Foghorn Stringband – Old and unadorned
We’re clustered around a picnic table in the Power Station, an outbuilding of what used to be the county poorhouse outside Portland, Oregon. Caleb Klauder and Sammy Lind, two Foghorn Stringband members, are here for their regular Tuesday night gig, where they will sit on a couch and play and sing, unamplified, in what is now the Edgefield Lodge wine bar.
Before the show, they and two other Foghorn members try to explain their current popularity. The resulting exchange is a lot like the way they play music — intense, interactive and engaging.
Foghorn is a five-piece band: fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass. They perform in the old-time manner, lead instruments playing melody simultaneously; interspersing stark vocals with what are generically called “fiddle tunes.” They’re wildly popular with young pub-crawlers and middle-aged contra dancers in Portland, and with a growing fan base gained in 2004 on tours of California, the midwest and Ireland. (They also served as master musician Dirk Powell’s backing band on an east coast swing.)
Foghorn self-released its second CD, Reap What You Sow, in October, following their well-received debut, Rattlesnake Tidal Wave. Songs come from obscure corners of the Carter Family, Dock Boggs and Gid Tanner catalogues, as well as less obvious sources.
Taylor Grover, Foghorn’s banjo player, is the first to assess their appeal. “A lot of bands try to play traditional music, using traditional instruments, but they’ll add rock ‘n’ roll, or write their own tunes, or try to add something different. They think the music’s not interesting because it’s old. But they don’t realize that it’s been out of the public eye since Elvis.”
So unadorned old-time music sounds fresh to today’s listeners? “The music is enough,” Grover contends. “We don’t do anything to change it.” What they do is play music the way they feel it. Mandolinist/lead vocalist Klauder uses the word “raw,” and that’ll do.
As well as learning tunes from old-time jams, they study field recordings. But they avoid the academic approach of copying note for note the work of some long-dead fiddle player from an obscure North Carolina county.
“We’re a pretty conservative band,” guitar player Kevin Sandri says, “but for some we break too many rules.” One change from tradition is Grover’s three-finger banjo style, which adds a bluegrass drive to the old-time tunes.
Foghorn tried to use a set list once, when they were to open for Del McCoury at a 600-seat theater. They got two songs into it and gave up. (“We thought of using Del’s list, since it was already taped to the stage,” Grover cracks.) Drawing from a seemingly infinite collection of old-time numbers, they start each show playing whatever feels right. One of them will name the next tune based on his sense of the audience’s energy.
Grover says the lack of a conventional stage formation sets the band apart. They sit (sit, mind you; they don’t even stand) around a single microphone. They say they like to perform exactly the way they jam in their own living rooms, the way they sat when they first played together at a dusty campground in Weiser, Idaho, during the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest & Festival.
They also abhor dealing with equipment, claiming soundchecks destroy their spontaneity. “It’s like the difference between the first and the third takes in a studio,” Klauder says. Foghorn records, as well as performs, with only one microphone.
“I always thought we were boring to watch,” says Grover — until, that is, he saw a performance on video. The way they face each other, listen, respond, react, he says, is, “really compelling.”
Sandri says, “When we get together just to play with each other it sounds great. Put a mike in the middle of it and you can’t go wrong.”