There is no way to gauge how many truly new songs are debuted every year at the Alaska Folk Festival. Old compositions are often dusted off and reworked, and covers are reinterpreted in fresh ways.
But with one Folk Fest staple, The Preserves Festival Band, the creative output has been measurable. Every year Tony Tengs, the band's leader, has come up with three original songs composed expressly for the festival.
"The Folk Fest has been the thing that has driven us, the engine to produce the music," Tengs said.
And, he adds, the strict deadline of an actual performance gives him the structure he needs to make it happen.
"I work great with a gun to my head," he said.
Tengs, who ran the Chilkat Cone Kitchen in the Merchants Wharf until it closed last year, founded the group in 1993. Described by Tengs as "one of the tribes of Juneau," the band is composed of a shifting group of 10 or more singers, dancers and musicians. This year, Tengs and Albert McDonnell, another Preserves mainstay, have accomplished a long-standing goal of producing a CD of The Preserves' originals called "How Excellent & Civilized Are We." Tengs said McDonnell's imminent departure from Juneau was one of the motivating factors.
"We had vowed for many years to get this thing out by Folk Festival," Tengs said. "And finally Albert announced he was leaving town, so we said, 'We gotta do it now.'"
McDonnell, who runs his own recording studio, Studio A, and works as a gillnetter in the summers, said that though he is relocating to Portland, Ore., his studio will remain viable and he plans to come back often.
McDonnell co-produced and recorded The Preserves' CD, and shares songwriting credits on many of the tracks.
"Personally, I am so proud of this thing," McDonnell said. "A lot of albums, you have a few choice cuts. ... But anything on here stands altogether on its own merit - and as a collection too."
Tengs and McDonnell said the band's music isn't the banjo-infused folk some have come to expect from the genre, but a combination of soul, funk, jazz and rock. And though the music is important, the band focuses on lyrics rather than on a trademark sound.
"It's about the songs, not about a group's sound," Tengs said. "We came at it from a different perspective."
Originally from Haines, Tengs grew up above his parents' business, the Pioneer Bar, and its adjoining restaurant, The Bamboo Room, which his sister, Christy Fowler, still runs. The siblings are both musicians, Tengs said, and were probably influenced by the Pioneer's jukebox.
"It had country songs on one side, and rock songs on the other," he said. "And of course Ray Charles somewhere in the middle."
As for his lyrical inspiration, he credits such diverse sources as former President George W. Bush and his neighbor, Wayne Ward. Bush helped influence politically minded songs such as the title track, "How Excellent & Civilized Are We," written when the United States became involved in the Iraq War. Ward, on the other hand, can launch entire songs with a well-timed, random statement. "You're Wearing My Hat," track 10 on the CD, is one example.
"That (phrase) to me was an entry portal. ... It's so out there and around the bend, but so basic at the same time," Tengs said.
The cover of the CD, created with the graphic design skills of Laura Lucas and photographic talents of Marilyn Holmes, reflects this juxtaposition of silly and serious. Created with objects scored on eBay and purchased from the local antique store, it shows a tiny wooden sailboat with two musician cats happily playing music while the Titanic sinks in the background.
"It's kind of iconic for the times," Tengs said of the design. "The idea was to have these guys sailing along blissfully, totally unaware of society sinking behind them."
"The ship of state is in trouble but it doesn't really matter that much to us," McDonnell added. "We know what's really important."
The band's first Folk Festival performance was in 1993. Tengs' friend, Mark Hochhauser, had recorded a CD of songs with lyrics taken verbatim from author Robert Fulghum's books, such as "It Was on Fire When I Lay Down On It." The CD, which also was one of McDonnell's first recording projects, inspired Tengs to perform several tracks with a group of friends.
Having the lyrics taken care of was a good way for him to get his start in writing music, he said.
"It was kind of like putting the phone book to music in some ways, only a little easier," Tengs said.
After Hochhauser left town, Tengs wanted to keep the momentum going. But having already used the best material from Fulghum's text, he was forced to turn to writing lyrics himself. A Fulghum session became "full-jam session," which led to the band's current name, The Preserves. The band has been performing Tengs' original music nearly every year since 1995.
For the CD, the songs from previous Folk Fests were resurrected and polished. A studio band, Hundred Dollar Hippie, gathered together. The band featured George Wallace on piano, Andy Engstrom on drums, McDonnell on bass and Tengs on acoustic guitar. Other musicians on the CD include Mike Bucy on trombone, Andy Ferguson on fiddle and Wayne Norlund on sax. Tengs said adding Norlund, who also is an original Preserve, was a good decision.
"I wanted to jazz up my folk music, and the down-and-dirty way to do it was to add a sax," he said. "Norlund can make anything sound amazing."
Roslyn Brown, a former Juneauite who worked for Perseverance Theatre, came back to town to sing lead vocal on eight of the album's 13 tracks; four others feature Tengs on vocals. Other vocalists include Angelo Norfleet, Betsy Sims and Jane Roodenburg.
The set the band plans to play for Folk Festival will feature three of their favorite songs from the CD, including "The Pakistani Happy Song," a number that will be enlivened by the presence of belly dancers balancing swords on their heads.
"It has an Asian feel to it," McDonell said. "It just sort of suggests something exotic like that."
Though Juneau audiences know these songs through the context of Folk Fest, McDonnell stressed that the CD is not limited to festival fans.
"I feel that these songs say something universal to people, he said. "Tony's ideas and words really say something beautiful and moving and true."
The Preserves are scheduled to perform at 7:15 p.m. tonight at Centennial Hall. They also will celebrate the release of "How Excellent & Civilized Are We" with a CD-release party at 7:30 p.m. April 23 at the Hangar Ballroom.
The band's CDs can be purchased at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center and Paradise Cafe, as well as at Folk Festival. They also will be available through CD Baby and iTunes, and through the band's soon-to-be launched Web site, www.preserves.net.
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