LIVE: The Down Hill Strugglers @ Caffe Lena, 9/11/15
Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Joe Deuel
From Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco to Sawyer Fredericks, Caffe Lena has acted as launching pad for singer-songwriters for more than a half century now. But another part of the Caffe’s mission is keeping alive the traditional folk music of the past and presenting it to contemporary audiences.
Earlier this month, Brooklyn-based trio the Down Hill Strugglers played two 35-minute sets at the coffeehouse, and there was nary an original, self-penned tune in the bunch. Instead, they served up a high-spirited evening of genuine old-timey music – fiddle tunes, rags, reels, spirituals, breakdowns with a ballad or two tossed in for good measure along the way. And along the way, they proved that old-timey music is timeless.
The band – featuring Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle and Walker Shepard on guitar – draws obvious inspiration from Harry Smith’s classic “Anthology of American Folk Music” (the touchstone of the ’60s folk revival), the Holy Modal Rounders and especially the New Lost City Ramblers. In fact, the Ramblers’ John Cohen is one of their primary mentors. But the Down Hill Strugglers brought their own contemporary verve to such warhorses as the lively “Sally Ann” and “Turkey in the Straw,” which closed out their first set in fine twin-fiddle fashion.
Instrumental gems like “Pikes Peak Breakdown,” “Cady Hill” and the square dance favorite “Rabbit, Where’s Your Mammy” nestled alongside rousing admonitions against the evils of gambling (“The Roving Gambler”) and alcohol (“Goodbye Booze”). Lynch’s robust, booming voice took the lead on most of the vocal songs, although Smith stepped up to the microphone with a voice that seemed to leap directly off of an old 78 RPM record for the timeless blues “Saint James Infirmary” and the mournful ballad “Willie Moore.”
The best of the night was “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep,” an unholy melding of ragtime and spiritual music that walked the tightrope between Saturday night carousing and Sunday morning confession.
Opening the show was the Wyoming-based banjo and cello duo, the Littlest Birds. They opened their half-hour set with a surprisingly subtle interpretation of “Old Man at the Mill,” and by the time they launched into the closing medley of “Black Elk Speaks” and a vibrant re-invention of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” cellist David Huebner and banjoist Sharon Martinson had captured the hearts of the audience members.
THE DOWN HILL STRUGGLERS SET LIST
The Texas Quickstep > Rock the Cradle, Lucy
Saint James Infirmary
Pikes Peak Breakdown
Turkey in the Straw
Oh Mary Don’t You Weep
The Roving Gambler
Rabbit, Where’s Your Mammy?
Come On to See Me Somtime
Goodbye, Honey, I’m Gone
THE LITTLEST BIRDS SET LIST
Old Man at the Mill
Elk River Blues
Black Elk Speaks > This Land Is Your Land