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Refreshingly Broad Folk Tunes, in Four Acts

The local artists are an eclectic blend miles from the narrow confines of the 'folk' that many listeners shun.

February 17, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Steve Dulson, the organizer of the Anaheim-based Living Tradition Folk Music Series, remarks how one four-letter word makes some people cringe, he's talking about "folk."

"A lot of people are scared of the word because of its link to protest songs, and singers like Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Kingston Trio," he says. "To fight that image, sometimes I think it'd be better to call our series 'The Acoustic Music Series,' like the one held at the Pasadena Neighborhood Church."

That unreasonable fear of folk will be allayed during Saturday's Local Spotlight, an eclectic four-act concert featuring veteran singer-songwriter Dennis Roger Reed, traditional string band When Pigs Fly, guerrilla-style folkie Patrick Hanifin and pop-country-folk singer Jenny Richards.

Although each act has roots in traditional folk music--and with rare exception sticks to acoustic instruments--none is a slave to it.

Reed, who also fronts the blues- and roots-based quartet Blue Mama, is one of Orange County's unheralded treasures. In his latest release, 1999's "Little King of Dreams" (Plastic Meltdown Records), he dissects romantic entanglements and laments the loss of simpler times.

The splendid 15-song collection, featuring a stellar supporting cast of local players, is rich in American music, roaming freely among country, folk, bluegrass, swing, rock and the blues. (Reed will be backed Saturday by pianist Tim Horrigan, banjo player Kevin Gore and his brother Don Reed on guitar and mandolin.)

Richards, who lives in Modjeska Canyon, is a longtime fixture on the area folk scene. The daughter of Rusty Richards, a vocalist in the legendary western group Sons of the Pioneers, the big-voiced singer-songwriter-guitarist mixes originals and covers, ranging from classic rock 'n' roll to pop-country to traditional and contemporary folk.

Newport Beach-bred Patrick Hanifin blends music, social commentary and hard-edged humor into his self-described "Stand-Up Folk" routine. With cursory guitar accompaniment, he churns out "songs" that are long, rambling monologues that primarily lash out at people--phone solicitors, creditors, door-to-door evangelists--who've gotten under his skin. His confrontational style, Dulson says, is "probably too strange for a full opening slot, so letting my audience get 15 minutes of him should be about right."

Drawing material ranging from the 1600s to the present, When Pigs Fly is the most tradition-steeped act on the bill. Featuring three hammered-dulcimer players alone, the 3-year-old Downey septet draws from a deep well of American and Celtic tunes. The freewheeling instrumental attack features the soft collision of the dumbek, bodhran, recorder, concertina, banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin and just about anything else with strings. The group is also a lot of fun, with a silly pig joke or two thrown in for good measure.

Is this diverse showcase pushing the boundaries of folk music, or is it simply part of its natural evolution?

"The definition of folk has changed so much over the years," Richards said. "There were all the standards from the British Isles, then came Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan--and then Dylan went electric. Now, someone like Ani DiFranco is considered an [alternative] folk artist. So it certainly has expanded and gotten more complex."

Dulson adds: "I think if you're using acoustic instruments and telling some kind of meaningful story, then you're basically playing folk music. Because it's become more broadly defined, I think that has opened up what were closed ears."

While such Orange County ska, punk and modern rock bands as No Doubt, the Offspring and Sugar Ray have been catapulted into stardom, equally talented folk-based acts have languished in relative obscurity here. Is folk music's appeal too limited?

"It's weird. . . . I've played at corporate events for Best Buy and Apple Computers simply because they've been lucrative," says Reed, who is also the manager of parks and recreation for the city of San Clemente. "[Singer-songwriter] Will Brady has a following here, but he's more the exception than the rule. I think there are only so many niches for local artists to play original material.

"There's also the psychology of it . . . like if you're local, people wonder if you're really that good. That thinking tends to work against you as well."

Dulson, who plays the Appalachian dulcimer and guitar in the Celtic-folk group Tinker's Own, says it all depends on your perspective. "If you're looking to get signed by a major label, sure, it's not gonna happen here," he says. "But if you're interested in self-releasing a CD and playing bookstores and coffeehouses, there are definitely opportunities if you seek them out. You can develop a local following--just look at the Fenians and Chris Gaffney."

The venue, free of gurgling cappuccino machines or chatty customers to compete with, gives the music more chance.

"I think it's easier for people with diverse tastes and a broad repertoire like myself to win over new fans," said Richards, who has a degree in classical music from Chapman University. "Audiences today are more diverse, and they want variety. I've never had any problems getting work. . . . It's not something I really have to think about it.

"When I was younger, I had less self-confidence. But now that I know what I'm about, and feel good about who I am, I'm able to make a living playing folk music."

SHOW TIME

Local Spotlight, featuring Dennis Roger Reed, Jenny Richards, Patrick Hanifin and When Pigs Fly, is tonight at the Downtown Community Center, 250 E. Center St., Anaheim. 7:30 p.m. $9-$10 (children under 18 are free with paying adult). Reservations: (562) 861-7049 or bearomano@yahoo.com. Presented by the Living Tradition.

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