“What defines a ‘Connecticut sound’?” is a question that’s inevitably on my mind, especially after watching Springsteen on Broadway, where the Boss declaims his rough, muscular poetry on the meaning of Freehold, New Jersey.
Tuesday night at Cafe Nine was a good time to think about place and meaning, thanks to a bill of the Dogbite Duo (led by Hugh Birdsall) and Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters. “But The Honeycutters aren’t from New England!” you protest. True. Wait for it.
Hugh Birdsall has been on the Connecticut folk scene since at least the mid-1980s (discography)… and to me, this is important learning, because you don’t come to a new state knowing the whole illustrious past of local music, especially when you come from a state that doesn’t have one. In Arizona, it was incredibly rare for me to hear someone my age or older playing in a band — especially playing original music — and in Connecticut, it’s another Tuesday. This is because we have roots here and people stay their whole lives, and that has to shape a music scene in ways I’d like to understand better.
The crowning moment for me was “Take Me Home,” which was introduced as “sort of a reverse ‘California Dreaming.'” It’s about ditching California for the grungy bliss of New England. I’d just come back from a California trip that I hadn’t enjoyed, so “Take Me Home” spoke to me. Deeply. It also has the merit of admitting straight up that southern Connecticut is a messy little dive… it’s just that it’s our dive. (Also, the song has that eerie whale-song feel that creates longing for Long Island Sound from the first few notes.)
Obviously, there’s a discography dive ahead for me.
Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters launched into their set with a song about moving back to the family farm in the Midwest to recover from tough times — and it was the rootsiest, ruefullest thing. It felt exactly the way I remember rural Minnesota summer nights, with the corn coming up, the wild grapes growing down by the river, and the summer air heavy with hope and ghosts.
Platt is from Asheville, North Carolina, so most of the set felt more like the Appalachians, in a modern, thoughtful way that gives the rootsiness a faint hint of pop — like, we’ve got your murder ballads, yes, and we also have the corner drugstore and the Walmart out on the strip, and radio playing the hits, and this is all texture of the same life.
Lyrically, Platt is one of those songwriters who’s super-specific with details, so if you aren’t smelling the mountain air, you probably have a cold and should take some decongestant. Having heard Stephen Kellogg’s story of the label suits who said his songs had too much detail for people to relate — I don’t buy that reasoning. When an artist goes into specific detail, the instrumental music (and to some extent, the word choice), tells me what feeling goes with the words, and I share in the experience by thinking back to my experiences that generated similar feelings.
In this vein, since I was obsessing about songs about place, here’s “The Things We Call Home.”
I didn’t even try for video of most of the show, as I was sitting at the bar so I could chat with a music afficionado who’s been generous in educating me about the local scene. But I do try to grab a cover song when one goes by, since it’s an accessible entry point for some music listeners. Here’s Platt’s delightful cover of Merle Haggard’s highly geographic “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me,” with apologies for how my phone handled the lighting.