Folk Duo Shines In Understated 9th Ward Debut

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Intimacy at a musical event can be a funny and altogether fickle creature. Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing 50-60 shows in areas that are the closest place to home all the way into the deeper heart of New York City, and performances have ranged from the tiniest clubs to outdoor stages and everything in between. The funny part about it is once I’ve had the debate over which setting is better (hole in the wall kinda runs away with that race) I then start to wonder, is there such a thing as too much intimacy?

That question raised it’s hand to me once again this past weekend going to see well-traveled country-folk couple Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion play Buffalo NY’s The 9th Ward. The twosome (who are in their 14th year of music together) were making their debut at Asbury Hall’s underground club, and as a first-timer myself I admittedly came away impressed. While it is a smaller venue that will unmistakably be limited to the “underground” or lesser known acts that come to town, the Ward clearly benefits from being little more than half a decade old. Surfaces are kept up, the bar is tended neatly, and while comparable venues with more of a history of character are always appreciated, it’s nice to see a spot with the same intended visual appeal that Asbury Hall has up above. On a simpler scale, of course.

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But after my excessive ogling of the scenery it was time for the show, to which only a few dozen people had shown up to see. A few dozen might even be too kind of an estimation, which is special as an attendee but disheartening to witness from the perspective of wanting to see such obvious musical talent getting justified recognition. I’d had the same wincingly unfortunate realization when I saw James Taylor’s son Ben play The Haunt in Ithaca last year to a crowd of 10 or 20, and sadly that question of intimacy debate arose all over again last Saturday at The 9th Ward. Promotion is not exactly a manner of rocket science, and more effort would have been welcomed in order to ensure that musical acts of this caliber continue to make stops in Western NY.

Because you see, for anyone who still enjoys the stirring lilt of classic harmony-drenched folk, the history of singers gone and those who grace us still, and the stripped down sweetness of two musicians working within six strings of a rhythm all their own…. well, you really did end up missing out. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are much like two sides of a complementary coin to each other; while Irion might play lead fiddle to Guthrie one moment the next would seamlessly transition to Guthrie adding backing vocals or percussion to Irion occasionally going “off-script”. Improv aside though, their set wound through children’s songs they’d written (“Go Wagaloo”), tracks from 2013’s superb “Wassaic Way” (“Chairman Meow”, “Lowest Ebb”, “Hurricane Window”), covers (“And I Love Her”, “Runaway”), and everything in between (the nod to Sarah Lee’s grandfather Woody with the murder ballad “Tom Joad” felt especially appropriate). But truly the best moments were when the two would be in tandem, whether it was harmonizing, storytelling, or layering guitar against guitar.

The duo closed their set with a quaint off-PA version of “When The Lilacs Are In Bloom” that took them directly into the crowd, and if anything could make that small gathering of people feel appropriate, this moment was it. Because despite how disappointing it was to see Sarah Lee & Johnny treated to such a minimal gathering, there was such power in that too. Like a group of friends swapping songs and stories around the campfire, this was sharing and imparting the power of music at it’s simplest roots. And that, is truly when intimacy shines the brightest.

Admiring The Scenery….

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In all my years spent living in Western New York, I find myself traveling often (especially in my pursuit of the local music scene). Buffalo, Rochester, Geneva, Lewiston, even as far off as Cooperstown. But one place continuously manages to stick out above the rest, and that is Ithaca. It’s a place whose venues have not only managed to play host to some of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, but also contains some of the best storefronts that have music…. nearly ready to come springing out the door at you when you walk in.

Take Angry Mom Records for instance, which despite the presence of Rochester’s famous House of Guitars and underrated Record Archive remains one of the top record shops in all the area. Located within the basement of a used bookstore on Ithaca’s Commons and run by a couple of old punk rock enthusiasts, there’s a distinct sense of character and what may be a (slightly below sane) sense of humor oozing out from between the stacks of CD’s and LP’s. It creates a familiarity and a connection within the place, and as a lover of vinyl and record stores of all shapes and sizes that’s what I most often find myself gravitating towards. That environment where you can take time out of mind, and just exist within the simple joy of flipping through 33’s, 45’s, and everything in between.

It’s often all about those simplest of joys when it comes to our ties with music, and for me that inevitably always boils down to the experience of concerts. Seeing music played out live and in person surpasses the magic that even masterpiece-level albums can reach, and when it comes to Ithaca there are venues that embody everything from marquee-lit splendor to hole-in-the-wall hideaways. There’s the historical State Theatre, whose vaudevillian-era mainstage has had everyone from fresh faces like The National to grizzled veterans such as BB King, right down to The Haunt which has been an avenue for under the radar talents like folk duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and punk rock icon Bob Mould. There’s even the very hushed little Hangar Theatre, which has been a backdrop for more gigs courtesy of varying acts like Richard Thompson, Cowboy Junkies, and Leon Russell.

Thanks to a very vibrant little college town (and the persistence of some very skilled individuals making it happen), my hope for the local music scene is always alive and well whenever I’m visiting Ithaca. It may not have the name recognition of nearby Buffalo, and it will never be the size of a hub in NYC, but it’s a place with a superb backdrop of culture that isn’t frequently found in Western New York. But like a good song or that record you never knew existed, sometimes it just takes a little discovery.

 

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