BESH O DROM
The sound of Balkan-based dance music has evolved into its own popular genre in recent years, with DJs like Dunkelbunt and Shantel remixing the traditional music of Central and Eastern Europe. While technically not a Balkan group, Hungary’s Besh o droM are very much a part of this raucous movement (Hungarians are Magyars, a tribe distinct from the people of the Slavic nations which surround them). While Besh o droM appeared on albums by both of the aforementioned DJs, they’ve released four albums of their own on which they incorporate both traditional instrumentation and modern touches such as turntables, mixing the sounds of Hungary, Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, as well Gypsy and Jewish influences.
Their music is beyond classification, and their foot-stomping style is impossible to sit still to.
Like Timber Timbre, who performed at the Folk Fest in 2010, Cold Specks doesn’t fit the sunny atmosphere of the Canadian summer festival circuit. Pundits unanimously called their Polaris-nominated debut LP, I Predict a Graceful Explusion, a thing of beauty. They were dead wrong; it’s a grief-laden, blackened, minimalist soul album, more of a suicide note than a love letter. Driven by the paint-peeling, gritty pipes of mysterious singer Al Spx — a figure perhaps more enigmatic than Taylor Kirk — Cold Specks paint in the same colours as Bruce Peninsula: This is northernly Southern gothic. Or soul for the soulless. Or ghost-hunting music for the Godless. Or.... Well, you get the point. Must-see stuff for those who love having their days ruined.
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
It’s arguable that, five albums in, Justin Townes Earle isn’t getting any better. Paradoxically, though, he’s become a much more interesting artist: In his five-year career he’s cultivated a fearless, experimental penchant that isn’t only forgivable, it’s admirable. The punkified honky-tonk of The Good Life and the finger-picked urbane country of Midnight at the Movies were Earle’s true memorables; but his following two LPs, 2010’s Harlem River Blues and 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, had Earle trying (and sometimes failing) to recreate American soul and honest-to-Sinatra crooners. Were they great albums? No. Were they an ambitious survey of American music history? Hell yes. And three more reasons to love him: Earle’s sweatshirts had GQ naming him one of the world’s best-dressed dudes, he unabashedly rocks Marxist tattoos and, most importantly, he sounds nothing like Steve Earle or Townes Van Zandt.
Celebrating her fourth decade as a disco diva, soul-singer and Broadway baby, vocal powerhouse Bettye LaVette burst into the public consciousness with the release of her 2005 ANTI- records debut. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise is a shining testament to LaVette’s amazing versatility as a singer as well as her tenacity as a female recording artist. Squeezing her big-time gospel revivals into some pretty tight places, LaVette is known for her fearless redressing of hits by everyone from the Moody Blues and Dolly Parton to Sinead O’Connor and Lucinda Williams. Giving burgeoning musicians like Cold Specks and Adele a run for their money, this sparkling songstress possesses the oomph of Aretha Franklin, the smooth charm of Gladys Knight, and a bit of magic that’s all her own.
Sure, the at-once mysterious and charming work of Neutral Milk Hotel has gone from the best kept secret of late-’90s college geeks to fictional character April Ludgate’s favourite artist on Parks and Recreation, but the work of Jeff Mangum is far too sprawling to stay in the shadows anyway. He’s been imitated mercilessly since disappearing the first time around, but there’s no replacing that iconic croon. That, and the fact that most of us probably didn’t get to see Mangum the first time around makes his Folk Fest appearance a must-see for diehard fans and curious newcomers alike.
Randy Newman appears to be undergoing a generational re-evaluation of sorts, at least in some of the wordier quarters of the web, with sites like Pitchfork and The Awl devoting considerable verbiage to the infamously sardonic songwriter’s back-catalog in the past year.
It’s about time — for a long while now Newman’s been best known for racking up Academy Award nominations (and never winning) for his Pixar/Disney soundtrack work; before that, he was synonymous with his highest chart-topper, “Short People.”
All of which has likely done wonders for his bank account, but has distracted attention from the incredible depth and breadth of his discography. If you’re a newbie to his work, do yourself a favour and immerse yourself with the lonely L.A. troubadour of 71’s Randy Newman Live, the beautiful Americana of 72’s Sail Away, or with his cutting takedown of the music industry on 79’s Born Again. And regardless of which tracks he chooses for his folk fest appearance, prepare to be enraptured by one the world’s singular songwriting talents.
A lot of Canadian rap is terrible, and I can’t unironically recommend any Christian hip-hop either (DC Talk is good for shits ’n’ gigs). Sweeping generalizations be damned, however, in the case of Kenya-born, Vancouver-based rapper Shad, whose Canadian politeness and intelligent approach to spirituality make him one of the most fascinating emcees out there. Add that to the fact that he’s got an ear for dusty soul beats and a wicked sense of humour, and there’s no denying the endless appeal of Shad. Sure, not many rappers can comfortably play folk fest, but Shad’s the kind of top-tier performer who’d be just as comfortable hitting the stage at Rock the Bells.
You don’t often come across examples of the words fun and soulful being used in the same sentence, but in the case of Mozambique’s Wazimbo the two terms together are perfect for describing his heartbreakingly beautiful style. Commanding the attention of audiences from Portugal to Sweden with his electrifying personality and inviting tones, the grassroots soloist embodies the spirit of marrabenta — the traditional dance music of his country. In 2001, his ode to a wayward young lady, “Nwahulwana” (“Night Bird”), was featured in a Microsoft commercial as well as on the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s movie The Pledge. It’s about time, considering that this tireless purveyor of catchy melodies has accrued five impressive decades of performing and recording some of the best African pop music on the planet.