It's hard not to be overwhelmed by what songwriters Leiber & Stoller captured in an obscure 1975 Peggy Lee song as "Longings for a Simpler Time." Of course, the punch line to that lyric is that "we're longing for a simpler time... that never was."
Every generation harvests its own crop of sour grapes over declining quality of life, even as technology and culture march forward. Read Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs by Peter Blecha (Backbeat Books) and you can draw a through line, as moral watchdogs attack ragtime, then jazz, then rock 'n' roll, and so forth, as the 20th century unfolds, then ushers in whatever fresh hell awaits us in the 21st.
But this Friday evening, September 10, respite awaits weary souls who visit the Tractor. Not one but two of the finest old time West Coast string bands--San Francisco quintet the Crooked Jades and Portland's Foghorn Stringband--are on this stellar bill, the former in celebration of their 10th anniversary, and the latter to unveil their new album, the invigorating Reap What You Sow.
Clocking in at 44 minutes, Reap bursts with lightning-fast square-dance-friendly throwdowns capable of triggering a Faith Hill-style Fourth of July malfunction à la the Stepford Wives remake. On "Danville Girl" and "Best Timber," mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and string bass licks dart about one another like former fighting cocks, rescued and retrained by animal rights activists to perform intricate, nonviolent choreography. And hard is the heart that feels no tug of sorrow upon hearing the quintet's rendition of the timeworn "Charlie and Nellie," one of the saddest breakup tunes in history.
Co-produced by Richard Buckner, the Crooked Jades' latest collection, The Unfortunate Rake Vol. 2--which features guest appearances from two Foghorn members --embraces a wider variety of styles, tempos, and instruments (including the always uplifting drone of the harmonium on "Yerba Buena Lament"). If you think the aforementioned poor Nellie gets a raw deal from Charlie, wait till you hear slide guitar/banjo/baritone ukulele player Lisa Berman spin her sorrowful version of "False Hearted Lover Blues." But lighter moments abound, too, such as the spirited "Indian Ate a Woodchuck."
Foghorn Stringband's website describes them peddling "Ass Kickin' Redneck Stringband Music," while the Jades feature a piano--which is a percussion instrument, and therefore a tool of Satan--on "Yellow Mercury No. 2." Nevertheless, if modern woes have tried your spirits of late, this show may offer just the tonic for what ails you. (Please bring new hygiene items for YouthCare to the Tractor Sept. 8-11.)