One strophe into her slowed, soulful adaptation of Canray Fontenot’s “Les Plats Sont Tous Mis Sur La Table,” Leyla McCalla looked up just slightly.
Perhaps it was to take in Cafe Nine’s waitstaff moving with just a little more grace as they soaked in the music. Perhaps to get a better look at a woman in the front row, a snake swaying to her long-lost charmer. Or perhaps to glance at the audience, a packed house transfixed as the sheer depth and whine of her voice filled the room, wrapping from the stage to the back walls and sealing in listeners from the icy night outside.
“Will I find a good job? will I find plates for the table? Are the plates all set?” she sang.
McCalla transformed the earthy Creole standard with a modern touch—Ravi Shankar was having a business meeting with Beyoncé somewhere in her voicebox. Even members of the audience without Creole and French skills could understand the message of the song—an ebb and flow of certainty and uncertainty that had at its base the story of a house, and one man’s life within it
That was the scene Saturday night at Cafe Nine, where McCalla headlined a a celebration of folk music presented by Oddball Entertainment and also featuring Leila Crockett, and Lara Herscovitch. The performers not only honored the folk tradition but suggested a reinvention of it.
The evening allowed three extremely accessible performers to interact with their listeners, playing off of them – and each other – as they showed that a recently renewed interest in folk music has no right to stop at golden boys Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford, or boys in general.
McCalla (pictured) is a classically trained cellist and former member of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, was the event’s main attraction; she is touring with a new album and equally new husband in tow.
The show she headlined drew its strength from a layering of unbending female voices over three hours.
As the opening act, Leila Crockett (pictured above) set a strong groundwork, pairing whip-smart lyrics with a soft voice, flinty at its very edges, and an utterly up-front “write what you know” mentality. Her pieces, imbued with personal wit and frank anecdote, tell winding, hard-to-stomach and harder to turn away from stories; playing only a handful of songs, she laid her cards bravely on the table, and each time, the audience swooped in to pick them up.
The re-inventive slant of the evening continued with Lara Herscovitch. A former Connecticut state troubadour who classifies herself as a part-time folk singer and full time activist, she uses her experience in juvenile justice advocacy and policy to inform her songwriting. While her lyrics can border on preachy – she is at times reminiscent of Ani DiFranco without the casual ignorance – her folksy and political style meshed with Crockett’s and McCalla’s, drawing from figures including Martin Luther King, Jr., Woodie Guthrie, Winston Churchill, Yoda in his most philosophical moments, and even the Elm City (Who here is a NUTMEGGER!? she cried to a raucous cheer from the audience).
More important, she added to the stage another unabashedly assertive voice, joking between songs that her quick response to a critic that suggested she was not folksy enough was to write a song titled fittingly “well, folk you.”
This build of the personalized and the punchy came to a mesmerizing head with McCalla’s feature performance, a fusion of New Orleans jazz and blues, Creole and Troubadour music, poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, and the musician’s own Haitian roots.
Accompanied by Taylor Smith on bass and Marshall Baker on fiddle, McCalla, alternated between cello and banjo. She offered the audience half-song half-stories – and handfuls of them – that paid tribute to Canray Fontenot, Alan Lomax, Langston Hughes and others. Singing in both Creole and English, she channeled two of folk’s fundamental tenets: oral tradition and cross-cultural boundaries.
Her song “Manman Mwen,” for instance, adopts a story from Lomax’s recordings in Haiti, recounting a story of a girl who is sent to the river to catch a crawfish, by which her mother (Maman) means “catch a man.”
Her music reaches far beyond folk alone. A seductive mix of Deb Talan, Angélique Kidjo, Sweet Emma Barrett, Fontenot and something completely of her own creation, McCalla begs the audience to lean forward and crawl in to the deepest reaches of her voice with a single croon. When she changes to a wail, it is enough to bring a tall man to his knees.
Yet the house seemed to stay on its toes for the duration of the performance. One audience member shouted out a collective sentiment as McCalla thanked listeners for braving the show: “You were well worth it!” from the dark back of the house.
It was true. McCalla wraps up her tour in the next two weeks, and doubtless a new fan group in the Elm City is already wondering when she will be back.