various artists,
Live at the Oak Center
General Store/Folk Forum, Vol. 1

(New Folk, 2003)

Oak Center is a renovated general store that, in one incarnation or another, has stood since 1913 in the small southeastern Minnesota town of Lake City, about midway between Minneapolis and Rochester. Since the late 1970s it's been connected, both geographically and contractually, with the adjoining Earthen Path Organic Farm, a thriving relic of the back-to-the-land movement of the hippie era's latter days. For the past two decades the store and farm have sponsored concerts by urban folk performers, most though not all from the Twin Cities music scene.

In its glory days Minneapolis and St. Paul hosted a young Bob Dylan and the revered Koerner, Ray and Glover, who together or alone recorded some influential, ahead-of-their-time albums for Elektra in the 1960s. Spider John Koerner and Tony Glover still live and play -- though seldom together -- out of what we Minnesotans call "the Cities," and not long ago Glover co-wrote a well-reviewed biography of blues-harp legend Little Walter. Dave Ray, who continued performing till the end, died of cancer in November 2002. None is represented on this collection of live performances, though there is a moving reading of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" by the talented white roots-R&B singer Willie Murphy, a KR&G contemporary, pal and occasional Koerner musical partner (for example, on the cult classic Running Jumping Standing Still (Elektra, 1969).

Such Twin Cities notables as Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull, Daithe Sproule (the one Altan member who lives outside Ireland or Northern Ireland), John Gorka, Tim Eriksen, Tim Sparks, Adam Hurt, Cam Waters, Pop Wagner and Phil Heywood, not to mention assorted singer-songwriters, alt-country bands and bluegrass/old-time outfits, are also missing. Present are the amiable old-hippie traditionalists Curtis and Loretta, the chanteuse Prudence Johnson and acoustic-guitar-fusion genius Dean Magraw. North Dakota rancher and singer-songwriter Chuck Suchy, sort of an honorary Minnesotan, weighs in with the astonishingly affecting "Indian Dreamer." I say "astonishingly affecting" because Suchy, more or less an Upper Midwestern Bill Staines, ordinarily leaves me as cold as one of our winters. Bill Staines himself is here, by the way, with "Bridges," which you will like if you like that sort of thing. Otherwise, Staines will likely sound to your ear as he does to mine: like "our John Denver," as a friend once put it.

I'm not sure where the band Salamat comes from -- the liner notes, such as they are, are tightlipped where useful information about anything but the store is concerned -- but on the evidence of its beautiful arrangement of the traditional Middle Eastern-sounding "Domoset," I'd say it is a group well worth seeking out. Likewise, the Denmark-based Kelpie, a guitar-whistle duet consisting of vocalist Kerstin Blodig (a folk star in Northern Europe) and Ian Melrose, chills the heart -- in a good way -- with its moody reading of the old ballad "Sven Svane."

This well-recorded and pleasant collection manages to cover a broad stylistic range, not just pure folk but also jazz, classic pop and world sounds. If it's meant to encourage you to stop by next time you're passing through Lake City, Minnesota, and somebody's on stage at the general store, it will have you pressing the brakes.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 10 April 2004

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