By Clare Flynn for CapRadio Music
Much of what is described as "folk music" comes from musical forms, sounds, and vocabularies that have been passed down over generations and become embedded in the identity of a place or people. It's a genre that feels familiar, and yet, in continually passing its time-honored material to new, young voices, it is also constantly being revived and turned into something new and culturally relevant.
Hurray for the Riff Raff and Branches headline back-to-back shows at Harlow's on Sunday night, bringing with them their own fresh takes on traditional roots music.
Hurray For The Riff Raff, a New Orleans-based music collective, is headed by singer-songwriter and banjo player Alynda Lee Segarra. Born and raised in the Bronx to a Puerto Rican family, Segarra dropped out of school in her teens and hopped freight trains across America for a time before finally settling in New Orleans. With a background that is equal parts orthodox and unorthodox to the classic folk mythology, she seems the perfect person to shake up the genre's traditional forms while approaching them with a sense of honor and reverence.
"I like to keep artists in mind when I'm writing a song as these little guardian angels," Segarra said in an interview with NPR Music's Ann Powers. "With something like 'The New San Francisco Bay Blues,' I was thinking a lot about John Prine and also Ma Rainey. How do you combine all those elements together? ... What do I want to put across in this song? And I feel like a lot of times it's not very obvious. It's just a very subtle thing. I just have my intentions in there."
Segarra's songs are often charged with political or socially conscious messages, a tendency that follows in the activist footsteps of legendary folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. Songs like "St. Roch Blues" -- inspired by a string of murders that took place in New Orleans' St. Roch neighborhood in 2011 -- break apart any boundaries between the material's time-worn sound and its modern audience by holding a mirror up to society and drawing attention to current world issues.
Hurray for the Riff Raff's fearlessnes toward challenging the musical traditions upon which it is based is no clearer than on the biting and poignant song "The Body Electric." Written by Segarra for the band's acclaimed 2014 album Small Town Heroes, the song is a feminist response to the dehumanization of violence against women that Segarra perceived in contemporary music, and within her own beloved genre in the classic murder ballad, in which a woman is killed by a jealous man.
"We hear the song and say, 'Oh, but it's in that old form. They don't really mean that, they're just singing it,'" Segarra told Powers. "Suddenly, I thought, it's time for a song about bringing that back to something very simple and direct. I'm a human, when you say that, you're talking about killing me. You're talking about killing my best friend."
The song is dedicated to Damini, an Indian woman who was killed in a gang rape in New Delhi in 2012.
Hurray for the Riff Raff, "The Body Electric" (Live)
Uprooting American traditional music in its own way, Los Angeles-based band Branches bring their own spin on the genre to Harlow's Sunday night during an early evening, all-ages show. Brandishing the sounds of the banjo, acoustic guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and the close vocal harmonies of lead singers Tyler Madsen and Natalie Nicoles, the group will perform a mix of older original material, covers, and new songs from a forthcoming album that the band is preparing to record in studio this summer.
"These songs are a product of the last three years of touring and traveling - playing some of our old favorites, covering some classics, and really narrowing in on what is it that we like the most about the music we play together, and trying to write new material that represents that well," Madsen said in an email.
The band has a particular talent for adapting its traditional folk music sound to popular songs from a wide range of artists and decades, covering everything from Beyonce's R&B smash hit "Halo" to The Darkness's glam rock scorcher "I Believe In A Thing Called Love." Those choices, according to Madsen, come from a sincere love for music, regardless of genre.
"For us, it's as simple as the fact that there is just so much music out there that we love," Madsen said. "It's like singing in your shower or in your car on the way to work. Everyone covers music in their day-to-day lives. We just do it from a stage or in front of a camera."
The band also has its own ties to Sacramento. Drummer Michael Springs is from the city, and three of the band members have extended family in the area. Because of those personal connections and fond memories of its last show in Sacramento, Madsen expects Sunday night's show to be a special one.
"To be in Sacramento is kind of like a home away from home for us," he said. "A few years ago, we ended our tour with a concert in Sacramento, and the show ended up continuing with an acoustic encore on top of our van out front. It's one of those moments we won't forget."
Branches + The Show Ponies: Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash cover)
Sunday March 15, 2015 | Harlow's Restaurant and Nightclub
Doors: 6:00 pm / Show: 6:30 pm
$8 adv - $10 day of show - All Ages
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Doors: 10:00 pm / Show: 10:30 pm
$20.00 - $24.00 - 21+