Newspaper Clippings - T&G Review


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Plainfolk does it the old-fashioned way

Scott McLennan
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Entertainment Columnist


Plainfolk, from left: guitarist Barry Sullivan, bassist John Costello, singer Charlie Ball and banjo player Dennis Costello.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Green Rooster Coffeehouse, United Congregational Church, 6 Institute Road, Worcester
How much: $12

Explorers bravely going into uncharted territories. People losing their homes in the name of progress. Selfless courage in the face of disaster. A willingness to fight — and die — for what you believe in.

These are some examples of really good fodder for folk songs, and the band Plainfolk artfully wove such material into its latest batch of songs.

“Nobody wants to hear about my life,” said Charlie Ball, Plainfolk’s chief songwriter and singer. “It’s boring.”

While that is up for debate, what is clear is how Plainfolk refuses to buy into modern folk trends of using songs to explore one’s own psyche. The words “I,” “Me” or “My” do not appear in any of the song titles on Plainfolk’s new album, “Past Due.”

Plainfolk celebrates the release of “Past Due” with a concert Saturday at The Green Rooster Coffeehouse in the United Congregational Church, 6 Institute Road, Worcester. The disc will also be available online at the band’s Web site,

Plainfolk formed in 1978 with guitarist and singer Barry Sullivan, guitarist, banjo player and singer Dennis Costello and singer-songwriter Ball. Dennis’ brother John Costello joined on bass and vocals a few years after Plainfolk (while still known as Plain Folk) had made inroads into Worcester’s pub circuit with a repertoire of traditional American and Irish folk material.

Others have passed trough the Plainfolk ranks, but only to join the Costellos, Sullivan and Ball, not to replace one of them.

All that time together has paid off in the form of hardy vocal harmonies and sharper musical precision in terms of tailoring the rustic music to best fit the deft wordplay at work in the songs. Plainfolk also has a clear, unified view of itself, to the point where Sullivan brought in a couple of songs for Ball and him to work on as a team. You won’t find such collaborations on Plainfolk’s last record, nor will you find those songs to be anything but seamless fits on the new album.

Plainfolk last released an album in 1996, the well-received “The View From Here.” That album spawned an anthem of sorts with “Fireman’s Prayer,” a song adopted by fire departments around the world. The song became particularly resonant in 1999 when six firefighters in Worcester lost their lives fighting a warehouse blaze, and again in 2001 when firefighters were on the front lines of the 9-11 attacks in New York City and the Pentagon.

Plainfolk also found a bit of fame with its single “The Smiley Face Song: The Ballad of Harvey Ball.” Plainfolk’s wordsmith is the son of the artist who created the cheery icon.

Ball said he is especially pleased that “Fireman’s Prayer” was there for the using and not created in response to any particular event or tragedy. The songwriter cringes whenever he senses something artificial lurking around folk music. And that sense of quality control in part explains how 10 years lapsed between Plainfolk records.

“Life happens. This isn’t the only thing we do,” Ball said. “We are four ordinary, middle-aged men leading ordinary, middle-aged lives. And there is some value to that. It’s not like we live on the road experiencing one week 52 times. Five years ago, we didn’t have a collection of songs we could call an album. And if we sat down to write enough songs we thought fit, then that’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Instead, Plainfolk went looking for good stories to tell.

“Past Due” opens with “Blackstone Valley,” a song written about seven years ago when Plainfolk decided to bring a gift to the fans in southern Worcester County and in Rhode Island who without fail invited the band to play annual events. The tune is all about the way communities grew along the Blackstone River and how economic and environmental issues played out over time.

Ball said that songs about places are great tools for connecting with an audience. The older song “Amoskeag Mill,” he explained, unexpectedly became Plainfolk’s calling card in the region around the Merrimack River.

The new record visits Hadley by way of “Skinner Mountain,” goes to Gloucester to revisit the tragedy of “A Perfect Storm,” and travels home to “Union Station.”

The album also has two outstanding historical sketches. “The Last Waltz at Enfield” imagines the final days for those living in the towns destroyed for the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. “Halifax Down” relays how Bostonians were among the first to respond to an explosion in the Halifax, Nova Scotia, harbor that leveled the city in 1917. The song explains why Boston’s municipal Christmas tree is each year a gift from the people of Nova Scotia.

“These are the kinds of things that need to be remembered, recaptured and retold,” Ball said.

“They Sailed,” “Spirit” and “Keepers of Your Flame,” those first two generated by Sullivan, are patriotic pieces, cutting through politics to simply highlight whatever admirable motives are behind someone’s willingness to serve this country. Even as those songs travel to the present, they retain the language and the sound of Plainfolk’s songs that live in earlier eras.

Though Plainfolk frees its songs from contemporary bonds, the music inevitably ends up sounding timeless.

“We’re just telling stories. They get reinforced through repetition in the choruses and in the ways the melodies work. When I get told, ‘I couldn’t get that chorus out of my head,’ I love that,” Ball said. “My folk Utopia is to have people humming or singing one of my songs years from now. I don’t care if they forgot my name as long as they remembered the song.”