A Marshal Stack should not be the first amp used by a musician. A better choice is no amp. Anyone can hide behind the extra noise that comes from simply plugging in an instrument. One could even argue electric playing might have more to do with muting the total sounds into what is intended, than creating music. To play a song with the courage and conviction to have nothing in between you and the audience but the sound from your mouth and an acoustic instrument is truly admirable.
Ive never been a big folk fan. My tendency is to instantly compare folkies to A Mighty Wind characters. Yet, this past week, Chicago was visited by two exceptional performers who used the folk template as a launching pad toward conveying thoughts that leave a welcome scar on the mind. Both singers also fit a comment David Byrne made in his self-interview for the Stop Making Sense special edition, The better the voice of the singer is, the less you trust them.
Dan Bern had the crowd at Martyrs hanging on every syllable, as he sang in an autobiographical fashion about life challenges and love. His voice has a high pierce to it that doesnt repel, rather it calls attention to delicate and honest word combinations. While he sings, he closes his eyes and rolls his head around the space where the mic catches his voice. It wouldnt be surprising to find that he turns off people because of his voice and how he uses it. But in those pop imperfections is a fearless artist with many life messages to offer. Berns counterparts are a violin player who often ran the bow along a six string electric instrument he calls the Cellocaster, and a guitarist switching from bass to blues slide picking. The added colors branch Berns music subtly away from folk norms. He was well aware of the audience, taking a few moments in between songs, and sometimes during, to crack jokes and laugh with the crowd. His songs and presence lack arrogance, and the pain he conveys about a world that could easily be a better place is real.
Ani DiFranco is pregnant enough to show. At her Chicago Theater show, it didnt stop her from bounding around the stage and furiously firing her voice at the crowd. Her shrill warble evoked a fierce passion and an honest view of the many joys and unnecessary pains in this existence. She worked hard to be at the level shes at, and had to, given her choice of style. Its acoustic, but hard and grating at times. She doesnt just sing. DiFranco forces you to pay attention to her words. But when you get there, the messages are simple, even logical. Like Jesus, she basically says, be good. With percussion and an upright bass, she has stretched into a new realm of composition, adding beautiful layers to her stories. Twice during the show, she stood truly naked in front of at least three thousand people to recite poems. At the height of artistry, she also joked about a Pilates instructor telling her shes bowlegged.
The warm accessibility, amidst brutal honesty makes these performers outstanding. Dylan has a drastically inferior voice to these two, but the same idea: use folk as a springboard, and then drop your point with a sledgehammer. It takes far greater nerve to bear yourself in front of people with nothing but natural sounds passing through than to trip out to your own electric cacophony. It might be easier to hide pointlessness in noise, but bullshit always tends to lurk its way out of hiding. No matter what music is played, it also helps to have a point.