Moving on Music invite the Californian folk stalwart to perform on the Belfast Barge, fiddle and all
In the wake of the mainstream success of Appalachian-influenced contemporary bands such as Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes, there has been a marked increase in the prevalence of live acts jumping on the folksy bandwagon.
While the former may not exactly be this reviewer’s cup of tea (or moonshine, as the case may be), Frank Fairfield most certainly is. Having had an affinity for down-home Americana for as long as I can remember, Fairfield is as authentic as they come.
It seems that I am not the only one in this rickety old boat. A relatively large crowd are on board the Belfast Barge to see the Californian folk/roots singer perform as part of the Moving On Music initiative.
Despite taking to the small stage in an unassuming and vaguely awkward manner (sitting himself down between a selection of beat-up instruments), Fairfield’s musical prowess and ability to captivate an audience are evident from the outset as he launches into a fiddle reel, rigidly keeping time by tapping a brown brogue on the floor.
After starting slow, the song builds to a frenzied crescendo. Fairfield gleefully swings his bow arm and stomps both feet in double-time with such velocity that at least a few audience members (judging by their worried expressions) fear for the stage’s structural integrity.
It's all part of the show. Fairfield is as animated and energetic as it is possible for a man in a chair to be. Despite being in his early 20s, there is an age-old weariness to his gate, though one suspects that this is all a part of the act too.
Fairfield states early on that he is ‘not a scholar’ and that he ‘doesn’t give a damn about time period. I just like to sing nice songs’, he continues, grinning. ‘Most of the songs on the radio these days aren’t nice songs.’
While decrying his scholarly status, it is evident that the performer has a great deal of musical knowledge, prefacing most of the rags and reels with a little historical context. Arguably the most engaging performances of the evening are the various cowboy songs, which invariably recount tales of drinking, death, religion, poverty and murder.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Many of these old tunes come laced with a wry sense of gallows humour. There are plenty of laughs to had by Fairfield and the audience alike. As the man himself says, when referring to playing such songs to an audience, ‘we do these things to feel something together’.
At one point Fairfield mentions that there is a violinist of some repute in the audience, and that he feels ashamed ‘just screeching around’ on his fiddle. Such modesty, whilst charming, is unwarranted, with the young performer displaying serious musical chops as he not only jumps between fiddle, banjo and guitar, but experiments with a host of different tunings on the fly.
While much of the set is made up of instrumentals, plenty allow Fairfield to show off his reedy tenor vocals, which sound as well-worn as the songs themselves. Fairfield reveals the provenance of some songs derived from western European (and specifically Irish) melodies.
With this in mind, it feels appropriate when Fairfield ends the night with an Irish song turned cowboy staple, 'Rye Whiskey', before segueing into 'Texas Farewell'.
Perhaps the most affirming element of Fairfield’s show is his ability to show that these old songs are still relevant today. ‘These songs have always been popular, and they still are,' he beams. ‘There’s always been pining for the good ol’ days. Some of these songs were written in the 1800s and are about pining for a simpler time.'
Although Fairfield describes himself as ‘just a boy’, tonight’s performance shows that he is musically mature beyond his years.