The EP is full of harmonies and a cross-current of Western and African idioms with some numbers sung in one of the languages of Mali (Sidibe’s country of origin). It’s  all pretty mesmerizing.

John Sherman & Randy Clepper - Finally Tuned

This duo is primarily a virtuosic instrumental act. Each track of Finally Tuned is comprised of clusters of Celtic tunes with names like "Behind the Haystack / Maid at the Spinning Wheel / Merrily Kissed the Quaker’s Wife." Mostly, Randy plays bouzouki and John plays guitar, and there’s banjo on some songs. For me, some Celtic folk instrumentals provoke a fervent desire to do some energetic inventive clogging. This entire album is in that category. With respect for an aging body and regard for possible damage to same, it is with great regret that I will keep my reactions to appreciative head-bobbing and toe-tapping. Great album.

Mark Allen Berube - Sticky

Mark Allen Berube is one of the more innovative, archly funny people on the folk circuit. The leadoff track of Sticky, “Bride of Frankenstein Hair,” is a paean to his wife, Carolann. He’s been playing it at shows and it’s been at the top of his fans’ personal charts for at least a year. He follows this with “My Left Arm,” a farcical shaggy dog tale of literally giving up a body part to experience carnal bliss. There are many highlights on this album. One of them, “Holy Guacamole,” depicts the Last Supper with Jesus providing the titular treat. Thus, we hear: Where’d you get that avocado? / Jesus said, ‘I had it flown in from Colorado.’ This album is a marvelous compendium of zany humor.

Phil Henry - Aberdeen

Phil Henry has a clarion-like voice and writes cinematic story songs. His work has been described as having “the vocal warmth of James Taylor, the thoughtful, seamlessly crafted lyrics of Paul Simon, and the infectious melody of no one but Phil.” On track one, “St. Anthony’s Mission Store,” the sound of a toy piano can be heard cavorting behind the lead vocals and instruments. It sets the tone for an upbeat ride from one of the brightest, sharpest voices in the folk community. I especially like “Hometown,” where the protagonist sings: And when the sun is sinking down / You get that glimmer in your eye / You remind me of my hometown / The one I left behind. This is another fine release from this excellent songwriter.

Russell Kaback - Message of Love

We missed getting Russell into our guerrilla showcase at NERFA. Our loss. His voice is an absolute joy. This CD, a prolonged anthem to romantic love is produced well beyond his solo act and embraces the soul idiom. It’s done gently, though, and can’t hide his natural ability, put on full display at a recent Brooklyn concert we attended.

Also worth checking out:

Ryan McNally - Down Home

Lyal Strickland - Balanced on Barbed Wire

Idlewheel - The Old Roots

Harpeth Rising -  Live At The Dreaming Tree

Rob Lytle - A Hypocrite Of Heart And Hope

Susan Cattaneo - Haunted Heart

Leo DiSanto - The Moon, A Silver Dime

Kaia Kater - Sorrow Bound

Graydon James & The Young Novelists - In The Year You Were Born

The Folk Goddesses - I Am Oak

Dave Gunning - No More Pennies

All photos by Richard Cuccaro.except ***

A larger gallery may be viewed at



All photos by Richard Cuccaro.except ***

A larger gallery may be viewed at