Audio-Visual Part 2: East Cameron Folkcore at Austin’s Scottish Rite Theater

Given that my review of East Cameron Folkcore’s brand new album For Sale has had a few days to soak in, I’ll now indulge in the pleasure of detailing my experience at their resplendent album release show last week.  I finished classes with my students on the afternoon of February 8th and took a quick drive down I-35 to catch East Cameron Folkcore presenting their new work at the historic Scottish Rite Theater.

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Situated snugly between the two bustling Austin epicenters of 6th street and the University of Texas’ campus, the Scottish Rite theater is an interesting relic.  As my Austinite friend Patricia and I walked up the steps to the front door of the venue only the group of concertgoers standing in line might arouse suspicion that something as raucous as a folk-punk show would bellow out from inside that hall.  Southbound freeway traffic had kept me from catching all of the first band’s set, but from the open doorway no sound was heard.  It didn’t feel appropriate to raise my voice above a whisper.  This was not to be the case all night.

Past the framed portraits of high-ranking Freemasons and a merchandise table manned by a woman I would later discover is the mother of East Cameron Folkcore’s harmonica player we walked into a room that looked and sounded absolutely gorgeous.  The night’s first act, Mockingbird Loyals, had already taken the stage.  Having never heard the group before, I would describe the group as a starkly terrifying string band.  This seemed an appropriately Central-Texan sound: gruff and grim vocals roasting over twangy guitars and the truly menacing sound of a heartily amplified cello.  As we listened to the opening band, guessing which members of the plaid-and-suspenders crowd milling around us were to be featured in the headliner’s sprawling lineup.  Evidence would prove to support more than a few of our hypotheses.

After Mockingbird Loyals’ set, the audience was treated to a video presentation projected onto the curtain that hung over the stage.  Film clips and talking head documentary segments about mental health and government corruption were cut and spliced and juxtaposed as Possessed by Paul James set up.  A folklorist friend of mine had turned me on to Possessed by Paul James’ music before, and I knew him to be something of a wilder version of The Tallest Man on Earth.  The artist who was born Konrad Wert and has led an even more fascinating life than I knew at the time presented a great counterpoint to East Cameron Folkcore: while both deal in a captivating and sometimes uncomfortably raw brand of folk music, Possessed by Paul James is a one-man band (that refers to himself/itself as “we” without exception) and East Cameron Folkcore took the stage that night with fifteen musicians.  Possessed by Paul James performs with “their” whole body, strumming a guitar or bowing a fiddle while yelling out as though actually possessed by some bittersweetly joyful spirit that can only express itself by seizing Wert’s body and tearing into rollicking folk tunes about life, love, and meal worms.

After Possessed by Paul James the room returned to it’s normal state.  House lights went up, but only to be brought back down as another video installation grabbed the audience by its shoulders and shook it.  More scenes were lifted from post-apocalyptic thrillers and images of social unrest gave way to stock footage of atom bomb tests.  Segments jumped from Timothy McVeigh heartland terrorism to global eco-terrorism.  The crescendo of civilian anger on the projection hit its fever pitch with video of Mario Savio speaking on the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley, which is coincidentally the opening audio of East Cameron Folkcore’s new album.  The curtain flew up, a carnival barker’s voice introduced the band, and the 6/8 fury of “Robin Hoods Rise” began.

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In a tiered staging setup, East Cameron were swaying and screaming in a forest. Beautiful tree settings flanked the stage (I was unable to catch a photo, so below is included the only shot I was able to track down…apologies to the band for lifting a picture from their facebook profile!), and scattered across the room were televisions broadcasting an ominous “For Sale” message over empty transmission snow.  The band itself was stacked three rows deep (as shown in an artist’s rendering on the stage to the left) in front of a carefully painted backdrop that could’ve depicted a scene from The Time Machine or Planet of the Apes; palm trees and verdant green surrounded a Romanesque ruin.  It was immediately clear that this venue was a serendipitous match for the show that was to take place, as a video demonstration, specially-choreographed lighting, the whimsical set pieces, and the band itself all fit the room splendidly. Throughout the show the band’s lead-by-committee approach was well-served, as Jesse Moore or Allen Dennard could step forward to scream through a verse before backing off for Blue Mongeon’s harmonica wail.

Mongeon’s harmonica was one aspect of the show that stood out from its recorded form immediately.  The sound qualities of the hall at the Scottish Rite Theater served such a dense musical lineup well, and pieces of the arrangement were actually better heard live than on the record.  Having said that, there is some merit to the literal wall of sound that East Cameron Folkcore produces.  While a guitar or a harmonica might pull a solo here and there and horn lines and that same menacing cello add a different timbre to the mix, that overdriven hurricane of folk music reaches the listener all at once to great effect.  Especially when paired with the high frequency with which lead vocals become gang vocals, the band’s musical solidarity matches the ethos espoused in their lyrics.

Before “Humble Pie” began the forest that surrounded the musicians ascended into the heavens, widening the clearing in front of those painted ruins to include the audience that had crowded around the reserved seating area to line the walls of the theater.  Whether this was by design or not, it had the effect of drawing the crowd in more to the songs, and by the time house lights were brought up during the “take me home” refrain of “Salinger’s Dead” the audience appeared to be on the same page as the musicians they had come to see.  East Cameron Folkcore is impressive and moving when their music gets darker and louder and faster, but it is these slower driving moments that hold the most emotional resonance.  During that chorus of “Salinger’s Dead” and earlier on at the coda of “Humble Pie”, East Cameron Folkcore had become the music that plays in a dramatic movie when our hero is being beaten up and all other sound has cut out.  Moore, along with every other member of the group who found him or herself in range of a microphone, wanted to go home “to sustain”, but it felt very much that they already were.

The concert presented other cinematic moments as well.  The album’s third track, “Chasing the Devil”, began much like The Wizard of Oz with Blue Mongeon in the role of a towering male Dorothy.  The song begins with a sparser arrangement as Mongeon plucks a guitar, but the black-and-white calm of Kansas is ripped asunder by a tornado in the form of the dissonant grind of guitar, horn, and backing vocals whips like a dusty gale-force wind.  The mid-album, and therefore mid-set, track “Don’t Choke” made full use of a trio of backup singers and some clever lighting to accompany the bearded and beanie-clad Dennard with doo-wop “oohs” and tongue-in-cheek hand motions.  Throughout the show East Cameron Folkcore’s regular lineup was supplemented by two of the three backing vocalists, an organist, and a baritone saxophone, all of which bridged the gap between what must always be a punishingly heavy live show and the surprisingly touching EP from which the setlist had been pulled.

This photo is property of East Cameron Folkcore

The crowd had already been stirred by the time Blake Bernstein’s trombone took a dive-bomb at the beginning of “$allie Mae”, but the song that follows became an instant singalong in a pretty impressive release of anger from all in attendance.  As the band simmered with its own not-so-quiet rage a video projection of letters and testimonials of the heartache Sallie had wrought was broadcast behind the group.  As Aaron Perez’ drumming shifted down into halftime, the crowd was all but compelled to sing along and rock back and forth.  It didn’t hurt that this is exactly what the dozen or so musicians on stage were already doing.  As the cymbals rang out and distortion became a sustained aspect of life in that music hall the last three tracks of For Sale became one in the live performance.  “$allie Mae” led into the suddenly haunting “Enemy of the Times”, with glaring red lights hanging above the music and partially obscuring video of Mario Savio and Martin Luther King delivering speeches that could occasionally be heard behind the punctuation of harmonized wailing and cracking snare drum hits.  Instead of maintaining this state of emotional and musical suspense, the band then deftly brought the show back down by dropping out the arrangement save the organ (just as in the recording) to transition into the more acoustic album closer.  Looking back on the show I’m not sure whether the band took a bow on stage, but holding hands as if raising pint glasses to the night wouldn’t have felt out of place during the catchy “we’re all going to hell” of “Director’s Cut”.  One final explosion of sound cut just before the last line and the curtain dropped immediately; just as the audience had been transfixed by Mario Savio’s impassioned speech before the music began we were unable to move or look away from a projection of Bill Hicks’ stand up until the words “The End” appeared.  This show had been billed as a production and had exceeded even the greatest expectations for such a wide-ranging and technically challenging show.

After the show I was able to talk with a few members of the band about the music, the group’s history, and some craft techniques to wind up on Waterloo Records’ bestsellers list.  After wandering back from the smoky patio, I found myself in one of the wooden theater seats in the main music hall.  The room had been all but abandoned after the music ended, and with a better view of the stage I could see televisions stacked in every corner of the gallery.  I could tell by this point that the crumbling building painted on the backdrop behind the instruments couldn’t be the Texas State Capitol building flashed forward through an aeon of disuse, but a part of me fancied that idea; that tonight I had watched a community of friends and family and musicians stand in front of a symbol of a politicized life they didn’t agree in, and they had left that place empty and caving in around its unsound supports.

If you’re reading this on or before February 15th, 2013, go check out East Cameron Folkcore as they pull off a similar show in Austin the evening of the 15th at the Mohawk.  I won’t be in attendance, but the show promises to be every bit as transcendent as it was a week ago.  For my part, I should return to regularly-scheduled “Nobody Listens to This” next Thursday.  Until that point nobody may be listening to East Cameron Folkcore, but anyone who attends their shows has seen something really authentic happen on stage. That’s enough satisfaction for me.

Audio-Visual Part 1: East Cameron Folkcore’s ‘For Sale’

Every once in a while music brings people together and provides for really exciting creative forces to flow.  I only endorse such a cheesy sentiment because I witness that matchmaker power music has over people all the time.  I’ve dived into the cliché barrel on this occasion because the past few months have brought me some exciting feedback from the important people I mention on this page, and this weekend I took  my rock journalism act on the road to shed some light on Austin, Texas’ East Cameron Folkcore.

This specific story begins back in October when I profiled another Austin-based outfit, Bankrupt and the Borrowers, here on this site.  I inadvertently misnamed a member of the band and was duly corrected, but in those exchanges I established correspondence with a few people close to both that band and East Cameron Folkcore.  I was informed that the group would soon be releasing a new album of material and that a release party would be held in Austin in early 2013.  I was to be invited as press.

East Cameron Folkcore released their first recorded work in 2011, and the band has swelled into a collective in an amusingly symmetrical fashion to the dynamic profile many of their songs take.  Blending folk, punk, and blues (with dashes of grunge, doo-wop, and carefully-orchestrated noise), the group sounds as though a large folk band just kept turning the volume knobs up until they were screaming over everything.  This works incredibly well, and honestly beggars questions about how lines aren’t more frequently drawn between folksy protest songs and hard-nosed punk; it seems that the two genres have historically been mutually appreciative and share goals, but it’s rare to hear such a simple fusion performed.

With the brand new full-length For Sale released this past week, the listener has the treat of partaking of just such a fusion.  The album begins with an anti-establishment rail against “the machine” and seems a perfectly timely continuation of Occupy Wall Street ideals.  East Cameron Folkcore have seemingly taken their protest songs to the rally itself for this record and proceeded to crank their amps up to be heard over unionists and countless thousands drowning in government-subscribed debt.  For Sale‘s album cover is brandished with a sign inviting buyers to make an offer on the Texas State Capitol, and the not-so-subtle exhaustion with government apparatuses is clear from the get-go.

Bankrupt and the Borrowers seemed to perfectly the embody of the struggling independent rocker, and East Cameron Folkcore singer-guitarists Jesse Moore and Blue Mongeon (formerly of Bankrupt and the Borrowers) have carried that sentiment into their new project with the added benefit of solidarity.  In a band whose lineup can stretch into double digits a voice or a stringed instrument can easily be lost, but the subject matter that the group covers on For Sale lends itself to letting a group of likeminded fellows air their grievances simultaneously.  With four lead singers stepping to and fro over the shifting many-headed monster of instrumentalists, East Cameron Folkcore have improved upon the solitary protest singer strumming his acoustic guitar by inviting all of the other protesters on stage as well.

The tracks on For Sale are an interesting listen, especially given their musical variety.  “Enemy of the Times” is a punk-rock tune through-and-through, while “Robin Hoods Rise” and “Humble Pie” would be equally straight-ahead punk anger if not for 6/8 swaying in the case of the former and a slow descent into a New Orleans stomp to bring the latter to a climax.  The Moore-led “Salinger is Dead” is as close to the platonic ideal of folk-punk as is possible, with arpeggiated guitar riffs and downcast lyrics giving way to a shout-along chorus with gang vocals and mandolin strumming.  The diversity of the band’s members and the committee approach they’ve taken to lead vocal duty give some unexpected turns; “Chasing the Devil” gives Mongeon a chance to take the volume and tempo down (only to bring both up again) in order to give thanks that his friends are on the same tough road, “Don’t Choke” gives screamer Allen Dennard a chance to echo Man Man’s scruffy take on doo-wop songs, and “Director’s Cut” is singer/trombonist Blake Bernstein’s folksy ballad with a helplessly catchy refrain that “we’re all going to hell.”  Rounding out the record are the menacing rocker “Worst Enemy“; the wistful tune for the oppressed and forgotten in “Ophelia“; and “$allie Mae“, (ostensibly) a song about a break-up with a cruel mistress.

East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale works well because enough of its political subversion is cloaked in mixed metaphors and literary references that listening to the crashing drums, long-drawn cello, and wailing troop of weary Austinites doesn’t immediately betray the subject matter.  Having said that, the depth and scope of the band’s anger and frustration is evident before a close examination of the lyrics is necessary, and the music works in tandem with words spoken and yelled to give the whole affair the feel of something brewing just underneath the surface of our current society.  For Sale seems to exist at an important juncture in American life at which the impoverished and desperate have decided that they’ve had enough and are saying something about how they’ve been treated.  In East Cameron Folkcore’s case the rally cries aren’t only shouted, they are crooned and plucked and strummed and bowed.  Living as we all are in a political-economic climate that is as tenuous as a drum stick in the hand of a heavy-hitting punk drummer, East Cameron Folkcore’s For Sale marries the joy of solidarity with the righteous anger of the downtrodden to produce an auditory demonstration that marches straight up to that machine reference in the opening soundbite and lies across the tracks demanding to be heard.

Part II, in which I recount the veritable production that was For Sale‘s release party Friday night, is coming soon. For Sale is currently available via East Cameron Folkcore’s website as a pay-what-you-want download with proceeds benefitting any of 13 different charities or nonprofit organizations.