By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The Four Corners Folk Festival — which has marked the end of Pagosa Springs’ summer season for 24 years — will take place over Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 1, on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs.
The stellar 2019 lineup includes The Earls of Leicester, Billy Strings, Darrell Scott, Molly Tuttle, The East Pointers, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, JigJam, Lindsay Lou, Mile Twelve, Wild Rivers, Maybe April, The Arcadian Wild and this week’s featured artists, Amy Helm and The Mammals.
Helm sought what she calls a “circular sound” for her new album. It’s a well-rounded one — one marked by streaks of Americana, country, blues and gospel, and the kinds of four-part harmonies that can burst open a melody and close the loop of an octave. And, sentimentally, it’s a sound that represents the feeling of community.
“This Too Shall Light,” released Sept. 21, 2018, comprises 10 songs produced by Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Joe Henry. Helm left her home and comfort zone of Woodstock, N.Y., choosing to record in Los Angeles within the confines of just a four-day window. The musicians were directed not to over-think the songs and Helm herself barely performed any of the selections while leading up to the recording. As a result, the sessions forced fast musical trust among the collaborators and yielded the vibrant instrumental improvisations heard throughout “This Too Shall Light.”
Although a profound songwriter herself, Helm and Henry jointly arranged a diverse collection of songs for the record, which range from Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” to Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion” and even the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan.” The title track in particular, written by Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor and Josh Kaufman (Josh Ritter, Bob Weir, Craig Finn), is a brilliant summation of the record’s sound and spirit. Seemingly a play on the old adage that “This too shall pass,” Helm’s voice veers from commanding to supplicating within a single soulful verse as she manipulates that message so that light leads throughout even the darkest of times.
A lifelong musician and music-lover, Helm’s parents — The Band’s legendary drummer and singer Levon Helm and singer/songwriter Libby Titus — guided her training and influences. She later became a founding member of the alt-country collective Ollabelle and served as a backing musician in her father’s Midnight Ramble Band. And on “This Too Shall Light,” Helm said that two songs in particular pay homage to Levon — “The Stones I Throw,” a song he released in 1965 with Levon and the Hawks, and the closing traditional number, an a cappella version of the hymnal “Gloryland,” which was passed from father to daughter.
While “This Too Shall Light” is only Helm’s second album under her own name, it serves as a comprehensive portrait covering her life’s journeys and recoveries; they’re the stories that, no matter where they take her, seem to end and begin in the same place like a circle.
Helm will return to the 2019 main festival stage on Aug. 31 with a 6:30 p.m. set.
A concert by The Mammals is healing and inspirational. It’s not only the magic of their combined voices; Ruth Ungar’s remarkably soulful grace and Mike Merenda’s hushed and intimate ease, it’s also the lyrics themselves that strike deep and spark smiles. Nominated for Song of the Year at the International Folk Music Awards, the title track of their 2018 album “Sunshiner” is an instant full-room sing-along, with a chorus that honors the past while envisioning a bright future of green energy, and good, positive human collaboration: “Yes my daddy was a miner, but I’m gonna be a Sunshiner …”
The band’s quintet lineup features dynamic drummer Konrad Meissner and a rotating inner circle of their favorite bass and organ/piano players. The Mammals joke that they’re “too folk for the rock show” and “too rock for the folk show” but, in reality, they hit the critical emotional and sonic touchstones of both. Their performances are propelled forward by just the right amount of guitar grit, soothing harmony, barn-burning fiddle, retro grooves and storytelling savvy.
The Mammals’ 2019 live in-studio video release of “Ashokan Farewell” (written by Ungar’s fiddling father, Jay Ungar, and known as the theme for Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War series) was premiered by Folk Radio UK as the band made their official Celtic Connections debut in Glasgow.
A concert reviewer there called them “gently-mannered activists with well-crafted songs that successfully ask potent questions of politicians and raise issues to probe how we can improve the planet … with enjoyment of their music underpinning the approach overall.”
In a style learned from mentors like Pete Seeger, this band masterfully weaves instrumentals into the set to allow for dancing and to let the words sink in.
Having met in the dive bars of NYC’s Lower East Side “anti-folk” scene in 1998, Ruth Ungar and Merenda quickly surrendered to the magnetism of their musical and personal connection which has now lasted them through occasional solo tours, over a decade of touring as a duo, the first incarnation of The Mammals (which included founding member Tao Rodriguez-Seeger), the creation of their biannual festivals the Winter and Summer Hoot, and also marriage, parenthood and the predictably unpredictable evolution of the music business. They have responded to the inherent challenges by writing better and better songs, collaborating with their heroes, self-releasing singles and donating download sales to good causes, harnessing support through a growing Patreon community, and expanding their fanbase through constant touring and positive energy.
“A string band at the core, The Mammals augment their sound with drums and electric guitar to create a collectively harmonized howl as thrilling and rocking as any band currently subverting folk traditions” — No Depression.
“The Mammals are the finest young bluegrass/old-timey band in the country, the country-branch house band for the new weird America. They perform total energy, off-kilter folk that more resembles the twisted quirk of the Holy Modal Rounders than the clean jeans or alter-ninnies currently clawhammering banjos,” said Michael Simmons of LA Weekly.
You can catch The Mammals on the festival main stage on Aug. 30 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and additional information about the festival, including the main stage schedule and information on all of the artists, can be found online at www.folkwest.com. Volunteer applications are now available on the website and scheduling will begin soon, so potential volunteers are urged to apply as soon as possible.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part with matching funds from Colorado Creative Industries.