Reviewer: John Chandler, Issue date: 4/11/2003

New York antifolkers seek some well-deserved public approval

For every musical movement that is considered newsworthy, there are countless musicians who end up getting shut out. Perhaps they aren’t particularly photogenic, or their music is too complicated to explain in 25 words or less. Yet often it’s those artists who feel marginalized by both culture and society who make the boldest sounds.

Casey Holford is a singer-songwriter from the East Village in New York City and a card-carrying member of the antifolk scene, a movement spawned in the mid-’80s by younger musicians frustrated with the growing complacency among owners of New York folk clubs. Few venues were willing to take on these scruffy lads and lasses singing aggressively personal and political songs. Instead, the gigs went to old-guard singers rehashing tired folk standards. Among the shutouts were the likes of Ani DiFranco, Shawn Colvin and Roger Manning.

“I think antifolk, sort of like the larger punk ethos, has a kind of musical dissent to it that attracts people who are sick of being told what to like,” Holford says. “If punk is about asking ‘why’ at all important junctions in one’s creative, social, political life, then antifolk is about asking why songs — not just folk songs — have to be slick and neat in order to be worthwhile.”

Holford is the point man for the “Public Approval Tour,” a rambling caravan of antifolk barnstormers heading to Portland. In addition to taking on the logistics of booking gigs and dealing with club owners and the press, Holford is an artist who has gotten used to being on the outside looking in, staring in disbelief at the state of music gone haywire.

“Musicians growing up in this country have to deal with the issue of finding roots for their entire lives,” he says. “We get plopped down into this conglomerate entertainment culture where every song … sounds either a little or a lot like the one before it.

“I think the difference between folk now and folk before the birth of the rock-star archetype is that now folk is seen as a genre that any garage band can slip into by doing ‘MTV Unplugged,’ ” Holford continues. “Before, folk music was a way of communication. It was a way to hear stories, to pass them along, to gather together and be connected. … The history of the folk tradition humbles me.”

Touring with Holford, who writes and performs songs that describe his ongoing search for things of value and permanence in a society he sees as rapidly decaying, are three women artists, each bearing gifts lively and unique. Jenn Lindsay is a firebrand folkie, singing songs such as “I’m Not Going Home Yet,” a bulldozer of a tune that in rapid-fire lyrical fashion paints a tough-as-nails picture of living in the shadow of poverty in New York City.

Robin Aigner has a bit of the cowboy troubadour in her. Though draped in traditional folk style, Aigner’s outlaw songs about her family, friends and lovers are thoroughly modern and intimate.

Described as the love child of Joan Baez and Weird Al Yankovic, Phoebe Kreutz “is the closest thing we have to a stand-up act,” Holford says. “She’s really startlingly funny, because her writing is straight from the everyday, whether she’s singing about wanting to be a viking or scolding you for peeing in her pool.” Kreutz also has a marvelous song called “Taco Bell,” about falling for a fast-food employee and winding up with a sour stomach instead of a broken heart.

The “Public Approval Tour” is a low-rent affair, and the featured artists struggle mightily to put out records and gain an audience. MP3s and Internet radio have helped their cause, but for the most part Holford and his friends live pretty close to the bone. Even so, they remain optimistic that music and culture are showing signs of opening up its doors to them.

“It would be amazing if more people caught on and reached out for independent music, but I think the outlook is good, because you know it’s happening all the time, all over the place,” Holford says. “Folks buying an indie record online just don’t make as much noise as the companies who take out full-page ads in Billboard.

“It seems to me that the real change will come from people deciding to turn off the new adult contemporary chart-topper and look for something more satisfying.”

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