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The Sidebar Gets a Little Appalachian

January 29, 2009
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Baltimore String Felons | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

Wednesday was the kind of frigid January night that makes it hard to picture anybody voluntarily going out. So it was a little surprising to walk into the Sidebar and find a decent sized audience whooping appreciatively for local band Spoke Ensemble‘s eccentric folk music. The quartet featured a male and female vocalist harmonizing and a spare music backdrop of drums and acoustic guitar, along with, depending on the song, either accordion or fiddle. Perhaps it was just that the sound man had the guitar and vocals mixed way high, but there was something just a little off, a little odd, about Spoke Ensemble’s threadbare sound. It worked for them, though, particularly when combined with the male singer/guitarist’s jumpy sense of rhythm and droll stage banter.

When local singer-songwriter Matt Pless appeared onstage with a harmonica, acoustic guitar, and mess of brown curls on his head, it was hard not to notice that he cut a profile reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan. So it was a little disappointing when Pless opened his mouth and out came a voice that sounded a bit like it belonged to a whiny emo frontman. But over the course of his set, Pless’ songs revealed an impressive lyrical depth, and it became easier and easier to settle in and enjoy his vocal delivery. His brother, Zac Pless, accompanied him on drums for most songs, and the light touch of percussion was a welcome change of pace from the less propulsive solo performances.

The Baltimore String Felons (also known as the Felon Family) were very much in keeping with the weirdo folk music theme of the rest of the bill, and were perhaps the best band of the bunch. The acoustic quintet’s three string players switched between different combinations of guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass guitar, and violin–excuse me, fiddle. Meanwhile, one percussionist shook a tambourine and occasionally banged on a bass drum, and another played the spoons. As audience members stomped and danced, the String Felons alternated traditional songs with originals such as the rousing “Mighty Metal Mare.”

When seeing young folk musicians these days–particularly ones playing in a punk club like the Sidebar–it can be hard to pin down how much they’re part of the oral tradition of folk music and how much they’re merely play acting at being part of another culture, another era. But folk has been through so many trends, so many identity crises, that it’s possible that questions of authenticity simply no longer apply anymore. Just the fact that bands such as the Baltimore String Felons and Spoke Ensemble are willing to play this music in 2009 and put their own twist on it, and fans are willing to come see them, is enough to make them worthy carriers of the torch.

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