You’ve got one chance left to see the amazing Willi Carlisle in his solo show There Ain’t No More! Death of a Folksinger before he blows town for parts north (Maine and New Hampshire, I understand). In an age when even our “folksingers” tend to be narcissistic careerists, Carlisle is traditional beyond your great-grandfather’s wildest dreams, dedicating himself to the Voice of the People rather than road maps of his own navel. He is a kind of folk music superman, both scholar and showman. He plays fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica (while he plays guitar, using a harp-holder like Dylan and others), and accordion (or some kind of sub-accordion squeeze-box, which is impressive enough). He sings like an angel. And he dazzles with tricks — he can dance while he plays, and even does crazy juggling tricks with his banjo without missing a chord during the tune. He’s also a first rate poet, story teller, and actor, with a presence more than a little like Victor Buono.
That said, There Ain’t No More is strongest as a concert, by several orders of magnitude. The production has ambitions beyond this, but the other theatrical elements (script and direction, in that order) lag far behind Carlisle’s pure, honest and exuberant brilliance as a musical performer. He’s well worth seeing on the strength of that alone, in spite of some Brechtian aspirations that lard the overall evening down. But Carlisle himself makes me extremely hopeful. 40, 50 and 60 years ago, New York city was full of hundreds, maybe thousands of performers like him, devoted to keeping the old cultural folkways of the past alive. But then the weathervane changed direction and everyone began penning their own songs. I ran an open mike night for two years and I can tell you that while the performers are often great (this is New York, after all) their songs are frequently dreadful. In my 30 years of living here and paying attention, he’s the first guy I’ve come across who’s making it about the FOLK. (For a couple of related essays about what I think that is, go here and here).