Haunting Appalachian Duo Anna & Elizabeth Join a Fantastic Acoustic Americana Bill at the Jalopy on the 14th
Every January, Ken Waldman – who calls himself “Alaska’s Fiddling Poet” – puts together a tremendous multiple-act bill at the Jalopy. This year’s starts at 8 PM on January 14, with a ton of individualistic oldtime and newschool acoustic Americana talent. Waldman – a starkly distinctive and erudite player – opening the evening, backed by a rotating cast from the rest of the night’s acts. Then there’s honey-voiced singer/banjo player Evie Ladin with Keith Terry, then Anna & Elizabeth, who are a time machine back to Appalachia in the 1800s, with a delightfully imaginative, visual component to their act; powerful Appalachian banjoist, singer and luthier Riley Baugus; coyly edgy pre-rockabilly duo the Aching Hearts (Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells); the mighty banjo-fiddle team of Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton; the wild oldtimey/punkgrass Corn Potato String Band; and Mo Mojo playing zydeco at the top of the bill. Cover is $15, not bad considering how much music there is.
Of all the acts on the bill, arguably the most mesmerizing one is Anna & Elizabeth, who are unsurpassed as eerie connoisseurs of classic and arcane Appalachian songs. They accompany many of these old ballads and dance numbers with handmade “crankies,” an early 19th century ancestor of the nickelodeon which helps flesh out their colorful and often very troubled narratives. Their richly lyrical, often outright haunting sixteen-track debut album is streaming at Spotify, and there are a handful of tracks up at the duo’s music page if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to have to deal with killing the volume for the ads.
Both singers have instantly recognizable voices. Elizabeth LaPrelle’s is more rustic, otherworldly and cutting. Anna Roberts-Gevalt – who also plays elegantly and animatedly on guitar, banjo and harmonium- provides a gentler, balmier balance to the duo’s harmonies. The album opens with the weary, antique a-cappella ambience of Long Time Travelin’ and ends with a lilting, hypnotically circling banjo dance number, Ida Red. In between, a lot of these songs employ open tunings; the most stark ones don’t even change chords. LaPrelle’s clipped understatement makes the vengeful fire-and-brimstone imagery of Little Black Train all the more resonant. Likewise, Roberts-Gevalt nails the quiet, brooding angst of Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow – and her stark churchbell guitar motif on the way out is spot-on.
Some of the other most striking tracks on this time-warping mix include an upbeat,waltzing cautionary tale for wartime lasses, a droning Renaissance retelling of the Orpheus myth; a hilarious, innuendo-drenched, surprisingly jazzy fisherman’s wife’s reverie; a chilling a-cappella gospel duet; an even creepier murder ballad, banjo tunes about the Civil War and troubles in general; country gospel waltzes and strolls, and a wary love song or two. All this doesn’t do justice to the nuance and vividness that the duo bring to these old tunes. Life was hard, short. and people seized what they could get in those days, and Anna & Elizabeth’s take on them puts a similar grip on you.