Portland, Oregon’s five-piece acoustic ensemble Black Prairie, though somewhat of a side project for all involved, has a rather intriguing repertoire of songs, as well as a lineup of seasoned Northwestern songwriters and musicians. Now, I wasn’t exactly privy to that information when I first listened to them on some random online roots podcast a few months back. The truth is that the podcast exposed me to Black Prairie’s version of the traditional roots song “Red Rocking Chair” in all of its dark, somber and eerie brilliance, at the end of which I found myself so impressed that I immediately tracked down their label, the Nashville-based Sugar Hill Records, and expressed my desire to review their debut album “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.” Even after I’d had “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” in my possession for a number of weeks, listening to it over and over again as I drove through the rustic mountain town that I call home, I hadn’t realized that three of the five members were from the popular neo-folk and indie rock band The Decembrists.
It was while on tour with The Decembrists that Chris Funk, wanting to experiment more with the square-necked Dobro guitar, spoke with bandmate Nate Query, who was no doubt interested in branching out into other styles of music as well, about the idea of putting together a progressive instrumental string band. The opportunity to do so didn’t present itself until a couple years later, though, and that was when Jenny Conlee, also of The Decembrists, jumped aboard with her accordion, along with two other very talented Portland musicians, Annalisa Tornfelt (Woolwines, Bearfoot) on violin and Jon Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) on guitar. Finally, the Black Prairie lineup was complete and ready to do some serious songwriting. And that was exactly what they did.
All five members got together for their first practice in the winter of 2007 and were delighted with the results of that initial session. It wasn’t until 2008, when Funk, Query and Conlee had some downtime from The Decembrists, that they really delved into the Black Prairie endeavor with utter dedication. For the most part, the songs that the five bandmates collectively wrote are progressive string instrumentals, sober and earthy compositions that touch on Americana, bluegrass, Appalachian folk, and country, sometimes all at once, at other times in turns. There is something at once both traditional and experimental in their sound…a sound that is rustic, soulful, rootsy, slightly twangy, a bit gypsy-esque here and there, elegant, sometimes old-timey, sometimes modern, but always marked by a clarity and tightness fundamental to each song’s musical anatomy. All of the instruments complement one another…which is to say, the notes and chords don’t so much co-exist in parallel as they interweave and create brilliant musical patterns. And with each member’s consummate skill with his or her instrument combined with the others, Black Prairie have indeed developed nothing less than a remarkably pure sound. Music for music’s sake.
Invented in the imaginations of the band members, Black Prairie is a fictitious town lacking utterly in geographical specificity. Each is credited with having competed at the annual music festival with his or her instrument of choice, where each has done incredibly poorly. Of course, this bit is meant to be an entirely facetious piece of liner note mythology, made even more so by the fact that they are all musical virtuosos, independently and collectively brilliant in their own right.
What’s more, the way these very talented artists collaborate in their songwriting efforts is a rather organic process, taking place in the comfortable living rooms of their homes rather than cramped practice spaces, dank basements and cold garages. That’s one of the benefits of strictly employing acoustic instrumentation, as well as developing percussive playing techniques on those instruments and forgoing drums altogether.
Since getting my hands on Black Prairie’s “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” I have listened to the song “Red Rocking Chair” more than any of the other thirteen tracks on the album. It’s the slow dexterity with which the song’s string arrangements are executed. But most of all it’s Annalisa Tornfelt’s drowsy, melancholy vocals. Over the years I have heard several versions of this traditional folk song, including that of Appalachian folk artist Dock Boggs’ (only he had referred to it as “Sugar Baby”), and Black Prairie’s is undoubtedly my favorite. In addition to her vocal contribution to “Red Rocking Chair,” Annalisa is featured as a singer on “Single Mistake” and “Blackest Crow,” and both are decidedly better off for it. Tornfelt also shines as a musician throughout “Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.”
Conlee’s accordion serves to lift the music up somewhat, preventing it from getting too lugubrious, while Query presides over the low-end of the compositions with the thick strings of his upright, doing his part for the rhythm. Neufeld’s acoustic guitar playing surrounds it all, shifting back and forth from light picking to solid note-work and chording. Funk’s presence is a guarantee that every song’s structural fortitude remains intact and is built upon with both vision and skill. If ever specific artists were meant to come together to form a musical partnership of acoustic string instruments and occasional vocals, Black Prairie would be it.