- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

What makes good music great? At the very least, great music has to have a certain elastic quality, an ability to withstand both good and bad interpretations. Three groups appearing in town this week take on the challenge of reworking old standards and adding a few of their own.
Take the Be Good Tanyas , who will appear Tuesday at Iota in Arlington. The three women play what they rather ingenuously refer to as "porch music," the kind of music you might have heard from somebody's front porch in the days before television and the computer drove everybody inside.
"It's warm, sad and happy all at the same time," says multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Samantha Parton (who is no relation to Dolly Parton, although she wishes she were). "It's music that we hope will resonate with people."
The band hails from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and their debut album, "Blue Horse," was recorded in an old shack beside train tracks outside Vancouver. The CD offers an example of the rare ability to take old standards to new places. The old-yet-new, tried-yet-fresh approach is an unlikely happenstance that may come from the fact that no one, much less the performers themselves, expected commercial success. In fact, the CD grew out of the group's kindly attempt to help record producer Garth Futcher with his audio-production class.
The result is no ordinary collection of blues, country and contemporary tunes. Instead, there's an emphasis on the essence of the song, with tighter harmonies than you might hear on the porch. Of course, it helps that the Be Good Tanyas possess those clear, bell-like voices that seem to transcend time. But their repertoire, including original songs, traditional melodies and even a few gospel pieces, is always performed with an edge an emotional punch grounded in experience.
"I wrote "Dogsong aka Sleep Dog" after watching my dog die," says Miss Parton, whose peripatetic soul has taken her from British Columbia to New Orleans. "Now it's become a metaphor for all the dreams I have had and let die."
That's not to say that all the songs are that mournful. In fact, the album is noteworthy in its diversity, from the haunting "Lakes of Pontchartrain" to Geoff Berner's "Light Enough to Travel."
The three come from eclectic musical backgrounds. Miss Parton's grandmother was an established singer and piano player who alternated between boogie-woogie and Beethoven. Trish Klein, who plays electric guitar and banjo, and sings harmony vocals, discovered different musical styles as a teen-ager, after years of being forced to play classical piano. Frazey Ford, who plays guitar and sings, has always been interested in country music. Yet the diversity of experience musical and otherwise has only strengthened their musical core, says Miss Parton.
"We've played different music, but in the end we're all playing the same: from our hearts," she says.

Fairport Convention performs at the Birchmere tomorrow. The venerable band is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year (albeit including a six-year hiatus), complete with an anniversary CD.
There's nothing like listening for what Fairport does with an old tune like "The Banks of Sweet Primroses." They'll start out playing short and simple, but fairly soon band members are plowing through uncharted territory, extending guitar passages and redefining rhythms. In the interim, you'll hear some awesome fiddling and flute playing.
Just don't expect some long-in-the-tooth geezers playing those riffs. Frequent personnel changes have kept the energy high and the sound fresh. Although there will always be a few folks in the audience who remember the days when Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson were an integral part of the group, many more were not even born the band was formed in 1967.
Their distinctive folk-rock sound has evolved along with changes in the lineup. Over the years, the band has continued to experiment with instrumentation and rhythm, alternating acoustic and electric sounds to reinterpret, not re-create, their old standards.

Djesben , a perennial favorite, performs Saturday at Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park at 8 p.m., part of an extended evening of rhythm and dance to benefit the Rhythm Workers Union, a local percussionist ensemble. To call Djesben simply a jazz band would be putting too fine a point on the matter, says stick player Topher Dunne.
"We're using the term 'iconojazz'," says Mr. Dunne, who plays the Chapman Stick, a 10-stringed instrument favored by many bass players. The stick has the range of a piano and can be used to play both melody and harmony. Akin to the guitar, the sitar, and the bass, this relatively new instrument (it was invented in 1974) is played by tapping its strings to produce both sustained chords and percussive sounds.
"What we do is based on jazz idioms," he says, "but the instrumentation is not traditional."
Neither are the interpretations. With his stick tuned to fifths rather than the more familiar fourths, the "walking bass" sound associated with bossa nova tunes is unavailable. Christian Crowley plays the Appalachian dulcimer, an instrument not usually associated with jazz. Drummer Katy Gaughan grounds her beat on the sound of a set of congas.
"We can't re-create that high-hat sound that you have with a standard drum set," says Mr. Dunne. "We end up doing different things with the music."

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