I don’t really understand folk rock. It’s one of those quixotically modern flourishings, like the reappearance of full well-groomed beards and the curious renaissance of the veldskoen shoe, now known colloquially as the “desert boot.” And folk rock carries with it an aesthetic so closely associated with the genre that the two can’t possibly be separated. This aesthetic is, essentially, hipsterish, and lends itself to endless parody. But regardless, I do quite like folk rock when I hear it — which isn’t often, and is typically in concert — and the release show for Tommy Bazarian’s ’15 new EP “Four Horses” last Friday at St. Anthony’s Hall showcased both the heights and the shortcomings of the genre.
After a brief opening from four members of Tangled Up In Blue — who played a raucous version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” falling somewhere between Eric Clapton’s loose hard-rock interpretation and Johnson’s own apocalyptic vision — Bazarian played through the entirety of the six-song “Four Horses.” A five-person band backed him: standing bass, fiddle, guitar, trumpet and trombone. Like most folk rock, the word “pretty” best describes Bazarian’s works: he sings his evocative lyrics, poetic and literary, over a soundscape of acoustic chords and gentle strings. But, thanks to the trumpet of Eli Brown ’16, Bazarian’s music went beyond the confines of typical folk rock. Where “Four Horses” might have languished in the placidity of, say, early Mumford & Sons, Brown’s trumpet helped it rise above such somnolence. The brass contingent added a mournful element to the songs, creating a deeper emotional resonance and conjuring the atmosphere of a bygone era. Coupled with the occasional vocal harmony, the brass made these songs properly ethereal.
The best of Bazarian’s tracks was “John Henry Song,” which begins with the line “If I had a hammer/I’d hammer in the morning” a reference to the Pete Seeger song “If I Had a Hammer.” (This was the most obvious of Bazarian’s allusions to the Greats: the track also includes a line about “Spanish leather,” likely a Dylan homage, and the song “Lonesome Organ Grinder” is named after a character in Dylan’s “I Want You.”) The studio version of “John Henry Song,” like most of the tracks, feels calm and tranquil, but it doesn’t quite do the song justice. Bazarian’s live performance of the track was loud, reaching for a brashness seldom heard in folk rock, ringing with an urgent immediacy and an effervescent joy. And that’s typically when the genre is at its best — when it embraces its own self-stylization and becomes a loose, communal festival.
Bazarian played a wonderful performance indeed, but, inevitably, some shortcomings pierced the sedate soundscape. Bazarian is a talented singer, with a rich, velvety tone and a clear, though sometimes strained, upper register, and his voice works well with the instrumentation. But still, something’s missing. John McCormack, an Irish folk singer, once said that the Greats have what he called the “yarragh” in their voices. You can’t really describe the yarragh, but, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it. Amy Winehouse had the yarragh, as did Joe Cocker and Dock Boggs, and Van Morrison probably has more of the yarragh than any other singer. I can’t say that Bazarian has it, though — his voice is beautiful, but incomplete. It’s missing a certain complexity. A voice with the yarragh works on the aesthetic as well as the emotional levels. If anything, Bazarian sounds too pretty, too focused on beauty at the expense of depth. Most of the folk rock genre tends to suffer from this paucity: its singers are often too timid to explore the possibilities that can occur once vocal conventions begin to disintegrate.
There’s another, less troubling, critique here: I’m not sure that Bazarian really knows how to end his songs. The show’s songs would rush along at full energy until suddenly the chords ceased and the singing stuttered and stopped. I felt that I hadn’t experienced the full potential of each piece, that he’d cut them off right in their prime. Again, this criticism isn’t specific to Bazarian’s work — many Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan folk songs, and even many early British Invasion songs, sound like their composers knew how to write and sing gorgeous melodies but not what to do once they reached the three-minute mark. While Bazarian has the same problem, it’s not crippling, and the solution often becomes evident through experience and increased maturity.
I can’t say that I typically listen to modern folk rock: my tastes veer more towards folk and rock, not their confluence. But Tommy Bazarian may have introduced me to a particular quality of the genre. His music made me appreciate the light, almost transcendent calm of a non-electric band — a calm that, though pleasant, carries the power and emotional weight of a Vermont winter. Bazarian’s songs are short and oftentimes simple, but they deserve some careful contemplation. Hidden in an aura of placidity, their quiet force imbues them with a strange permanence.