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Review: Frank Fairfield, Out on the Open West

Introducing our newest columnist: Devon Leger! Fans of Acadian music will recognize Devon’s name from La Famille Leger. These days Devon divides his time between playing the fiddle, blogging about the Northwest’s vibrant roots music scene, and running Hearth Music.

Frank Fairfield
Out on the Open West
[Tompkins Square Records (2011)]

By now, Frank Fairfield’s story has passed into legend. He was discovered on the streets of Los Angeles in 2007, where he was busking with his fiddle and banjo and riding around with an old 78 gramophone player strapped to his bike. After opening for the Fleet Foxes in L.A., they invited him to headline their 2008 tour. The indie scene fell in love with his modern anachronisms, and he’s been able to parlay this indie cred into all kinds of great shows across the United States. Now, his second album has been released on the eclectic label Tompkins Square and he’s poised for more press and accolades, all well deserved. But what makes Fairfield tick? Why has his music proven to be so captivating? Indeed, there are some in the world of hardcore old-time music that insist that he’s too scratchy, too affected as a player. As if he was merely trying to ape the old recordings he loves so much. But these critiques are missing the point. This isn’t old music to Fairfield and his music isn’t an anachronism. He sees to the core of old-time music and in it he sees music that fits as easily into our modern, digital world as it did in the early 1900s. He doesn’t see the same disconnect we do, and that’s why his music translates so well.

On Out on the Open Road, Fairfield continues his exploration of the hinterlands of American roots music. He’s still the center of the music, picking banjo and fiddling frantically, and his eerie, otherworldly voice is still the key to his music. On stand-out tracks like “Ruthie” and “Frazier Blues” (listen here); his voice is unsettling and weirdly beautiful at the same time. There’s a sadness at the heart of his music that’s reflected in his voice, in the way he draws out the songs with long, floating notes that flutter gently to the ground. His playing is rough, no doubt about that.

But that’s because his music reflects his emotions. He doesn’t play in the measured, careful style that’s become all too common in today’s old-time music circles. He plays the music with abandon, arms flung wide, falling face-first into the music with no regard for his safety. Listen to his picking on “Someday You’ll Be Free” or his fiddling on “Kings County Breakdown” and you can hear this recklessness. Or better yet, catch him live and see for yourself.

Fairfield is joined by some friends on his new album, like Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, but they mainly play backup. Sounds fine, but I guess I’ll have to wait for my dreamed-of collaboration between Fairfield and Blind Boy Paxton. One track, “Poor Old Lance” hints at a whole other album that could have been. Joined by members of LA gypsy street band The Petrojvic Blasting Company, Fairfield creates an impromptu string quartet of rough-hewn fiddling and wailing singing. It’s a strange sound, but somehow compelling, and makes the listener hungry for more.

Out on the Open West is a complete success, conveying Fairfield’s unique worldview and some of his musical charisma with ease. Hopefully Fairfield’s next album will feature some of his interesting penchant for collaborations. But for now, pick up this album and try out his eclectic taste in old-time music traditions.

Note: Having just received the physical CD, Out on the Open West, I noticed a key point in the credits: Frank wrote all these songs himself! Which is quite impressive, seeing as I had pegged every song as an obscure old tune from his 78 rpm collection. Somehow’s he’s managed to tap so deeply into the tradition that we can no longer tell what’s his and what came before. Which, I suspect, was his plan all along.

—Devon Leger (Shoreline, WA)

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2 comments on “Review: Frank Fairfield, Out on the Open West

  1. Great review, but Frank didn’t write Haste to the Wedding, Turkey In The Straw / Arkansas Traveler, or Texas Farewell – these are traditional (source: liner notes) – thanks!

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