Folk Close Up

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Have you ever wanted to get up close and personal with your favorite performer?  If so, then you might just enjoy attending a house concert.  In recent years, opening one’s living room to the paying public and hosting a show has grown into a national phenomenon, with several hundred house concert venues across the United States.

House concerts usually seat a small number of people (50 or less) and feature completely acoustic performances, without the aid of a PA system.  The atmosphere is therefore far more intimate than even the smallest of traditional concert venues.  There are several house concert venues scattered around the Bay Area, all presenting high quality shows several times a year.

Sally Greenberg of Berkeley has been hosting house concerts since 1996, and this Sunday she presents two shows by acclaimed English folk artist Jez Lowe, on the penultimate date of his US tour.

Jez Lowe grew up in the North East of England, among the coal mines and shipyards.  His origins are apparent in the subject matter of his songs, which tell of the hardships and the hilarities of life in equal measure.    The songs themselves have a timeless sound, as though they were traditional songs that have been around for centuries.  Lowe’s interest in folk music, he says, dates back to his teenage years: “I was into pop music like we all were in the 60s.  I was quickly bored with that and Bob Dylan became a big influence – he was playing rock. But somebody gave me a book called the ‘Oxford Book of Ballads’ which I thought was a poetry book and didn’t realize there were tunes to these things… but then people like Fairport Convention started doing versions – I just didn’t realize they were folk songs.” 

The words and music of traditional folk fired Lowe’s imagination and he saw how strongly the ballads related to everyday life.  “It was partly because it was local stuff with names that I knew like Otterburn, which is just up the road in Northumberland,” he said, “and also words about coal mining – it all seemed just normal to me.  I was already living in it but I didn’t seem to realize it.”  He began playing in local folk clubs, initially the traditional material but then moved on to writing his own folk songs.   In the mid-70s, he realized that there was a living to be made as a professional performer and, as the saying goes, he has not looked back since. 

Jez Lowe performs live both as a solo artist, as he will this weekend, and also with his band, The Bad Pennies.  He released his first, self-titled, album in 1980.  Since then  he has released 11 more and has collaborated on two traditional folk music compilations.  His most recent CD, 2002’s “Honesty Box,” was in BBC Radio’s Top 10 Folk CDs of the Year and is released on Tantobie Records. 

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, April 3, 2003

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