“Playing Songs for Strangers in Towns That Aren’t Ours”: Anna Tivel & Jeffrey Martin at Good Luck

On a Monday night, nestled in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts, art was being created live within the walls of the restaurant Good Luck. For their last show in 2017, Honest Folk brought an artist back for the first time in it’s two year history. Portlanders Anna Tivel and Jeffrey Martin had performed in the same space earlier this year, and it was so well-received they invited them again. Or as Martin supposed, they screwed up so badly they were given another shot. The couple, who are not normally a duo, both returned with brand new albums, and new songs, to play.

They opened with “Saturday Night” off of Tivel’s new release Small Believer. They drew a Saturday crowd out on a Monday, the Monday after Daylight Saving no less, so it was an appropriate song to start the show. To call what they played ‘songs,’ however, wouldn’t be doing them full justice. They were stories and revelations told in poetic verse, that just so happened to be sung in beautiful voices and accompanied by sparse but rhythmic guitars. The audience hung on every word, absorbing the insights, receiving the sparks of inspiration.

The pair found their stories through people. All sorts of people; some who they were close to, some they randomly crossed paths with, some they’d only read about, and some who were famous. Gillian Welch once said, folk music is music made for folks to listen to. Martin and Tivel might add, folk music is music made about folks.

They sang about the man who sat on a bench in Portland, rain or shine, to watch as a Marriot was built on the riverside. There was a song inspired by the soul of her just passed 99 year old grandmother. Another about young people finding true love, or maybe not, in small town America. The hard-working border agent she heard about on the news, the drunk woman who told her her life story from a bar stool and the stories she read on the Occupy website. There were songs about fathers, sons, uncles, mothers and daughters, and one about womanhood which included a shoutout to local and national hero Susan B. Anthony. There was the one about William S. Burroughs, how he stupidly and accidentally shot his wife dead. “Just Like You” included verses about Hitler and Jesus and includes what may be the most hilarious opening line of any folk song: “Joseph Stalin came from someone’s vagina.” Most songs were deep and dark, but Tivel answered later in the show with her own humorous tune, about a smattering of whacky characters she met while dating on Craigslist, in which the conclusion was, “We’re all crazy all the time.”

As Tivel sang, her eyes closed and her shoeless feet twitched and flexed. Martin also sang eyes shut, his accentuated facial contortions partially hidden beneath his burly beard. They were completely absorbed in the words they sang, giving each character the attention they deserved.

In two hour-long sets, the couple shared each other’s songs and also took the stage solo off and on. They did manage to squeeze in a pair of other people’s songs, covering Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” which Martin called the greatest love song ever written, and John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Some folk royalty there. Though the highlights were easily their own, like Martin’s “Coal Fire” with Tivel’s haunting fiddle accompaniment, and Tivel’s “Dark Chandelier” which was a bit of a heart stopper.

Some of the best stories were told in between the songs, and one of the best lines was too. Putting a positive spin on the tough times the world is living through now, Martin remarked, “When times are good, bands like Nickelback pop up.”

Honest Folk is taking a break until after the new year, but keep your eyes peeled for their next show announcement soon after. Doubtful it will be Nickelback.

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