- Gil Asakawa, Journalist – December 8, 2015:
Stories from a Music Critic
I loved the Mother Folkers the moment I heard the name.
I was a rock critic once upon a time, in a former life. I wrote about all sorts of mainstream rock and pop, from Bruce Springsteen to the Jacksons, but I also wrote about the blues, and country music, and folk. I came to folk music through the folk-rock of Peter, Paul and Mary and Simon and Garfunkel, and the country-rock of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and later, the Eagles. And of course, I learned to play guitar from the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and especially Neil Young.
My introduction to Denver’s rich and lively acoustic music scene was through the Denver Folklore Center (when it was at 17th and Pearl, before that area became yuppie central) and monthly meetings of the now-defunct Denver Friends of Folk Music, a group of earnest folkniks who would convene at a member’s home each month (usually decorated with the requisite Navajo baskets on the wall and Weavers albums leaning against the HiFi), and allow the dozen or more people to swap songs, learn traditional music and hear recordings by new young songwriters.
By the time I became a music critic, I was familiar with the music of seminal folk local groups and musicians like Hot Rize, Grubstake, Ophelia Swing Band, Katy Moffatt and Kathy DeFrancis. I had seen killer local players such as Pat Donohue, Mary Flower, Mary Stribling and Carla Sciaky live at various venues. I had bought my Martin HD-28 from Dave Ferretta at his cool guitar shop on South Broadway. I was a nascent folkie myself.
So I was already a fan when I heard the area’s best women acoustic musicians were forming a band that they described as “The most carefully pronounced name in show business.” I laughed out loud at the balls it took to come up with the concept (pun intended, duh). And, I had to see them
Over the next decade or so, I saw the MoFos on most of their annual get-togethers and they never disappointed. It was like watching the musical mix-and-match of the Band’s “Last Waltz” movie, only live in Denver. Every combination of musicians would leave my mouth hanging with its exquisite beauty and power, and sheer, formidable chops. And when the entire ensemble crowded on stage, it was hard not to break out in a broad grin. The broad-jump of genres was also amazing: Eileen Niehouse would take us to the British Isles, while later member Liz Barnez took audiences romping through her New Orleans roots. There was blues, barrelhouse piano, tender folk and stomp-yer-feet bluegrass. And above it all, a choir or harmonious voices from sexy moaning to pure high angelic notes.
Following the Mother Folkers
The Mother Folkers weren’t really about gender, even while they blast down gender divisions. I guess in a field where women artists held their own in the pantheon of greats (think Mother Maybelle Carter and of course daughter June, Malvina Reynolds, Mary — swoon — Travers and a lot more), it wasn’t so outrageous to attend annual concerts of the some of the best women musicians in the area. But I have to admit, having Ellen Audley tearing it up on the mandolin, Bonnie Phipps finger picking amazing melodies from an autoharp, Mary Flower getting nasty with a slide on an Earthy blues, or Mary Stribling give her many hi-larious asides in between holding down the bass-ment on all the songs, there isn’t that much of a tradition of women instrumentalists. Bonnie Raiit, maybe. She’s the main one who comes to most peoples’ mind.
So the MoFo were special, and that’s what made each year’s shows worth waiting for. I bet planning them and finding the time to rehearse everything was a royal pain in the butt. It’s to their credit that they were able to keep it going so long, and have come back together from time to time in various configurations, with new members alongside founding ones.
I missed their last shows a couple years back, in northern Colorado. I hope I can make their next get-together, if they do it again. But if I don’t get to see them again, I’ll have lots of great memories to keep me company. My favorite:
At one show at the Arvada Center, I had asked for comp tickets so I could review the performance for Westword. Much to my surprise, my seat was in the front row, instead of letting me hide out in the back as usual. Then I found out why.
Halfway through the show, when Mary Flower’s outrageous alter-ego Fluffy LeRoux came out in her pink flowery outfit and feather boa, ‘60s horn-rimmed librarian sunglasses perched on her nose, she asked for volunteers to dance with her. Wouldn’t you know it, she made a beeline for me, grabbed my hand and yanked me on stage. I don’t remember much about waltzing around with her giving me a bear hug, except the audience kept laughing loudly and I kept cursing in her ear for doing this.
Years later, I took guitar lessons from Fluffy – er, Mary – herself at Swallow Hill and reminded her of what she’d done. She shrugged, and just made me play, just like she just made me dance that one night. At least this time there was no full house of an audience laughing at me.
I miss her, and Fluffy, and all the MoFos – they represent a big part of my previous life. I've bought some of her recordings since she moved to Portland, but I hope I can see her – and the MoFos – again someday.