Students gathered last Thursday night in Goodrich Hall to enjoy an intimate evening of free folk music and coffee, courtesy of William’s All-Campus Entertainment (ACE). From 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., singer/songwriter Alex Smith, visiting from St. Lawrence in New York, sang lead vocals and played guitar. He was supported by Jake Brillhart on fiddle and Dylan Rice on bass, mandolin and backup vocals.
Rice tours with Smith regularly but Brillhart accompanies him less frequently. Smith and Brillhart form another band called The Northbound River Band. Smith stated that his strongest influences include Stan Rogers, Bob Dylan, Matthew and the Atlas, Darrell Scott, Tim Obrien and Dave Alvin. Smith’s upcoming album, Hamilton County, will be released this July.
Thursday’s show began promptly with about 25 spectators occupying both levels of Goodrich. Throughout the night, additional audience members arrived and sat increasingly close to the stage. The performers and audience seemed to become more comfortable with each other as the night went on and as Smith interacted with the other musicians and the crowd. While the atmosphere was always informal, it became more so as the musicians smiled to each other and Smith paused to explain songs and share anecdotes.
Smith skillfully wove covers with new, old, released and unreleased originals to create a mix of music throughout the night. However, he consistently played in similar minor keys that did not deviate drastically from one another. The songs were largely similar for most of the night. It is difficult to categorize Smith’s genre; some songs fit more with country styles, while others were of a more traditional folk style.
Most of Smith’s songs were pensive. His more recent songs tended to be more complex and subtle, reflecting Smith’s growth as an artist. His music was grounded, without sounding too heavy or sad, and interspersed with occasional brighter notes and faster tempos. Smith’s lyrics were generally narrative and seemed realistic, current and honest, often addressing social issues of the Adirondack Mountain region.
Smith opened with “Hudson Bay,” from his second album, The North Country Sessions. Brillhart’s fiddle effectively contrasted Smith’s bass voice and Rice’s bass guitar. Rice and Brillhart both showcased their talents in solos and demonstrated impressive skill on their respective instruments, evoking audience applause repeatedly mid-song .
“4 O’Clock In The Morning,” an original song to be released on Hamilton County, was played live for the first time at the show. Smith explained that the lyrics of the song were “about a set of characters who live on opposite sides of the tracks in a small town in the Adirondacks that resembles the one that [he] grew up in, where the divide between rich and poor is extremely visible.”
Brighter notes intermingled with the melancholy tone of the song, building an emotional charge. Smith picked up the tempo in the middle of the tune, lightening it while Brillhart’s longer fiddle notes kept it from becoming too poppy. The mix of brightness and darkness in melody and lyrics made this song one of the most mature and beautiful of the evening.
The performance also included two fiddle tunes written by Brillhart; “Morrison’s Jig” and “Jerry Holland’s Vermont Contingency.” The two songs follow the Cape Breton-style of Nova Scotia and were relatively upbeat and up-tempo. The audience easily absorbed Brillhart’s exuberance as they watched him lose bow hairs from his rapid fiddling.
Smith dispersed several covers of folk and bluegrass songs throughout his original works. These were impressively executed, particularly “The Mountain,” originally by Steve Earle and The Del McCoury Band, and the traditional American folk song, “The Wayfaring Stranger.” Rice played mandolin and sang backup vocals for the first time of the night on “The Mountain.” His support contributed additional dimension to the song, creating a fuller and more powerful sound. “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)” by Bob Dylan and “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show were also popular with the audience. Smith’s voice was particularly suited to “Wagon Wheel,” which he slowed down and made even more serious and earnest than the original.
Near the end of his show, Smith called cellist Mike Ranellone from the audience for accompaniment on “Tracks” off his new album. The song began with low, slow fiddling and grew into melancholy but rich, narrative lyrics. Rice’s backup lyrics and Ranellone’s cello again added depth. Smith’s final song, the slow, gentle “North Point Road” concluded the evening on a calm, relaxed note, leaving the audience to exit Goodrich at their leisure.