(HUDSON, N.Y., June 29, 2014) – It’s not every day you hear a trio comprised of accordion, synthesizer, and lap-steel guitar. In fact, it may be never, if you never see Dust Bowl Faeries. Which would be sad for you, because based on the chamber-folk trio’s performance at Club Helsinki Hudson on Saturday night, it’s a singular experience that leaves you moved, bedazzled, and wonderful, in the literal sense – full of wonder, almost like a child, about just what it is you are seeing and hearing.
What you are seeing and hearing is the logic-defying art of lead singer-songwriter and visionary C. Ryder Cooley, who in addition to playing accordion, with occiasional turns on ukulele and musical saw, is a noble and ennobling presence onstage, mated as she is with Hazel, a disembodied taxidermy ram. Together, they are sort of like a pushmi-pullyu, if you remember your Dr. Doolittle, although they seem to have worked out for the most part where they both want to go.
Cooley’s partners-in-crime are Sara Ayers, herself a visionary electronic artist and keyboardist, and lap-steel guitarist Karen Cole. All three sing, and at times their winsome harmonies recall those of the Roches (at other times, they recall anything but the Roches). Another defining aspect of the trio is that pretty much none of them play their instruments the way you normally expect. That is to say, if you’re like me, the thought of listening to a set of music on accordion, lap-steel, and, especially, ukulele and musical saw (synthesizer I have no problem with), is not an enticing proposition. Somehow, however, the combination of the blend these three instrumentlaists come up with, as well as their unique musical voices, easily makes any predisposition against what you are hearing magically disappear.
Because what you wind up hearing, the way they play and sing, is music of such haunting beauty, even as it is slightly unnerving and unsettling (just the sight of Hazel staring at you, as she does for most of the concert, has been known to make the weak of heart a little nervous), that you forget yourself and enter into this fantastical realm – Ryder’s realm, presumably – where seemingly age-old folk dirges rub up against Central European-like cabaret melodies, peppered and accented with electronic skronks and up-to-the-minute beats served up by Ayers and eerie, very non-guitar-like tones coming out of Cole’s guitar.
Although any sort of stage setting was modest, and the costuming was, indeed, somewhat faerieish, one can’t underestimate the effect the visual and performance aspect the musicians bring to their show. It’s quite subtle, but Cooley and company create a mood as much with their personas as with their music, so by the end, on some level, you realize you just were privy as much to an art installation – call it performance art if you must – as a concert.
And as for that end, it was pitch-perfect with a radically reworked but totally on-the-mark and suitable rendition of the Velvet Underground classic, “Venus in Furs.” Any darkly haunting moody art-rock is going at some point to have to take the measure of the Velvet Underground, which veritably created the genre. That Dust Bowl Faeries, who are based in Hudson and the Capital Region and can be seen every few months or so somewhere in the general vicinity – did so and wholly, boldly made it their own is simply more to their credit.
Setting the stage for Dust Bowl Faeries were Two Cats in Suits, a stripped down, acoustic duo version of one of the region’s premier punk groups, the Last Conspirators. With Tim Livingston on vocals and Nick Bisanz on acoustic guitar, the two mostly played renditions of the band songs in what used to be called “unplugged” versions. Try as he might, the indefatigable Tim Livingston worked up a head of steam anyway, smartly abiding by that show-business secret that says always perform as if you’re playing in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden. And Livingston did, a constant dynamo of motion and expression, simply egged on by Bisanz’s rhythmic strumming.
You must see Livingston and company in full force sometime to feel the impact that their politically charged rock n’ roll can have. But in the meantime, Livingston and Bisanz did a great job of taking the audience through unplugged punk, Graham Parker-style soul-rock, and even a snippet of glam-era David Bowie.
The evening’s festivities at Helsinki were actually headlined by Albany-based chamber-pop group Swamp Baby, but by time Dust Bowl Faeries were done I had enjoyed my fill for the night and walked home bewitched, bothered and bewildered by their mystical trance-folk.