As I listened to a broadcast of the David Wax Museum opening the Sunday performances on the main stage at this year's Newport Folk Festival, I was simultaneously excited to hear a great act on the verge of blowing up while lamenting that the band is destined for mainstream audiences and bigger venues from here on out. It's bound to happen for the band. They're that good. It'll be our loss and our gain.
The David Wax Museum consists of two permanent members: David Wax, a native of Columbia, Missouri, and Suz Slezak from Free Union, Virginia. They play what Wax has dubbed "Mexo-American" folk music, applying an alt-country spin on traditional Mexican music. He and Slezak met in the Boston area while he was attending Harvard and she Wellesley. After having spent summers working in rural Mexico as part of a Quaker organization, Wax spent a graduate fellowship year in Veracruz studying some of the regional musical styles or sons ("sounds") of Mexico, including the local son jarocho, an up-tempo, syncopated form--the song "La Bamba" originally arose out of this tradition -- along with the son traditions of Huasteco and Calentano that he also works into his music. Wax is the lyricist, lead vocalist, and plays a mean jarana -- a ukelele-sized eight-string instrument common to son jarocho. Slezak provides the vocal response to Wax's call while adding mixing the Old Tyme sounds of her fiddle with another jarocho instrument, the quijada -- literally, the jawbone of an ass. They enlist supporting musicians including Jordan Wax (David's cousin), Mike Roberts, Jiro Kokubu, and Greg Glassman to provide a full complement of percussion, bass, brass, and wind.
The Museum has released three albums to date, all under their own label. I Turned Off Thinking About in 2008 lacked a clear direction or polished production but included an early example of Wax's lyrical talents with "The Great Unawakening," a robust inclusion in their setlists today:
How does one become a citizen of a nation in recline?
Just dry your heart out like venison/dry your heart out like venison
Then hang it on a clothesline/hang it on a clothesline
That's how one becomes a citizen of a nation in recline
The following year's Carpenter Bird showed the band growing more comfortable in the studio and spawned staples like "Colas" and "The Persimmon Tree." Then came a roster spot on a tiny stage at the 2010 Newport Folk Festival won via the Magic Hat "Big Opener" contest. They made the most of the opportunity and, as NPR said, "spent the first day of the festival courting fans cheerfully and aggressively. By the time its set was half over -- after it had passed around its mailing list and hawked its line of hats -- the group had gathered a fairly enormous crowd, which it proceeded to win over in an increasingly big way." The Wicked Local site said the band "came, saw and conquered. Killed, actually." Paste Magazine would dub them "The breakout act at the Newport Folk Fest." In December, the Boston Music Awards lauded the band as Americana Artist of the Year.
But as they put the "roots" in both roots music and grassroots, they remained relatively unknown, soliciting signatures for their mailing list and pre-orders to help fund their next recording sessions. Those sessions spawned Everything Is Saved , which went on to make a number of "best of so far" lists for 2011 on the strength of a number of radio-friendly hits like the peppy "Born of a Broken Heart" and the playfully despairing "Yes, Maria, Yes":
You invite me into your kitchen/invite me into your kitchen/invite me into your kitchen
For huitlacoche and armadillo
I talk talk talk you don't listen/I talk talk talk you don't listen/I talk talk talk you don't listen
You've had your fill/you've had your fill
Yes, Maria, yes, no, Maria, no
Your careless heart invites me in just to see me go
I first saw the band in June at the Clearwater Festival on the banks of the Hudson River. They played the smallest of the festival's stages late on Saturday as the booming sounds of the Felice Brothers from across the grounds threatened to drown them out. Undeterred and clearly grateful for the opportunity, the Museum carved out a communal space for themselves and the few dozen who'd trucked over to see them. What strikes you most about Wax and Slezak is the pure joy that emanates from their playing. It will be easy for some to dismiss the ethnomusicologist ventures of two students from elite, New England private schools, but this is an act that evokes sincerity in what they do and how they do it. They are neither disaffected nor affected. When they step off the stage and wander among the crowd to sing an unamplified rendition of "Carpenter Bird," sure it's a bit of a performing gimmick, but it turns into a transcendent moment, taking us back to an earlier time either real or imagined. Front-porch music brought to the town center or Sunday picnic. Mexicana folk meets mid-Americana.
I caught them again last week 40 miles down state at Madison Square Park in Manhattan. A Wednesday evening. Hot and muggy. Lexington-line commuters and shoppers. City hipsters who've seen it all. Upper-class parents looking for some free entertainment -- no matter who or what--to take the kids to. Just hours earlier, a man had waved a gun at window washers from his 11th floor apartment, sending police cars flocking to the street just behind the stage where the David Wax Museum was now playing. Perhaps not ideal circumstances for a show, but the band was happy to be back in the Northeast after their recent van tour of Canada and cut through it all with songs that jumped from the raucous to the plaintive to the blasphemous. (There's a good story behind "Chuchumbe," a traditional song once banned by the Catholic Church in Mexico.) I even spotted some early Waxheads: two young women who'd also been at the Clearwater show and who seemed to know every word of every song from this band with no record-label promotion.
Will this year's main-stage gig at Newport prove to be another bellwether moment for the David Wax Museum? Their upcoming dates this month include both a Tuesday night free concert in rural Ridgefield, Connecticut, and a Saturday slot with the Dave Matthews Band Caravan at Governor's Island -- two gigs in which the band might see both their past and their future. As they collect more fans and the Nonesuches or Sub Pops come calling to sign them, the band's gigs will be more like the latter than the former, venues more suited to stage diving and too big and crowded to stroll among the audience singing songs about woodpeckers.
Yet even as one speculates on the group's future within the archetypes of the music machine -- the A&R men, the artistic disputes, the loss of innocence -- one gets the sense the David Wax Museum will hold onto the peculiar charm of their music and their simple love of sharing it, no matter how many people are listening. Check them out now, while you can still get close to the stage.