The allure of folk music is its ability to tell stories. And probably the near-mythic sound of the human voice over acoustic guitar.
So it’s no surprise that more than 40 people packed themselves into Rob Poole and Carol Puckett’s living room Sunday night to hear Nashville singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan play the first of this year’s Olive Street House Concerts.
Tasjan, like the many heroes of folk he emulates at various turns (Dylan, Springsteen, Croce), writes songs about myriad facets of life: a Twitter account. A misogynist at a Cat Powers concert. “Popsicles and Bob Dylan and stuff.” And, ever true to folk’s penchant for philosophizing, a train song about a train song (which is really a song about songwriting and being an outsider, which, Tasjan points out, is “folk as hell”).
Tasjan was accompanied by Austin singer-songwriter Bonnie Whitmore, who served as rhythm section on bass and acoustic guitars and lovely harmonic vocalist. Whitmore took the lead on “Too Much Too Soon,” a song she cowrote with Tasjan, giving her the chance to show off her lilting alto vocals–and allowing Tasjan to showcase his guitar work, which is complex and dextrous, and plays well as a layered counterpoint to Whitmore’s lead. The whole set was acoustic, save for Whitmore’s occasional thumping electric bass, but the sound palate was rich and varied and full.
And while a lot of folk music can quickly start to sound alike in its pace and tone, Tasjan clearly draws from a deep well of influences. At times his quiet finger-picking evokes Jim Croce in his more introspective moments, such as on “Living Proof,” while at others his furious riffing conjures the spirit of Springsteen–“Made in America” (even the title references Springsteen) gets closest with its bright swagger and huge chorus. Tasjan is something of a living folk history.
He ended the set with “Streets of Galilee,” a wandering and spacious song featuring mostly minimal guitar picking and Tasjan expounding on topics ranging from the Beatles to MTV. But about halfway through, things shift, and he begins a spoken-word narrative about learning to play guitar and seeing Ted Nugent at the Ohio State Fair when he was 17. It’s deliberately paced, taking upward of ten minutes to unfold, and assumes a prayer-like quality that draws the audience in, right up until he delivers the punch line (“If you’re gonna listen to Ted Nugent, stick to the early stuff!”), and the whole thing breaks wide open and explodes in rapturous noise. It’s at this moment that Tasjan reminds us that while folk’s power is in its stories, it also has the capacity to hit us with visceral force, to knock the wind out of us and render us speechless.