Green Bean’s funkier version of A Mighty Wind

by Amy Kingsley

Under rented stage lights and amplified with a professional sound system, the Green Bean looks a bit Meta tonight. The blinds are drawn, couches draped with jackets and hats and the audience is standing behind the bank of high tech equipment running the show.

The setup transformed downtown Greensboro’s hip coffee shop into the semblance of a television set ‘— think ‘“Friends”” Central Perk with a live studio audience. All of it, soundboards, lighting system and professional crew, came here to support that most chestnut of all coffee shop musical forms ‘– folk music.

Tonight the crowd has gathered and dropped a rare cover to see four bands perform their rendition of the American genre. Two of them, Secondhand Stories and Fedor & Guthrie, hail from the North Sate. The other two, Lowry and The Bowmans, have traveled from the very heart of the anti-folk scene in Brooklyn to play here.

Squeezing four bands between the earliest legitimate time to start a rock (or folk) show, about 8:30 p.m., and the Green Bean’s 11:30 closing requires punctuality and efficiency. The former condition causes this reporter to miss the first performer, Secondhand Stories. But folk musicians change bands with enviable speed, one set of acoustic guitars quickly replaced by another.

So it is a short pause between the first set finale and the opening number by sister act The Bowmans. In fact, the performers are more than sisters; they are twins, and identical ones from the looks of it. Claire Bowman sings and plays instruments often filed under miscellaneous: tambourine, xylophone and handclaps. Her sister, also a crooner, quietly strums the guitar.

Watching the mirror images perform, their identical voices blending like a studio trick, is eerie. It feels a bit smoke and mirrors, as if upon exiting the stage the two performers will combine into the one real Bowman.

The music itself matches their presence: haunting, beautiful and ancestral. Sarah and Clare both have dynamic voices capable of transmitting deep emotion. Other instruments take a back seat to the twins’ lungs. The pretty guitar only occasionally breaks the musical surface.

‘“Have you heard of anti-folk?’” asks Eric-Scott Guthrie. ‘“Well, these bands are right in the center of it.’”

The Bowmans themselves don’t originate from that neck of the woods. They hail from the Ohio heartland, and their earthiness blends with the yearning that undoubtedly pulled the duo to New York. In fact, they have a song dedicated to the journey, a missive about leaving things behind for a shot at big city success.

After The Bowmans comes an act that left the little city of Greensboro for Charlotte: Fedor & Guthrie. It’s two guys, Guthrie and Justin Fedor, armed with a couple guitars. Like a Guthrie of another generation, the pair concentrates their songwriting on political themes like homelessness and Bush administration policies.

In another nod to Woody, who is famously pictured with a guitar boasting ‘“This Machine Kills Fascists,’” tonight’s Guthrie scrawled ‘“Patriot Axe’” on his own. That is the title of their first song, a number that predictably takes a dim view of the infamous law.

Fedor & Guthrie have played for almost a year and arranged tonight’s performance. They met Lowry through a mutual friend and brought them down to North Carolina. Although their current incarnation is barely a year old, Fedor & Guthrie have a long musical history dating back to their high school days at Page. Back then they watched a lot of The Princess Bride and played in a coffee shop outfit called ROUS.

Another one of Fedor & Guthrie’s tunes, ‘“Paper Dolls’”, is about homelessness, and in this one Fedor takes over singing duties. His voice reminds me a bit of Poison’s Bret Michaels in ‘“Every Rose Has its Thorn.’”

The largest band of the night, weighing in at five members or the combined total of all the preceding acts, sets up at a remarkable pace. Lowry includes The Bowmans, one on cello and another singing, plus a singer/guitarist, piano player and bassist.

One can imagine they draw crowds of Big Apple émigrés searching both for the sounds of home and the ironies of New York. Alex Lowry’s lyrics are honest, clever and universal. The backing band isn’t too shabby either, and Lowry mentions that a drummer will join them tomorrow in Charlotte.

Even without the drummer, the band is picture-perfect tonight in this coffee shop lit up like an arena. A little after 11 the show wraps. As audience members settle their tabs at the register the colored lights go out, leaving just the Green Bean and a shadowed couch covered in jackets and hats.

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