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'Folk Scare' at Town Hall

by John Platt
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Joan Baez and Patti Smith, backed by the Avett Brothers, Lake Street Dive, and others

The late, great Dave Van Ronk used to joke about "The Great Folk Scare" of the early '60s. As "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," he was an intimate witness to it. Joel and Ethan Coen have made a movie,  "Inside Llewyn Davis," very loosely based on Van Ronk's memoir, going into limited release on December 6, with a soundtrack album, produced by T Bone Burnett (who compiled the landmark "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack for the Coens), coming out on Nonesuch on November 12.

Last night T Bone and the Coens brought together a few of their friends - like Joan Baez, Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Elvis Costello - for a concert at Town Hall celebrating the music in the film. When the concert was announced, it sold out in about five minutes, but Showtime was there to film it for a special to air on December 13. I was lucky enough to be there, too, and, yes, it was amazing!

One of the film's stars, John Goodman, was the main MC, and he came equipped with a cowboy hat and some pretty corny comic material. He introduced Punch Brothers, who launched into "Tumblin' Tumbleweed," which set the tone for an evening filled mostly with old-time and traditional folk, but in the hands of young artists like them the music never sounded musty. They were joined by Gllian Welch and David Rawlings for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," featuring a dazzling guitar-mandolin break by David and Chris Thile. They and all the performers primarily worked off of one omnidirectional vocal mic, in the spirit of old hootenannies and the Grand Ol' Opry.

Speaking of younger artists, a trio of emerging FUV faves, Milk Carton Kids ("New York"), Secret Sisters ("Tomorrow Will Be Kinder"), and especially Lake Street Dive ("You Go Down Smooth"), got great response with their own material. Another younger artist, Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops, channeled Odetta in a version of "Jack O' Diamonds" that brought down the house.

Then there were the big stars. Goodman mentioned that another of the film's stars, Justin Timberlake, wasn't available last night, so he brought on Justin's "understudy," who turned out to be Elvis Costello, a surprise guest. He joked about the "great folk music themes of weeping and wailing and reaping and sowing," then, backed by Punch Brothers, T Bone, and Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver from the cast of the film, he sang a new song, "Please, Mr. Kennedy (I Don't Wanna Go Into Outer Space.)" (Another unannounced artist was Keb' Mo'.) Some real live brothers, the Avetts, closed out the first half with three strong songs, including "Head Full of Doubt."

Jack White kicked off the second half with a couple of songs, including "Did You Hear John Hurt?" by Tom Paxton. That was one of two Paxton songs (the other being "The Last Thing On My Mind," performed by Stark Sands of the "Llewyn Davis" cast), which was fitting, since Paxton and Van Ronk were best friends. And many songs identified with Van Ronk were represented, including "Green, Green Rocky Road" (sung by Oscar Isaac, who portrays Llewyn Davis), "House of the Rising Sun" (Joan Baez), and "Dink's Song" (Marcus Mumford).

Mumford wasn't the only big indie music name there without his band. Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes did "Four Strong Winds" with Gillian and David, and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists did a duet of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" with Joan Baez. Though her voice was a little shaky, the presence of Baez, the only performer from the film's era and a true American icon, sort of sanctified the proceedings. In addition to the duet with Colin, she joined Patti Smith (who described her as a fearless hero to all the young misfits of 1963) for "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You" and a truly power-packed "Power to the People," backed by the Avetts, Lake Street Dive, and others. After doing duets with Elvis and Marcus, she remarked that her "cool factor" had just gone way up. But as she walked off stage, Mumford commented, "That's fuckin' Joan Baez!" In some ways, that said it all. Matching up Mumford and Sons and the Avetts with Bob Dylan at the Grammys a couple of years ago made clear the lineage of those bands, and, fittingly, the final song last night was Dylan's "Farewell," sung by Marcus.

Will "Inside Llewyn Davis" do for '60s folk what "O Brother" did for early Americana? That will depend in part on how good a movie it is. But it was great to hear those great songs sung with passion and conviction by a whole bunch of artists who must feel there's still some relvance of that era blowing in the wind.