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.