Trio of folk singers delight in Somerville

A review of Jonathan Byrd, Greg Klyma, and Anthony da Costa at the Unity Church on September 11, 2009

, Staff

It’s very likely that you haven’t heard of Jonathan Byrd, Greg Klyma, or Anthony daCosta before. None of the three is a household name, although all three have been keeping chiropractors busy across the country, with the way their songs have been turning heads. They work on a small scale, moving from town to town, from gig to gig, and you have to be paying attention to hear them. They don’t play in places like the Orpheum and the Wang, and it’s hard enough to catch them at places like Passim. They frequent the house concerts and the coffee shops and the shows thrown together in churches and anywhere else a promoter can find a space. You don’t see full page ads for their concerts in the newspaper, though you’ll probably see a photocopied poster in your local cafe. Look out for that poster, though. This is where it’s happening. This is where the songs surprise you, and sometimes they surprise the singers.

Byrd, Klyma, and daCosta played a concert at the Unity Church of Somerville on Friday night. The show was put on by Notlob Concerts, a scrappy new outfit promoting folk music in the Boston area. Notlob is pretty much entirely a volunteer-driven operation, and it showed in the cheerful chaos with which events unfolded. After a certain amount of dashing around, however, the three songwriters arrayed themselves on the stage, and commenced to play. The performance was “in the round”, an arrangement whereby the performers remain on stage and take turns leading songs all night. This format played to the collaborative strengths of all three writers, as they took up guitars and mandolins to support each others’ songs throughout the night.

Anthony daCosta led off the night. This young writer has been getting attention recently, mostly since winning awards at the Kerrville and Falcon Ridge folk festivals, and there’s something promising in his writing. He has a lot of good starts, but I didn’t hear anything that struck me as more than a promise. It must be said, however, that he was treated quite poorly by the soundman. DaCosta favors the mumble-to-a-roar dynamic pioneered in the Pacific Northwest twenty years ago, and while he has a wide dynamic range to work with, the mixing board did not, and on most songs it transformed the second half of each verse into an incomprehensible mush as he built up to the “roar” part. This is partly a problem of the sound system, but also a sign of over-reliance on a tired radio gimmick. Even if the soundman can handle the dynamics, the sensation of being shouted at all night is a little difficult to put up with, especially in a church. Da Costa’s enthusiasm, however, was infectuous. He was clearly alive to each moment on the stage, and the first one to leap in to accompany the other writers or sing a harmony part. His skills as an accompanist are first-class, and he clearly understands good songwriting.&

Jonathan Byrd was next up. I first heard Byrd’s music several years ago, when his first records came across my desk, and I liked them. There were a few songs I wasn’t wild about, and a few I was, but what grabbed me was not so much what he was hitting, but what he was shooting for. This was a guy writing songs that seemed to fall neatly into the American song tradition, and once you dropped them in there, it could be hard to tell which ones were the new ones and which were the ones that had been around forever. This was the sort of stuff that comes from someone who had taken the music in so deeply that it had become his native tongue, where so many folk singers seem to write only in translation. It didn’t hurt that you could hear a little of the young Tony Rice in his playing and his singing, but mostly it was the voice that he wrote in that got me. Before too long I heard his third record, recorded with the Atlanta-based duo Dromedary as a backing band, and I liked that one as well: a collection of loosely-linked story-songs, all tied to the sea, but without any pretense of “nautical balladry” or sea chanty. Instead, Byrd, along with his collaborators, found a musical frame that held these songs without constraining them. Since then, he’s continued to pursue new musical and lyrical ideas, collaborating with a number of other writers, but without losing his grasp on the sound that he defined for himself on the first few records. Moving from the American southeast to the Southwest, with the help of Canadian songwriter Corin Raymond, Byrd played two songs in a mode reminiscent of Texas songwriter Townes van Zandt. The title track to his recent album The Law and the Lonesome was an ambiguous and ominous tale of loss and betrayal in the form of a road song, and “May the River Run Dry”, from the same album, transplanted some elements of the great pseudo-traditional ballad “Crazy Man Michael” to the outlaw world of B. Traven and Cormac McCarthy. Both are fine examples of modern storytelling in song. On a lighter note was Byrd’s take on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, a wildly allusive flood of words called “This is the New That”. Beautifully resistant to summary, this one has to be heard to be believed, and even then I don’t quite believe it.

Batting cleanup was Greg Klyma. Klyma’s songs were new to me, but I can’t imagine why I’ve missed him all this time. He’s been rolling around the country for more than a decade now, making songs and playing them in churches and coffeeshops and living rooms, and he’s got a knack for putting words together. He played a range of songs, some serious and some playful, but his best efforts are those which lace a serious notion with his ready wit. Two in particular struck me, both dealing with where Klyma is from. “Two Degrees in Buffalo” is in spirit a little like Richard Thompson’s “Valerie”: an excuse to stretch the title phrase in every direction possible, and for this it is commendable, but there’s more. This song is also a work of civic pride in the spirit of Neko Case’s “Thrice All American”, standing up for a city that gets picked on when it gets noticed at all. Rarer still is “Garbage Man”, Klyma’s upright take on class. In a scene as thoroughly populated by white kids with liberal arts degrees, it’s pretty rare to hear anyone singing about the working class with anything other than sympathy and distance. “Garbage Man” isn’t about the plight of the downtrodden working man, it’s about Greg’s dad and what he did, and how proud Greg is of who he is and where he comes from. About two minutes long and full of an almost punk-rock energy, this song is what folk music doesn’t do nearly enough of.

This capsule summary doesn’t capture most of what went on in the Unity Church on Friday night. The collaborative energy of songwriters accompanying each other, feeding off each other’s songs, supporting each other, and an audience responsing to this energy, those all belong to that night, and to every night like this. It happened once, there, and something like that will happen again, somewhere else. If you’ve been to this sort of show, you know what it’s like, and if you haven’t, you should give it a try. With these three writers, you’re in luck: all three are constantly on the road, so if you keep your eyes open you’ll see a poster with some of these names on it, and they’ll be playing in a church near you, or a coffee shop, or in someone’s living room. Check it out. The only thing you know for sure is that you’ll be surprised by something you hear, and so will the musicians.

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