Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Joe Deuel
From Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco to Sawyer Fredericks, Caffe Lena has acted as launching pad for singer-songwriters for more than a half century now. But another part of the Caffe’s mission is keeping alive the traditional folk music of the past and presenting it to contemporary audiences.
Earlier this month, Brooklyn-based trio the Down Hill Strugglers played two 35-minute sets at the coffeehouse, and there was nary an original, self-penned tune in the bunch. Instead, they served up a high-spirited evening of genuine old-timey music – fiddle tunes, rags, reels, spirituals, breakdowns with a ballad or two tossed in for good measure along the way. And along the way, they proved that old-timey music is timeless.
The band – featuring Eli Smith on banjo, Jackson Lynch on fiddle and Walker Shepard on guitar – draws obvious inspiration from Harry Smith’s classic “Anthology of American Folk Music” (the touchstone of the ’60s folk revival), the Holy Modal Rounders and especially the New Lost City Ramblers. In fact, the Ramblers’ John Cohen is one of their primary mentors. But the Down Hill Strugglers brought their own contemporary verve to such warhorses as the lively “Sally Ann” and “Turkey in the Straw,” which closed out their first set in fine twin-fiddle fashion.