The Haden Triplets - The Family Songbook - 4.9.20Thursday, April 09 2020 6pm Doors / 7:30pm Start
The Haden Triplets - The Family Songbook - 4.9.20
at The Wine Garden
The Haden Triplets — Petra, Rachel and Tanya — were born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, and carry between them a list of credits that includes some of the most interesting rock, jazz and experimental music to come along in the past 30 years: that dog., Weezer, Beck, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Jimmy Eat World, Bill Frisell, Sunn O))), Mike Watt, Paul Motian, Silversun Pickups and the Decemberists, to name just a handful
But like their late father, the bassist Charlie Haden, who changed jazz’s trajectory alongside Ornette Coleman beginning in the 1950s, the sisters also belong to the American heartland, and to the winsome family harmony singing of the region’s folk and country music. On The Family Songbook, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2014 self-titled debut, the Haden Triplets mine their heritage more profoundly than ever before. That includes recording recently unearthed songs by their grandfather, Carl E. Haden, a figure of novel-esque dimensions: friend to the Carter Family, Porter Wagoner and other icons, and patriarch of the singing Haden Family, a fascinating footnote in country-music history.
These uncovered gems are lost dispatches from a forgotten America—the mountains and prairies and swamps that conjured up the folk art and culture endlessly mythologized by everyone from Dylan to the Coen brothers. Carl wrote the four tunes here during the Depression, when he was still in his 20s and a rising popular radio performer. They include the achingly beautiful “Who Will You Love (When I’m Gone)” and “Ozark Moon,” as well as the then-topical lament “Memories of Will Rogers,” copyrighted in 1936, the year after the celebrity cowboy perished in a plane crash. (“You just don’t hear songs like that anymore,” Petra reflects.) “There’s a Little Grey Mother Dreaming,” which Carl wrote with his early musical partner Ernest Harvey, an obscure country-and-western singer, is the lone tune for which research yields other recorded versions, by groups like Jim and Bob, a.k.a. the Genial Hawaiians, and the Light Crust Doughboys. The songs made their way to the sisters via uncle Carl Haden Jr., who had recovered his father’s sheet music and relics like the songbook Favorites of the Haden Family. These were published during the years when printed music was still a business akin to the record industry, and the enterprising elder Carl released songs and songbooks, as well as ’zine-like collections of family photos and anecdotes, through the radio stations that broadcast the Haden Family.
But the concept behind the Triplets’ The Family Songbook also transcends ancestry and nostalgia. The project includes a contribution by the sisters’ brother Josh, a brilliant singer-songwriter best known as the force behind the genre-bending indie band Spain. The song, “Every Time I Try,” was included on the soundtrack to director Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence in 1997, and Josh returns to play bass behind his sisters here. Kanye West’s “Say You Will” might seem out of left field, but it fits the sisters’ m.o. to simply seek out great songs, and its stark, flamenco-tinged treatment makes it feel remarkably of a piece with Americana standards like “Wayfaring Stranger,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Wildwood Flower” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” titled here “Pretty Baby.” That tune is featured in a stunning a cappella arrangement inspired by the version heard in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, famously sung by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch.
Sharp song selection means little without excellent arranging, sonics and personnel, and producer Woody Jackson, a longtime friend of the sisters, guided the easygoing, fun sessions with a deft hand. This music is dressed powerfully but sparsely, with the songs and their melodies front and center. In the way of musicianship, The Family Songbook might also considered one of the year’s great guitar records. On three cuts, guitarist Bill Frisell, an enduring family friend and collaborator, and pedal-steel player and guitarist Greg Leisz offer the spellbinding hookup they’ve refined in Charles Lloyd’s Marvels and elsewhere. Woody Jackson contributes ace guitar work alongside fellow picker Doyle Bramhall II on two tracks, and Don Was, on Hammond bass pedals, and the late bassist Larry Taylor, of Canned Heat, cover the low end on select cuts. Overall the backing—from the Band-style stomp of “Will Rogers” to the noir-tinged atmosphere of “Wayfaring Stranger”—upholds the sisters’ harmonies impeccably. Their vocal chemistry is at once tradition-minded and modern; throughout, they demonstrate a dynamic, elastic quality that proves how hard they’re listening to one another. In the end their sound is as otherworldly as ever—evocative of both the old, weird America and a specific brand of vocal charm that anyone who’s minded indie-rock since the early ’90s will recognize.
Growing up in L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s, the girls were raised primarily by their mother, Ellen David, but received regular visits from their father, in between his record dates and gigs with the likes of Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry and Pat Metheny. The music Haden listened to around his daughters was mostly jazz, but the stories he told them reached back even further than his early teens, when his life was transformed upon hearing the bebop pioneer Charlie Parker at a concert in Omaha. “He would tell us about ‘when I was 2, I was yodeling on the radio,’ and he was really proud of it,” Tanya recalls.
What might’ve seemed like the tall tales of a charismatic dad turned out to be the true story of a great American musical life. Singing folk and country-and-western staples in harmony, the Haden Family was a popular attraction on stations including KWTO, out of Springfield, Missouri, where area businesses sponsored their program and they became a hit on the regional fair circuit. Charlie joined the family band as a tot in the late ’30s, and became a featured singer—yodelin’ “Cowboy” Charlie—when he was so young his mother had to hold him up to reach the mic. He sang with the family on the radio well into his teens, including broadcasts from the Hadens’ home on their dairy farm and as part of a hit variety show.
The Haden Triplets weren’t broadcast as tykes, but there love for singing as a family was apparent, as Tanya remembers, “from day one. Especially Rachel and Petra, who had this kind of kinship. They were always singing in harmony and playing these improv games, since we were little, little kids.” The sisters began playing instruments as well, eventually settling on violin for Petra, cello for Tanya and bass and keyboards for Rachel. Charlie had played the Triplets recordings of his “Cowboy” days, and the sisters got a chance to absorb their country-folk heritage firsthand during a series of childhood visits to their grandparents’ Missouri home. Coming from Southern California, where they were ensconced in their mother’s Jewish (and also deeply musical) family, the girls found the experience intoxicating, with all of its quintessentially Midwestern and lovingly old-fashioned grace; here was a cultural birthright they’d never really known, a part of their genealogy both comforting and exotic. There was, of course, plenty of singing taking place, but when the family would try and persuade the girls to join in on a standard like “You Are My Sunshine,” “we started singing but we were too shy,” Petra remembers, chuckling.
The sisters went on to have rich and diverse careers in music and the arts, nerves be damned. Petra has become a much sought-after collaborator on violin and voice, and a small sampling of her recording and touring credits includes Frisell, Green Day, Foo Fighters and Nancy And Beth, the “punk-vaudeville” act created by Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt. She’s also released her own critically lauded albums on labels including ANTI- and Sunnyside.
Petra and Rachel, the latter of whom toured with Todd Rundgren and sang lead on a beloved Weezer B-side, spent a good deal of the ’90s in that dog., where their inimitable harmonies accented hooky, punk-infused power pop. Tanya also played in bands, but took an even greater interest in drawing and painting and animation, eventually earning an MFA in film and video from CalArts, where her father had architected a groundbreaking jazz-education program.
The Triplets recorded some demos a couple decades back that helped them firm up their rapport in roots music, but an album from father-and-daughters was a wish that kept getting kicked down the road. That aspiration was fulfilled in part in 2008, when Charlie Haden released Rambling Boy, an inspired celebration of his country roots featuring his daughters, Josh and a star-packed roster including Metheny, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, Tanya’s husband, the actor and comedian Jack Black, and many others. Poignantly, the album winds down with the vintage recording of “Cowboy” Charlie that the bassist used to play for his daughters, which foreshadows Charlie gently singing lead on “Oh Shenandoah.” “I remember him singing that in the studio,” Petra says, “and it made me cry. He was nervous about singing it because he had polio that affected his throat when he was in his mid-teens, and he had to stop singing.” In January of 2015, the sisters and Josh gave their own heartrending performance of “Shenandoah” at New York’s Town Hall, during a historic memorial concert honoring their father, who’d died the previous July. “I thought it was absolutely beautiful,” Petra remembers of the evening.
A couple years after Rambling Boy, the Haden Triplets portrayed the Fates on singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s folk-opera album Hadestown, a project also boasting three arrangements by the sisters. Early in 2014, the Triplets released their self-titled debut through Jack White’s Third Man Records, with production by Ry Cooder. That relationship with the roots-music legend was facilitated by Cooder’s go-to drummer, his son Joachim, a longtime friend of the sisters who returns to play percussion on The Family Songbook. They’d asked Joachim to accompany them on a benefit gig for L.A. radio station KPFK, and the drummer took his father along. The slide-guitar great was smitten, and the Hadens felt honored. “Ry said, ‘You guys, we have to make a record,’” Tanya recalls. His enthusiasm, along with the Triplets’ gorgeously human, Carters-esque harmonies and Cooder’s expertly rustic guitar work, translated to rave reviews in outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, who commented, “[I]f their self-titled debut album seems like an overdue, common-sense inevitability, it also has the spark of an unexpected grace.”
The Family Songbook also evinces that blend of delightful musical surprise with time-honored tradition. That lived-in, long-running heritage includes the history of American country and folk, sure, but also the indelible connection between the sisters. Or as Rachel describes it, “an unconditional love kind of thing, where I know I always have them.
“I feel the most confident when I sing with my sisters,” she continues. “When I sing alone, I feel like there’s something missing.”
Petra is even more direct: “There’s nothing like family,” she says, “and that feeling you get when you sing with family.”