Valley native, Tim Eriksen breaks from his punk rock roots

By Garth Brody

Tim Eriksen, the folk music laureate of Western Massachusetts, has come quite a long way from his hardcore punk roots. Friday night, he came back to Northampton for a solo concert at the Iron Horse Music Hall.

Though flanked by a stable of at least five stringed instruments of various persuasions, he led off with an affecting a cappella performance of “Farewell to Old Bedford,” showcasing the precision and power of his unique singing technique. His vocals are heavily influenced by the Sacred Harp musical tradition; its slightly nasally style, coupled with well controlled dynamics that seem to follow the melody, perfectly suits the classic folk songs with which Eriksen is most comfortable.

Slowly building steam from the vocal solo, he raised his fiddle and transitioned into the somber “O Death.” Finally, he gave the audience something with a little pep, picking up the tempo (but only a little bit) for “Friendship.” His rhythm was driving, even if his only means of percussion was his left foot.

From there, he moved through a range of folk tunes, often leading in with an appropriate story. He preceded one song with a story of a dusty old Tennessee craftsman who built the unusual looking banjo he was about to use. Another story detailed the extent of a mouse infestation in an old house he once lived in. The stories themselves were funny and well-told, feeling at times like understated tall tales, and the relevant songs somehow kept the relatable charm of the stories while throwing them earnestly into the folk timelessness.

Besides personal accounts, he gave several pieces of historical background on the music. About half of the songs came from a particular place of origin – Finland, Macedonia, Ireland and Northampton to name a few. The last song before the encore was prefaced with the story of its author (or arranger, at least), the eccentric preacher “Crazy” Lorenzo Dow.

The stories and the histories certainly enhanced the already impressive performance, but Eriksen fortunately has his priorities straight. At one point in between songs, he quipped that in a parallel career to his musical one, he would become a comedian who told exclusively old jokes; he proceeded to carefully butcher the one about the elephant in the pajamas. Appropriately, the layers of hilarious irony stopped there, and he went on to another song.

Thanks to his musical prowess and commanding vocal presence, Eriksen performed songs usually played with a band, like “Sweet William” (from “Can I Sleep?” by his band Cordelia’s Dad), bringing a stirring intimacy to each arrangement. Also thanks to his musical mastery, he was able to use all of the instruments on stage at least once. Over the course of the performance, he commanded the hypnotic acoustic majesty of the fiddle, banjo, guitar, bajo sexto and even the (perhaps not so majestic but definitely hypnotic) jaw harp.

And it wouldn’t be a folk show (and he couldn’t call himself a Sacred Harp man) without a little audience participation. Twice during the set, he started a song by informing the audience, unobtrusively and without presumptuousness, that “it’s got this chorus” – he would then proceed to sing said chorus a few times, and when it next rolled around, the room would echo with voices.

This is how a hardcore punk guy becomes family friendly without selling out. His stage presence Friday night was consistently sincere and unassuming, his stories were surprisingly funny without being edgy, and his songs’ lyrics – usually detailing either unrequited love or death, or more often a combination thereof – may have been tragic and reflective, but their memorable melodies (they’ve lasted this long, haven’t they?) offered enough comfort to keep the darkness of their lyrical content at bay.

Tim Eriksen’s performance at the Iron Horse was a warm reminder of the universal appeal of folk music played well. Hopefully, he will continue to perform in the Pioneer Valley for a long time to come; we will need something to wet our appetites while we wait for the Cordelia’s Dad live double album, which, Eriksen joked, will come out just as soon as record companies exist again.

            Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]