At New York City’s Town Hall on Sunday night, Patti Smith had the best line of the night. Glancing at a chorus line of musicians behind her, Smith admitted, “I don’t even know who they are, half of them.” The audience laughed, and Smith courteously added, “But I’m pleased to see them.” With that, Smith and her semi-mystery guests – which included her son Jackson and members of the Avett Brothers and the progressive bluegrass band the Punch Brothers – launched into a stomping, hootenanny makeover of her modern-day empowerment song, “People Have the Power.”
“Another Day, Another Time,” a multi-act concert pegged to the release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming film Inside Llewyn Davis, was that kind of night: a bustling salute to the sounds and the idea of Sixties folk music that, despite a little fuzziness around the edges, ultimately delivered on its promise. Organized by the movie’s soundtrack co-producer, T Bone Burnett, the concert featured the stars of that movie, a roman à clef inspired by the late Village folk god Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. They were joined by genre legend Joan Baez, one modern-day troubadour affiliated with the movie (Marcus Mumford) and one who isn’t (Gillian Welch), and indie-rock types with an affinity for unplugged instruments (Jack White, Conor Oberst, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy).
Some of the songs performed during the show can be heard in the movie, but just as many weren’t. Some, like Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” or Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind,” were written during the Village’s folkie heyday, while others were written decades later. The concert was akin to one of those soundtrack albums filled with songs “inspired by,” but not actually in, a certain movie.
From the start, “Another Day, Another Time” grappled with a basic quandary: What is folk music two decades into the 21st century, and how should it be presented? The show opened with the nattily dressed Punch Brothers doing the Thirties cowboy anthem “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Between that song and Town Hall’s red-draped stage, the feel was more Prairie Home Companion than Gerde’s Folk City. Intentionally or not, moments like that evoked the time in the late Fifties and early Sixties when folk music graduated from clubs to concert halls – and tried, with varying degrees of success, to retain its intimacy and power in bigger, more commercialized settings.
Some of the performances that followed the Punch Brothers’ stayed crisply true to the idea of folk music, with nary an electric instrument and plenty of onstage denim. Yet they also raised questions: Should modern folk be something traditional, and therefore authentic? Or can it incorporate recent songs like the White Stripes’ “We’re Going to Be Friends” (given a charming stripped-down arrangement by White and a small bluegrass ensemble) or the Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”?
For all the formality of the night, which was exceedingly well-paced and organized, the concert recalled a time when one or two people, bearing one or two unplugged instruments, could be as enthralling as the greatest rock or EDM track. Meloy’s solo version of cult hero Jackson Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” made that point, as did performances of the coffeehouse standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” by Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac (a solid finger-picker, it turns out) and Mumford’s cover of Bob Dylan‘s rare, early “I Was Young When I Left Home.” Baez’s version of “House of the Rising Sun” showcased a voice that’s huskier than in her youth but can still twirl up to its soprano heights. Oberst, Welch and Dave Rawlings powered through “Man Named Truth” (from Oberst’s Monsters of Folk side project) with just the right amount of righteous lefty indignation, and Smith did a stately version of Anne Bredon’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” which Smith acknowledged she first heard in a version by Baez (“our undisputed fierce queen” of the genre, she declared onstage).
Levity came in the form of co-host (and also co-star) John Goodman, who cracked a few too many silly “brown acid” jokes, and the unannounced Elvis Costello, who sat in for another of the film’s co-stars, Justin Timberlake. (“When you think of Justin, you think of me,” Costello, porkpie hat smushed onto his head, deadpanned.) With Burnett, Isaac and another co-star, Adam Driver, Costello leapt into a rollicking version of the movie’s faux-folk “hit,” “Please Mr. Kennedy.” And unexpected showstoppers burst out in the form of Lake Street Dive’s “Go Down Smooth” (featuring jazz-rooted lead singer Rachael Price) and Southern new-gospel singer Rhiannon Giddens’ Gaelic folk songs. Both women conjured memories of brassy folk powerhouses like Judy Henske and the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, who could command a stage without the slightest hint of twerking.
Like many aspects of New York City, the scene and community conjured up by “Another Day, Another Time” is merely a memory. Even the folk clubs that sprang up after Folk City are gone – and never mind the cigarette smoke that would fill those venues. All that remains are the songs and the mythology, and “Another Day, Another Time” brought them all back home more than enough.