Old-time with an edge

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

What happens when traditional folk music soaks up the energy and edginess of punk rock?

You get the rollicking old-time sound of the Foghorn Stringband, says local bluegrass musician Sean Tracey.

"They play old-time in a high energy and driving manner that appeals with youthful zest and it sounds like punk rock," Tracey said. "It's not on the hayseedy side of old-time. It is jiving and that is what I like about it."

Tracey, who plays harmonica with the Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band, met Foghorn at an old-time festival in Portland earlier this year.

"They were over there just jamming in the corner and they ripped," he said.

After he heard them play, Tracey convinced the band to come to the Alaska Folk Festival. Foghorn will play a dance set at 8 p.m. Friday, April 11, at the National Guard Armory, and also will play at 10 p.m. April 11 and 12 at The Alaskan Bar.

"There is just something about the rhythm and the drive of old-time music that just makes it really powerful music," said Kevin Sandri, Foghorn's guitarist. "I also like the acoustic music when the rhythm is just connecting. I just like the power of it. The fiddle is amazing to listen to."

Old-time music and bluegrass use the same basic grouping of instruments - bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle - and have roots in Appalachia.

The differences between the two types of music are subtle. Mainly, they are intended for different audiences: Old-time often accompanies square dances, while bluegrass is more performance-oriented, Sandri said. Also, the banjo-picking styles are distinct, and often old-time and bluegrass banjo players play different banjos altogether.

"Old-time doesn't have the showmanship of bluegrass. It is just dance music mainly," Sandri said.

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"Bluegrass is more surgical," Tracey said.

Foghorn started playing together two years ago to for the Portland square-dancing scene, Sandri said.

An article in the Willamette Weekly declared in late March that Portland was having a resurgence of interest in "kitchy," "retro" roots music and dancing. Old-time has never gone out of style in Juneau, Tracey said, so he thought Foghorn would have a good time here.

"They are the type that likes to stay up and jam all night just for the sheer love of it," he said.

The band's name, "Foghorn" for short, used to be "Foghorn Leghorn" after the drawling rooster in Warner Bros. cartoons. When the group went to record a CD they decided to change it to avoid any trademark disputes, Sandri said.

The group's album, "Rattlesnake Tidal Wave," released last year on the Siren label, has made the playlists of alternative radio stations from Berkeley, Calif., to Seattle, Wash.

"You can't listen to this CD without grinning. It's like they dipped it in an infectious happiness agent before sending it out into the world," wrote Seattle music reviewer Cathy Dyer in the online Northwestern music magazine The Tablet. "But this isn't the perky, cheerful sort of happiness that makes you want to find some Beanie Babies and set them on fire; this is the sort of happiness that requires a weekend-long moonshine bender to acquire."

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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