Cutting Edge of the Campfire, Club Passim's annual four-day folk music marathon, unites a plethora of musicians and singer-songwriters, mostly in round-robin sets. This year's festival, which starts today at 4 p.m. and wraps up on Monday, also adds some unusual twists to the folk canon.
Take singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac, who plays tomorrow and Sunday. She's in the early stages of her second album, which will be self-financed from a couple of years' worth of touring. For Mac, though, touring's not a question of hooking a guitar on her shoulder and hitting the road.
Mac is a cellist, a classically trained one, to be exact. Singer-songwriter cellists are a rarity in the folk world, offering her, she says humorously, "very little competition. I'm a novelty."
Playing her instrument since she was 9, Mac majored in cello at Dartmouth College and graduated with a music degree before going on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, followed by a stint at the San Francisco Conservatory.
"After dropping out of both of those," Mac says with an easy laugh, "I realized that maybe classical music wasn't my calling. I absolutely love it, but as far as my life's work, I wasn't sure that's what I should do."
The Iowa City native grew up on Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, courtesy of "old hippie parents," and then added her own folk and pop singer-songwriter heroes. The only problem was, they all played guitar. Did she consider changing her instrument?
"No," she insists, "I love the cello. It really is an amazing instrument, so primal and rich. I had put so much time and energy and emotion into it that I couldn't think of leaving it for what everyone else already plays - the guitar."
Instead, she developed her own style, turning the cello into an unwieldy guitar. Standing, with the instrument held to her body supported by a guitar strap, Mac plucks, picks, and slaps the thick strings. (Boy, does she have calluses.) The only thing she lacked was some basic singer-songwriter skills. So the 28-year-old enrolled at Berklee College of Music - only to soon drop out once again.
"I just wanted to get on the road; I wanted to start doing it," she says with just a note of apology. And she's been doing it ever since the release of her 2005 debut, "Small Revolution," which encompasses influences from folk to jazz to world, and even classical: "Small Revolution" contains traditional bowed cello, too, something that her live performances usually don't: "I bow a lot on record, but I can't bow live when I'm standing up," she explains.
But what about Jimmy Page, he managed to bow standing up.
"OK, OK," Mac jokes. "Compare me to Jimmy Page!"
Lindsay Mac performs with Kate Klim and Natalia Zukerman tomorrow at 12:30 a.m and solo Sunday at 4.45 p.m.
Other highlights . . .
RONALD REAGAN Though the '80s revival has peaked in rock and pop music, Boston's own Ronald Reagan brings the sounds of the Me Decade to the folk forum. And why not? Comedy can be as illuminating as serious song and is as precise a social commentary as any art form. And these two comic cover artists - including alto sax player Alec Spiegelman and tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge, who also interchange on vocals - are serious musicians, each with his own jazz combo. Still, this should be a fun set as Spiegelman and Roberge cast a wry eye and a keen sax over '80s pop music, from new wave to, um, the theme from "Ghostbusters." (Sunday at 1:45 p.m.)
THE EASY TEASE Folk music can be an earnest affair, a recipe for parody a la "A Mighty Wind." New York-based quartet the Easy Tease, so named for a penchant for sometimes removing clothing during performances, brings a theatrical effervescence to the genre. There's plenty of dark, deep lyrical stuff ("Forces pull and forces tear, in this world how does one fare," go the words to "The Gravity.") on the band's sardonically titled "Bold Displays of Cowardice." The instrumental lineup of Maggie Carson (banjo/vocals), Adam Janos (piano/vocals), Monroe Ellenbogen (trombone/vocals), and Willis Crichton (drums/vocals) makes for a bold sound, as plucked banjo is spiked with strident piano and deep, melancholic trombone. But the self-dubbed "burlesque indie-rock cabaret act" manages to find life's bright spots. Naked or not. (Sunday at 9:15 p.m.)
DWIGHT & NICOLE This Brooklyn-based duo's songs cull inspiration from a broad musical palette: folk, blues, soul, jug band, Afrobeat, and pop. Guitarist and co-vocalist Dwight Ritcher is an unusual sight at a folk festival, though. He plays a Flying V, a guitar usually associated more with the likes of Megadeth and Metallica, not folk musicians. But Ritcher and gorgeous, dusky-voiced singer Nicole Nelson lay down sultry soulful music. Nelson also adds rhythm, beating out circular country-blues time signatures, either on tambourine or with a sharp tap of her foot. Richter occasionally takes over on lead vocals, and the pair's harmonies are sublime, making for an earthy, retro-soul sound. (Monday at 3:45 p.m.)