It was the geist of independence that pulled into shore on the muddy banks of Berlin’s Spree River one Saturday afternoon in July, for the third annual Down by the River festival. The Kater bar—a dilapidated old soap factory-turned-venue—was the port of call for a strange crew of assorted musicians from various lands, among them some of the better-known anti-folk heroes (including Jeffrey Lewis and Viking Moses), as well as fresher nautical navigators such as New York’s Johnny Houx and Stranded Horse from the U.K.
The venue itself was wrenched for a day from the pumping techno fists of the Kater team, who recently “saved” the old factory from the bonfires of anarchic “trespassers” to stage chic electro nights and various other cultural events. These abandoned factory spaces naturally suited the tastes of Berlin’s great unwashed urban bohemia, one might cynically say. And the latter did indeed arrive in great numbers to get down with Johnny Houx’s country narratives and wry observations of humanity’s material tendencies—the title of one of his clear-eyed ballads, as it turns out.
There it was: the spirit of freedom and relentless independence deeply anchored in this young musician’s voice, as brimming and expansive as the poetry of Walt Whitman. Just as connected to the soil and the simple folk as Whitman felt himself to be, Houx invents anew in his music the figure of the forever transient wayfarer, driven on the same wide plains and dirt tracks once beaten by Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Certainly wistfully, and always vigorously, Houx frees himself of any confinements in songs like “My Home Ain’t Nowhere,” be they material, emotional, or even socially imposed bonds—as a matter of fact, his “home ain’t nowhere” and he surely “heed[s] no permission” and “heed[s] no command.” Quite clearly this is a distinctively American musician whose earthly and glisteningly honest posture thankfully slips off any sleek hipster poses as it transcends an all-too-idealized nostalgia for the old pastoral U.S.A.
For Houx’s music recognizes that the American lands in these Monsanto times might be still as plentiful, but they’re hardly as golden as the ones Guthrie lauded. Having been raised himself on a traditional milk farm in California and saved up his pay through working all sorts of odd jobs to roam the country, Houx is surely keenly aware of such truth. In fact, the singer uses these rambling roads of Americana as the very musical avenues through which he expands his lucid criticism of corporate capitalism and genetically modified crops. Always with a romantic country twang on his tongue, yet carried by suddenly metallic shudders in his acoustic guitar strums, he swings a blast at money-ridden industrial farming in his song “Apple on a Table, Green,” urging the listener to “look at how we live.” After all “dollars don’t come clean”—they are “made and paid by poison spray / Better make your dollar clean.”
Of course, the New York cartoonist and songwriter Jeffrey Lewis is an entirely different case: truly urban and far more removed from the simple life, yet this boisterous urge for independence nevertheless manifests itself in his music. Granted, Lewis is known for his obsessively confessional and wounded songwriting, so emblematic of our self-centered city culture, where humans seem to constantly search for new markers of distinction. Yet Lewis also continuously wriggles free from such punitive branding, successfully oscillating between emotional striptease and humorous self-reflection. The proof lay in his fun, energetic show with his band the Junkyard: On stage Lewis combined mellow, inward-looking songs like “Roll Bus Roll”—where a deflated Beat poet on Tylenol rides Greyhound buses and comes to terms with the fact that he “wasn’t designed to move so fast, [and] wasn’t designed to have so much past”—with other anarchic and distorted guitar numbers before climbing onto the speakers to rap the history of the French Revolution (accompanied by his own oversized illustrations). Rocking out snarly covers of Sonic Youth inside an old factory work space, Lewis and his band definitively defied any miserable melancholia. In fact, in a final gesture Lewis cleverly mocked this autobiographical culture in a rap where he confessed to being a mass-murderer, turning his victims into “crummy little carcasses” in his “theater of pain”—except that in the serial homicides that he commits the deceased are the mosquitoes that infest his kitchen, which he duly turns into “graffiti mid-flight” as he splats them onto the wall. There you go, as Lewis rhymes, he has got the “proclivity to fight not to run.” A well-spirited way to end this full day amongst independent music culture.