Friday, October 21, 2011

Still Playin'

In the first quarter of the 20th century it gradually dawned on a generation of entrepreneurs and budding media moguls that that there was money to be made out of marketing the artistry of the kind of musicians and singers who, in one form and style or another, had been providing popular entertainment in small towns, county fairs, and rent parties for as long as anybody could remember. As the American Century wore on, and as first jazz and then rock and what for want of a better term would be described as "folk music" was disseminated and gained a national (and indeed international) audience, it was discovered that there was in fact a great deal of money to be made there. For a while, at least for the lucky few, writing and performing popular music offered a viable way up and out of the dance halls and suburban garages and college-town coffee houses where it was created, offering enticements of fame and fortune for those who had the craft or the luck to survive the journey to the top.

For some time, though, it's been apparent that we've been witnessing the long downslope of that process, as commercialization has diluted and cheapened the "product" into bloodless hybrids of country, rock, R&B, and Broadway, and whatever else it could absorb, and as the rise of mp3s and file-sharing has cut into the ability of record labels to convert music into a marketable commodity in the form of LPs, CDs, or whatever the format of the day might be. As major labels cut back on recruiting new acts and terminated the contracts of long-respected performers, boutique labels and the artists themselves were left to try to pick up the slack. Tom Weber's feature-length documentary Troubadour Blues follows a number of talented traveling songwriters and musical performers who are living in the wake of that transformation, but one of the striking things about is that the film doesn't wind up being a lament at all; in fact it's consistently upbeat. The surprise? -- the music keeps on welling up underneath, in good times and bad, reshaping and reinventing itself, and whether or not there are riches to be had there are still people who have the gifts and determination to make it their life's work, and even make a living out of it.

Several of the musicians featured here, like Peter Case and Mary Gauthier, were already familiar to me; a few others I was vaguely aware of, but some not at all. At least a couple have had brushes with fame and, having been tossed aside by the majors, are now out on their own. Others have never had their fifteen minutes and probably never will, but even so, they express few regrets. As one of their number, an Irish-born painter and musician named Karl Mullen, quietly insists, "I have succeeded, because I still continue to do this, and do it for the same reason that I started doing it, in that it makes me feel something that's real." They range in age from veterans in the sixties down to relative newcomers who appear to be in their twenties or early thirties. Though their lives can be exhausting, consisting mostly of long car trips broken by an hour or two of live performing, they keep at it, and continue to connect with people face to face, one on one, heart to heart, in ways that make it worthwhile for both them and their audiences.

The guitar is pretty much ubiquitous here (what other instrument is so well-adapted to a nomadic life?) but the styles range from delicate acoustic finger-picking to Garrison Starr's sweaty hard rock. Some of the musicians readily cross back and forth between styles; in his long career Case has gone from busking on San Francisco street corners to the power pop of the Plimsouls to a life as a solo "folk singer." One of the highlights is watching another veteran, Dave Alvin, (and how is he not a household name?) start off a song with a few soft phrases chanted into a mic and then rip into a blistering electric guitar solo. (It's refreshing, by the way, in an age of endless inaudible YouTube clips, to see live performances captured with some kind of professional attention to sound and camera angle.)

In addition to the music there's plenty of storytelling and a good bit of theater in what these performers do every night. Chris Smither (pictured at top) introduces a song by eerily channelling a long-departed New Orleans fruit vendor, and Mary Gauthier prefaces one about a roadside way station by sagely observing that "when the folk singer has the nicest car in the parking lot you do not want to bring your family to this motel." (Gauthier's insistence in an interview here that she doesn't know how to please an audience is, by the way, belied by the assured deadpan timing of her between-songs patter.)

Peter Case, who's featured on camera the most here, serves a bit as the genial philosopher-in-residence for the project, revisiting the town he grew up near Buffalo and taking at greatest length about his background and what motivates him (he claims, half in earnest, to have tried to run away from home for the first time at the age of three), but the truth is that all of these artists have accumulated stories and wisdom from the road. In the end, you don't do this kind of work if you don't have some idea of what it is you want to say and how to go about saying it.

So there's no elegy here; even the sections which reflect on the loss of the songwriter Dave Carter, who died of a sudden heart attack while touring, are colored more with the fondness and respect his fellows feel for his memory than with raw grief (the passage of time no doubt helped). A few minutes from the end we learn that Peter Case has had to undergo open-heart surgery, but the film ends with him back on the road and in fine fettle, shifting gears once again to record an album with a harder-edged electric sound than he's done in years. It seems you can't keep a good troubadour down.

Troubadour Blues was self-produced by Tom Weber and supported in part by donations through Kickstarter (full disclosure: I kicked in a few bucks). It's being screened in some theaters now but can also be purchased on DVD from the film's website, which also has some clips. Don't miss it.

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