Iron Horse in Northampton features multiple folk, country and Americana acts in early December
PHOTO COURTESY OF IHEG
PHOTO COURTESY OF IHEG
PHOTO COURTESY OF IHEG
The Sweetback Sisters
PHOTO BY AMY DICKERSON
PHOTO COURTESY OF IHEG
Early December is shaping up to be something of a folk and acoustic music revival at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, with three acts from Northampton-based Signature Sounds all taking the stage in the next 10 days.
It wasn’t planned that way, says Jim Neill, publicist for the Iron Horse Entertainment Group, but he adds that the congruence of all these Americana acts is still “a happy coincidence.”
“Basically, this kind of thing sometimes just happens,” Neill said. “Everyone’s schedule aligned with ours.” But in this case, he added, the Iron Horse is also “getting back to its roots” as a folk club by featuring so much acoustic-based music.
Here’s the lineup:
∎ Eilen Jewell, Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.
A lot of artists get tagged with the “eclectic” label, but Eilen Jewell would seem to merit that term. The Idaho native and former Boston resident has plumbed a wealth of influences, from rockabilly to jazz to gospel to country, in a career that has seen her win growing praise for her vocals and her lyric skill at evoking boozy nights in roadhouses and the vagaries of love.
As National Public Radio says of the Signature Sounds artist, “She’s got a sweet and clear voice with a killer instinct beneath the shiny surface.”
Jewell has released four albums of mostly original material with Signature Sounds, as well as a tribute album of Loretta Lynn songs. Fronting a tight band that includes electric guitar, bass and drums, she’s been dubbed the “Queen of the Minor Key” — the title of her most recent record — for her penchant for tales of lives gone wrong, though there’s also a dark humor lurking in many of her narratives.
“Most of my songs are not strictly autobiographical,” Jewell wrote in an email to the Gazette. “I simply want to paint a vivid picture.” That said, Jewell adds that she tends to gravitate toward sad songs “because I find them to be more interesting. ... I feel the same way about novels. Russian authors are my favorite because I love the way they portray hardship.”
But she’s a big fan of early rock and its upbeat vibe as well. The Kinks’ first hit, “You Really Got Me,” is a case in point, she says. “It’s my idea of a perfect song. ... I love the simplicity of the production and the full-throttle energy of their performance style.”
Jewell also brings late-night languor to songs like “Too Hot to Sleep” and “I Remember You.” And she’s looking for a way to broaden the band’s live sound: a longtime piano player (she plays acoustic guitar live), she wants to bring a keyboard onstage.
Piano “is by far my favorite instrument,” she said. “I think about incorporating piano or organ into our live shows all the time. I’m a bit obsessed with the idea, actually. I know it’s just a matter of time before it happens.”
∎ Chris Smither, Dec. 7
Since relocating to Amherst in 2009, songwriter Chris Smither has been particularly productive, releasing two studio albums, a live record and an EP of vintage rock e_SSRqn’ roll covers, all on Signature Sounds. His newest album, “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” came out this past summer and offers more of his trademark folk/blues guitar picking, but with something different as well: All the songs are Smither originals. It’s the first of his albums not to include other artists’ tunes.
In a phone call from his home, Smither said he’d recorded most of his new songs for “Hundred Dollar Valentine” earlier this year and was thinking of what covers he might consider when Sunderland producer Dave “Goody” Goodrich suggested he re-record two of his older songs — “Every Mother’s Son” and “I Feel the Same” — which have a leaner, starker sound than his newer tunes.
“Dave’s ideas are very good — in this case I think we brought a fresh take to those songs that worked out well,” said Smither, whose career dates back to the Cambridge folk scene of the 1960s.
Elsewhere on “Hundred Dollar Valentine,” Smither mixes contemplative songs like “Feeling by Degrees” with the wry humor of “Make Room for Me,” where he references global warming and the uproar over illegal immigration with lines like “To keep us all free they’re gonna put us in a cage / With a fence on the border to maintain order and the minimum wage.”
“It was an election year — I had to get my digs in,” he said with a chuckle.
The album buttresses his smooth fingerpicking with harmonica, percussion and string arrangements on some songs. Looking back, Smither says that songwriting still isn’t the easiest process for him, but it’s something he does “with an increasing degree of confidence that it will happen, the songs will get done, and my fans will meet me halfway if I try something different.”
∎ The Sweetback Sisters, Dec. 9
If you’re looking for classic tales of heartache, revenge, pride and drinking, all of it filtered through a musical mix of honky-tonk, country and swing, the Sweetback Sisters can deliver the goods. The Brooklyn-based group has been creating a stir in the last few years as they’ve toured in support of their 2011 album for Signature Sounds, “Looking for a Fight.”
The “sisters” of the band — Zara Bode and Emily Millere — are not blood relations, but their close harmonies recall other country acts like the Judds, and their musical sensibilities are very much in sync. Their vocals and acoustic guitars are also energetically backed by Ross Bellenoit on electtic guitar, Jesse Milnes on fiddle, Peter Bitenc on bass and Stefan Amidon on drums.
The band boasts some Valley roots. Bode attended the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School, then in Hadley, where she sang in a number of school musicals and other groups and met her future guitarist, Bellenoit. Amidon hails from Brattleboro, Vt.
As The Boston Globe has noted, the Sweetback Sisters are “simultaneously reverent of [country music] tradition and contemporaneously cheeky.” Consider the opening line to the title song from their 2011 album: “If you’re looking for a fight, well you know where to find me.”
On Dec. 9, the band will also deliver its take on holiday songs, with “Country Christmas Sing-along Spectacular,” which requires audience participation — lyric sheets are provided — and covers a range of tunes, offering what the band describes as a mix of “harmony singing, rollicking telecaster and twin fiddling along with a healthy dose of holiday cheer.”
∎ Dar Williams, Dec. 14 & 15
Valley favorite Dar Williams, who had her big breakthrough when she lived in the area in the 1990s, comes back to the Iron Horse for two nights with a new album, “In the Time of Gods,” in tow. The singer-songwriter has written 10 songs that blend the story of Greek mythological figures with contemporary issues important to her.
It was during her time in the Valley that Williams, who now lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, released two records, “The Honesty Room” and “End of the Summer,” that catapulted her to a national audience. She developed a friendship with Joan Baez and began opening many of her shows, going on to tour later with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and others.
Now with nine studio albums to her name, Williams says she conceived of her new record during a winter’s drive from New York state into Ontario, Canada. The scenery, she says, made her “want to write a biker song,” an idea that segued into writing about Hermes, the Greek messenger of the dead.
“And then I thought, ‘Why don’t I really freak out my record company and make a whole album about Greek mythology?’ ” she said. “So I decided to look at each of the gods of the Parthenon and see if their stories sprang to life for me or not.”
Williams, who has also written three books for younger readers, includes a song on her new album about a contemporary figure who has an almost mythical stature in the folk community. “Storm King” is dedicated to Pete Seeger, who lives a few miles from her and still inspires her.
Other singer-songwriters and interpreters at the Iron Horse in early December include Kelly Hogan, former vocalist for Neko Case, Dec. 3; country “rebel-rocker” Lydia Loveless, Dec. 4; and Catie Curtis, who’s performed at the White House, Dec. 8.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information or to reserve tickets, visit www.iheg.com.