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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Pop Music Review

Heartfelt Homage to Harry Smith Stirs Folk Embers

April 23, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Folk-music champion Harry Smith was enough of a subversive that he'd have been tickled by the tribute to his legacy Saturday, when a roomful of cultural sophisticates in the upscale surroundings of the Getty Center not only sat still for but actively cheered a song tooted out on a corn-liquor jug.

An ad hoc band of stellar folk, rock, blues, jazz and alt-rock players served up a twin-pronged salute to the wellspring of American roots music and to Smith, whose landmark "Anthology of American Folk Music" compilation in 1952 unlocked the door to a new world for musicians and music fans alike.

Fiddler Richard Greene and guitarist-singer Geoff Muldaur guided the 2 1/4-hour concert of songs drawn from Smith's "Anthology."

The ensemble, also including Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Chicago alt-rock duo the Handsome Family, bluesman Robert Lockwood Jr. and keyboardist extraordinaire Garth Hudson, reveled in colorfully idiosyncratic music created by people unfettered by songwriting conventions.

Organized by musical provocateur Hal Willner, the concert reached far beyond the dutiful resurrection of folk-music past. It was a striking manifestation of Smith's Herculean effort 50 years ago to reveal the common threads in songs previously segregated by style (hillbilly, gospel, blues, Cajun) or the performers' race.

Despite their age, the songs--played with such loving spirit--have lost none of their power to stir the deepest emotions. The program also reiterated the value of a shared musical vocabulary, an idea often lost in the commercial pop world's obsession with anything new and different. A more high-profile cast, including Elvis Costello and Beck, will explore Smith's legacy of sound Wednesday and Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall.

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