June 26, 2009

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Nick Rallo runs Whale Fight, one of Los Angeles’ finest new music blogs. He has no wooden teeth, nor has he chased Moby Dick. Though he does curate the John Asparagus Zine, which you can cop at Family and Sky Light Books, among other places. 

A year ago, I was up at the Echo to see the Fleet Foxes. It was their first time in Los Angeles, so there was a lengthy line queuing up. While waiting, a friend of mine pointed out a young guy riding up on cheap bike, wearing a tweed jacket and slacks – and a banjo on his back. I assumed the guy was crazy. He had an iron burn on the back of his shirt. His banjo strap was made of rope.

This was the opening act the Fleet Foxes took on the road. His name is Frank Fairfield, and you can catch him around Los Angeles if you look. He plays in old bars, Churches, and at the Farmers Market with a coffee can at his feet. He has a radio show where he plays old 78s. I would compare his music to other bands, except the kind of music he plays pre-dates the music you listen to (and inspired it.)

On stage, he sits on a wooden chair and flings his fingers all over his banjo, tree-saws his fiddle, and winces as he plucks his guitar. It’s as if the ghost of Blind Willie Mctell invaded a 26 year old white guy in SoCal. His music is the oldest blues, the most ancient folk arrangements you could imagine: songs about killing your wife, about traveling alone (with the word “rambler” generously applied). Think trains pumping through fields, and bundles of clothes on your back.

Recently, Frank played at the annual Old Time Social in Echo Park, at the Hyperion Tavern. A band was there called Sausage Grinder, and the bartender was wearing a shirt that read, “Who the Fuck is Mick Jagger?” Frank took the stage, and melted everyone’s face. No one played like he did (or does). Its why the Fleet Foxes took him on the road, and as Frank’s kind girlfriend told me, let him stay at their house in Seattle.

Meeting him, you’d think a black hole opened up from Pre-War south and dropped Frank into a tree in beautiful California. I’m pretty sure the words, “blog” and “iTunes” didn’t register in his mind as real. He’s from Corpus Christi, and he plays a fiddle that his grandfather “busted up his knuckles pretty good on.” When I asked him why he plays in California, he said, “that’s just where I like to play.”

The Lizard King

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“I wish I was a lizard in the spring / Oh I wish I was a lizard in the spring”

Fairfield is a serious warbler. In his most arduous but inspiring track, “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground,” he painfully banjos his way through metamorphosis. He sings with the intensity of a man stuck on a never-ending railroad, gone too long from the one he loves. What is it about being a rambler that’s so sad? I’m not sure, but when you listen to Fairfield’s version of “Mole in the Ground,” you feel it: The muscle put into the fingerings. The sweat on his palms, and the desire to be home so strong it’s like death–

“I been in the bend so long / Yes I been in the bend so long”

The weight is damn real. You can even hear him huffing exhausted breath into the microphone. That kind of pain shuts up a crowd, and “Mole in the Ground” is hurtful.

I mean seriously, have you ever heard anyone play like this? Jaw dropping. When he plays, you’re just hit with lightning – you don’t know how it happened or why. There’s a man up there singing about digging a hole! What makes you play like that? I asked him, in nicer words. It’s just what he loves, he responded. It’s what he grew up with.

Or maybe he did the whole sell-your-soul thing. Does the devil still need a banjo picker in 2009? Frank’s 78, “I’ve Always Been a Rambler,” is out now on iTunes (strange, yes) and buzzing in the air near dirt roads in Southern California.

Download:
MP3: Frank Fairfield-“I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground”
MP3: Frank Fairfield-“I’ve Always Been a Rambler”

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