A few years ago, there was a secret attic space in an old house on a rough street in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, Massachusetts. Well, the attic is still there, but its musical magic isn’t.
The old house on 84 Allston Street used to host monthly musical gatherings referred to as “hootenannies.” The small, friendly gather-around-the-fire shows encouraged unknown local musicians to take the stage, which was a three-foot space on the floor, at the back end of a packed attic. Eventually the shows became so famous that people would wait downstairs in the house, only to catch a moment’s glimpse of the coveted performances. Friends brought whiskey and bottles of 40s, but nothing ever got out of hand like the usual Allston parties. Summers were the stickiest, and winters were the warmest.
The group of friends who started the hoots were tight-knit college pals who had a sincere appreciation for folk music and all-things traditional. They knew all the classic folk singers, and they were extremely opinionated about contemporary music. The lead of the group, Vincent Bancheri, had based the musical hoots off the 1960s television show “Hootenanny” that brought some of the best American folk artists to a mainstream audience during the genre’s heyday.
Bancheri also brought small acts to the forefront with his shows. Names like Old Hannah, Spitzer Space Telescope, Barna Howard, and Bancheri’s own project, Lonesome Vince, became highlights in the Boston scene. Eventually the hootenannies grew so popular that Bancheri and his friends carried the idea to a larger space across the river in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they filled large auditoriums and sold screen-printed tickets to loyal fans. Bancheri and his friends were inspirational; they talked about having dreams and going after them. Soon enough, Bancheri shared a dream of his own:
“I’m putting together a record label. We’re moving out to Portland. It’ll be cheaper there, and the scene’s welcoming,” he told Hoot fans. Most Boston music acts didn’t leave Boston, so it was a surprise to hear about such a big move.
Now, a couple years later, Bancheri has his label and all the fine things that come with it. He and his friends have a house and a studio in Portland, where they run the label and present new Portland hootenannies. The label’s called Mama Bird Recording Co.
One of the artists on the label is an aforementioned friend of Bancheri’s, Missouri-born Barna Howard. Howard’s full-length, self-titled debut record was released February 21. Several years in the making and maintaining the principles of Mama Bird, the record has a classic folk sound highlighting Howard’s ever-impressive poetry and guitar playing. The album itself is musically simple–nothing overdone or overwhelming. The cover is the same way, featuring Howard’s profile in a grainy, 70s-like image. Howard explains:
Since the album is very raw and stripped back, I made sure to integrate a certain texture for each track. Many of the songs out there that have inspired me over the years, were written a long time ago. I have always found the quality of those recordings to be important. Eliminating bells and whistles from this first album, in a way, acts as an homage to those early days of recording.
The musician’s work reminds us of the powerful partnership of vocals and guitar. His 10-track album is like a time capsule that brilliantly brings back classic sounds from the past (think Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young), but lyrically stays relevant. His songs cover a range of topics, from childhood memories like the song “It Hurts to know” to an old lost love in the album’s single, “Promise, I Won’t Laugh.” The most striking track on the album is “I’ll Let You Pick A Window,” where Howard talks about experiencing something new and taking the risk to leave a place of comfort. He describes the comfort so casually before he throws in a chilling, minor-note refrain, “Well how’s about moving to the sunny side of the country / I’ll let you pick a window.” The song’s words seem so perfectly pondered and placed.
Another album highlight is the song “I Don’t Fall Much Anymore,” a catchy track about not trusting love and not being able to fall for anyone. The lyrics are blunt and storylike, as Howard recalls snippets of romantic relics and the moments where things fell apart. He sums it all up in the chorus, “I don’t fall much anymore / But one day I hope that all can change / One day I hope to fall again.”
The album doesn’t have any fast-paced sing-alongs, but it doesn’t have to. Each song on the album could stand alone but sounds even better among nine other tracks that are just as good.
Howard ends the album with the rich guitar track “Timber, Nails And Tears,” an old-fashioned war-time song of love, written from the perspective of a father, for a daughter. The song is incredibly mature and doleful, as Howard sings about nostalgia and the longing for home, a story that Howard of course conjured in his head somehow amongst all his other masterly crafted tunes.
Recorded with a vocal mic, a guitar mic, and a four-track machine, Barna Howard’s record is a vastly mature and refreshing array of modern folk songs. The artist represents folk music at its finest.
Listen to Barna Howard’s single, “Promise, I Won’t Laugh”: