In what may be turning into a tradition, I wandered down to New Haven last evening for the first Folk Friday concert of 2015, featuring Kristen Graves and Lara Herscovitch. I really did not have any expectations - I knew both artists were CT State Troubadours (Lara in 2009-10, Kristen at present) and I'm sure I've run across Lara here and there (most recently, in a spoken word piece at The MOuTH at the Mark Twain House), but I did not really know what to expect.
Instead of the traditional, "two artists, one opens, one closes, and they do a few songs together", or the less common but still engaging "multiple artists in the round" format, Lara and Kristen have been actively practicing, and working together. Their preparation, reportedly handing each other their respective catalogs and inviting the other to "pick some songs we can do together", seemed a recipe for creativity and the unexpected. Lara confessed "that's a song I never do" (one that Kristen chose) and I imagine the whole of their performance was quite different than the sum of their individual performances.
It must be said - these two are an unusual pairing. Lara is a cat person, and Kristen a dog person (for one), but I have a hard time coming up with two musicians who are seemingly more different. Kristen has the warm and fuzzy feeling of that first grade teacher who got down on the carpet and sang Pete Seeger songs; her crunchy hippie roots are not far from the surface. Lara is sharp as a tack (and wickedly funny) in a New York City kind of way, and seems like she could be lobbying the state legislature instead of playing folk music. Although she's not really that similar musically, I kept thinking of Lucy Kaplansky as I watched her sing and perform - polished, confidant, talented.
But both musicians are a lot deeper and more complex than my initial impressions. Lara brought an African chant / round she learned while visiting the continent, as well as a totally goofy C-O-N-N-E-C-T-I-C-U-T chant to the party (following Kristen's more staid "troubadour" song entry). Kristen dropped a few names (Yarrow, Seeger) without sounding pretentious, has a more wry but totally subversive sense of humor, borrowed a Uke for one song (seemingly on a whim), and wandered off stage for a bit to listen to one of her songs on Youtube because she forgot the chords. There was a "what the heck will they do next?" feel to the evening that was totally engaging and fun.
Together, they were pretty wonderful. As they worked through their songs together, each stepped back to let the other shine, and their harmonies were a lot more lush and polished than one might expect from a "two solo artists sharing the stage" performance. I went in with a "I'll probably buy one CD, let's see who impresses me...." attitude, and walked out with one from each of them (Lara's 2009 "Through a Frozen Midnight Sky" and Kristen's 2014 "Now Ain't the Time for Tears"). I was not familiar enough with their music to note particular performances, but I'm pretty sure I'll be a lot more familiar the next time I hear them (and there WILL be a next time, pretty sure)
Lara has earned a little extra attention. She related a story about an encounter with a Boston blogger / DJ who refused to promote her show because she was not "folk enough" (told as a prelude to a song entitled "Folk You" or some such). And I kind of get that - there's a certain segment of the folk world that insists on sing-alongs, traditional tunes, and a willingness to pull up a log at a campfire on the drop of a hat. Lara seems like she might not want to be too far from a blow-dryer or curling iron for the folk fest camping experience to really resonate. And when she played the John Jenning's tweaked "Mississippi Lullaby" (from her more recent "Four Wise Monkeys") I could hear that Mary Chapin Carpenter drive and arrangement, and could almost hear her shining with a bass, drummer, and lead guitarist with a telecaster or a dobro.
All that being said, Lara and Kristen ended with "This Little Light of Mine", aided by Robert Messore (cajon) and Mark Zaretsky (harp) and you do not get more folk than that.
I'll be keeping an eye out for them, together and as solo performers. Neither has hit the Emerging Artist stage at Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, and both of them would be welcome additions, in my opinion.
CT State Troubadours indeed. Wonderful local music!