Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote a thick confusing book about the idea of the carnivalesque. For the wily Russian, the carnivalesque are occasions in which rules are turned upside down. During occasions like this, it’s not just the idea of ‘anything goes’, it’s the idea that nothing is available for ridicule – in other words, we’re talking less about Girls Gone Wild and more about Burning Man or Maker’s Faire. This temporary autonomous zone allows ideas to see the light of day, to slowly be accepted into and through the public spirit. A carnivalesque happening, the Russian believed, broke apart the status quo of the mind and cleared the path for the imagination. According to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. At carnival time, the unique sense of time and space causes the individual to feel he is a part of the collectivity, at which point he ceases to be himself. It is at this point that, through costume and mask, an individual exchanges bodies and is renewed. At the same time there arises a heightened awareness of one’s sensual, material, bodily unity and community.”

Of course, a carnival can also be a place to eat some cotton candy, do some people watching, meet new people and old friends, check out the freaks and listen to a one man band.

The Jon Felton and his Soulmobile show on Saturday June 16, 2007 at Seneca PA’s Brother Bean Coffeeshop then, was a little from column A and a little from column B. This was a scaled down Soulmobile, (And I should mention this is not Blessed John Felton the 16th century Catholic Martyr who was racked, hung, drawn and quartered, but still “uttered the holy name of Jesus once or twice when the hangman had his heart in his hand.” less you be confused) playing as a power trio rather than a quintet. And it’s stunning to imagine what they must sound like with the whole band together.


I’ve been listening to the CDs that I picked up at the show, Let’s All Get Together and Not Be Machinery and All Creation Sings and I still can’t put my finger on exactly how to talk about them. There’s so much going on at a JFS show. It’s clear that he’s coming from, as he put it during the show, a “specific faith tradition”, namely Christianity, but its wrong headed to describe or review the show as a type of church service. The voice is so raw the gymnastics switching of instruments so shocking and incredible to see that one truly does feel that the normal laws of show playing and attending have been broken and that anything is possible.

Felton started out the show by breaking through the invisible, but expected audience/performer barrier by walking around and talking to audience members (and continued it later by inviting everyone outside to play Frisbee and bocce between sets.) It served its purpose – it made us nervous, but attentive and put us on notice that this was not going to be a night of sensitive singer/songwriter ness (not that there’s a darn thing wrong with that). Sometimes his patter was fascinating and poetic in itself and sometimes it was off-putting (as in his strange halting question about whether he could talk about his faith without offending anyone. I know that it was a move to show respect for his audience, but we’re there to see you, so if you want to talk about your faith or Darfur or the superiority of fresh lime juice over Rose’s than you can, and should).


JFS has a great raw sound. A great big sound (a big sound that was plagued that night by buzzy vocals, but a big sound nonetheless). It’s a hard sound to quantify. They had the loud-quiet-loud Pixies things going in some songs and Felton showed off his plaintive Violent Femmes yelp to good effect in several songs. The unusual playing and choice of instruments (It’s a scientific fact that the introduction of a cello makes any song 15% more enjoyable. Cowbell use equals a 36% increase in goodness. I’m serious. I’ve done the research. I can show you the raw data.) and the immediacy of the vocals made the lyrics – stories of the craving to become a better human, of middle school bullies, of transportation beyond the mundane material world – all the more striking. But at other times, they had a distinct Eagles sound to them that seemed to come out of nowhere. “Balm for Gilead” had countrified harmonies that seemed to reference a completely different tradition than many other songs.

The real show, though, is watching them play. John played acoustic guitar and took care of lead vocals as well as working a snare on a footpedal and a kick bass drum as well. BJ Lewis was a wonder to watch switching from guitar to a trumpet with an odd mute the likes of which I’ve never seen before, to harmonica, all the while working a tambourine and cowbell on a foot pedal.


I’d love to see an EKG of BJ’s brain as, in a single song he played harmonica, conga drums, tambourine, and cowbell and provided backing vocals. Elizabeth Donaldson played cello, back up vocals, and hand percussion.

Freak folk is sort of the flavor of the month. Like any label, it’s reductive in its application, but in a nut shell, we’re talking about a group of musicians who actually live their music - inhabiting an entire world view and expressing an original voice. The instrumentalism is eclectic -- acoustic guitars, cello, harp, violin, banjo, sitar, fuzztone electric guitar, harmonium, organ and bells and lyrics that suggest a heightened coconsciousness. And, whether or not you agree with the label or any label, JFS fulfills those criteria in an unusual new way.

Ed Droste, of Grizzly Bear, told LA Weekly , "Freak-folk comes with an image attached: You have to have a beard and be Jesusy, if you know what I mean....” After seeing Jon Felton and his Soulmobile, I’m not really sure there’s anything much wrong with that.


Buy Jon Felton and his Soulmobile’s Let's All Get Together and Not Be Machinery

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Dead@17 by Penn State Behrend prof Mark Steensland will debut on June 29th at 7:30 pm in the campus’s Reed Union Building. Admission is free.

Yankee Zydeco Company has been nominated for an Erie Music Award. Vote here.

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