One of the primary characteristics of folk music is its flexibility. Strains of what we consider folk, particularly the Irish, British or American varieties of it, appear across a broad cross-section of music, in a wide range of guises. On May 15, SPACE Gallery pulled numerous strands of modern folk together to form a fine survey of what is going on the small-label level, far from the stomping and whooping of the more populist stuff. Centered around the album-release party for Blood Warrior, a side project for O’Death’s Greg Jamie, the evening showcased three sets of disparate, acoustic-based acts.
Chicago-based Ryley Walker opened the bill, touring behind his sparkling 2015 album “Primrose Green.” Walker is a virtuosic guitar player and showed off these talents over a set of songs that unfurled in a slow, luxurious fashion, often taking several minutes longer to saunter around to the vocals than they do on the album. Once they arrived at that point, Walker’s vocals alternated between tuneful yelping and soulful crooning. Singing over relaxed and slightly jazzy arrangements, Walker strode alongside historical giants, recalling no less than “Tupelo Honey”-era Van Morrison and “Aoxomoxoa”-era Grateful Dead.
With a low admission price and a full Friday of events in Portland, attendees slipped in and out of SPACE Gallery throughout the evening, and Rhode Island-based Death Vessel drew the biggest crowd. There are reasons for this; the band’s frontman, Joel Thibodeau, grew up in the Kennebunk area, and his band has made a concerted effort to return to Maine often and grow a regional fan base.
At this particular show, Thibodeau left his bandmates at home and performed solo, with just an acoustic guitar. Putting his evocative and slightly androgynous timbre at the fore – a voice ethereal enough to attract no less than Sigur Ros’ Jónsi as a kindred spirit – Thibodeau’s set had an intimate, campfire feel. Without his band’s rhythmic punch and atmospheric effects, his naturalist subject matter came off less otherworldly and more Earthly. When he repeated the closing refrain of “Velvet Antlers,” for example – “I don’t want to know about anything in the least / Every animal is a certain kind of beast” – the sentiment hung raw and exposed to the elements, unable to cloak itself with the delicate instrumentation that adorns the usual arrangement.
Blood Warrior closed the evening with a suite of songs from their latest album, “Letter Ghost” (which boasts a beautiful cover by Portland artist Kris Johnsen). With O’Death, Jamie carves canals of dark subject matter, true to the band’s name, and fills them out with ornate, Gothic instrumentation. The setup for Blood Warrior was more stripped down, as Jamie sat on a dimly lit stage with only multi-instrumentalist Joey Weiss (who primarily played a harmonium) and strummed winding, narrative-driven songs that tipped a cap just an inch in the tradition of Irish folk music. The set was carefully mannered, providing not Friday evening fireworks but a whisper to send us off into the darkness of the night.
WHAT: Blood Warrior, Death Vessel and Ryley Walker
WHERE: SPACE Gallery, Portland
WHEN: May 15