march 2011

Andy Friedman: In the end, a humanist.

Folk Songs For Our American Age

By David McGee

Andy Friedman
City Salvage Records

If Andy Friedman keeps making records as compelling as Laserbeams and Dreams, his third, being identified as a New Yorker cartoonist will soon become the last mentioned of his accomplishments. Recorded with a tight, discreet trio featuring his own lightly strummed acoustic guitar, his producer David Goodrich on electric and acoustic guitars and piano, and acoustic bassist Stephan Crump, Friedman’s followup to his critically acclaimed 2009 effort, Weary Things, the new album is a straightforward, direct an exercise in storytelling as ambitious in scope as its subtle cover photo is deceptively rustic. The title track of of Weary Things has been hailed by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor as a “certified, genuine American tune.” The same might be said of all the songs on Laserbeams and Dreams, as its 11 original tunes and one short, transitional instrumental theme (“Pretty Great”) are distinctively American in sensibility and text. There are moments here when Brooklyn native Friedman recalls the late, great Fred Neil, not so much in voice (Neil had a beautiful, expressive tenor; Friedman’s tenor is more monotone but colored by an engaging weary quality that happens to lend it a folk singer’s conversational quality) as in his penchant for the tale told well; Goodrich signing on as producer is interesting in that he has done good work with Chris Smither, with whom Friedman shares some tendencies toward introspective, personalized narratives.

Andy Friedman, ‘Roll On, John Herald,’ at WNRN in Charlottsville, VA, December 11, 2009. The song is featured on Friedman’s new album, Laserbeams and Dreams.

On the other hand, neither these or any other artists really write like Friedman, who is nothing less than a folk artist for his time. He sings not of the Columbia rolling on or the wreck of the old 97; his is the America we live in today--in “Quiet Blues,” his gentle howl at the accumulating demands of technology on our days, he sings of “the ringing of a cellular phone” and laments how “digital depression drove the quiet blues away,” perhaps hinting that he might write about the wreck of the old 97 if he could just get some peace and, yes, quiet to ponder its import. In his gently swaying country blues of “Old Pennsylvania,” a love song to the natural beauty of the Keystone State in late fall, amidst the vivid depictions of “orange leaves outside/dry logs along the drive” and the “Aztec sun,” we learn he’s listening to Bruce Hornsby and the Range “on the little hi-fi.” Opening with the morose “It’s Time for Church,” Friedman sings and growls of his preferred place of worship--poetry, literature and art-- “I live through poetry and read Robert Henry, my guiding force.,,art leads me through the dark,” as Goodrich sends out an eerie, wailing cry on electric guitar (and what could be more American than Friedman describing the color of the sky as “Brooklyn Dodger blue”?). With Goodrich crafting a quiet, shimmering backdrop on electric guitar and Crump’s bass discreetly thumping, Friedman observes an abandoned Catskills retreat, physically deteriorating but not so in ruins that he can’t see and feel the life once invigorating it: “Jenny in her prime, 1952…the wives do the turkey trot/Simon says fetch me a cigarette/and the twisted hollow tree who once danced like Jennifer Grey/is frozen now and tangled like a Catskill Mountain Pompeii/listen really close and you can hear it breathe…” In “Roll On, John Herald” he hears the news of the bluegrass giant’s death while listening to Vin Scelsa’s WFUV radio show “Idiot’s Delight” and in “Schroon Lake” he describes a drive in the country as occurring on a “Jonathan Schwartz afternoon,” in reference to the veteran WNYC public radio disc jockey whose weekend shows focus largely on artists devoted to Great American Songbook and usually begins with Schwartz describing the day in New York City.

Andy Friedman performs the title song of his 2009 album, Weary Things.

In the album’s most emotionally charged moment, Friedman gets duly exercised about the passing of Greenbriar Boy John Herald in “Roll On, John Herald”: With Goodrich slashing and stomping on electric guitar, Friedman pounding the strings of his acoustic and Crump slapping hard bass lines underneath, Freidman shouts a defiant charge to the fallen folk and bluegrass legend (he died in 2005, a suspected suicide; his final album, released in 2000, was titled Roll On, John) even as he inveighs against the misfortunes that dogged Herald in his career (Friedman sings about a club owner who “didn’t treat John Herald right”; he might also have noted that the Greenbriar Boys were the headlining act at a Folk City show in 1961 but received only passing mention in critic Robert Shelton’s New York Times review, which was otherwise devoted to an enthusiastic appraisal of a young, largely unknown Bob Dylan); and though “Quiet Blues” precedes it, “May I Rest When Death Approaches,” a somber, Steve Earle-like meditation on mortality graced by Goodrich’s meditative piano musings, seems like the musical alter-ego of “Roll On, John Herald,” the moment of calm after the storm in all its dignified acceptance of the inevitable. In fact, the lyrics are formed from a series of poems penned only days before his passing by Friedman’s father-in-law, thus accounting for their immediacy, but it’s Friedman’s personal investment in the lyrics, his warmth and his compassion, that elevate the song to a higher spiritual plane and bespeak the humanity at the root of his art. Can’t have too much of that in the America we live in today.

Andy Friedman’s Laserbeams and Dreams is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024