Jake Blount leads his band in a performance at Creative Alliance in Baltimore on Dec. 9, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
So many artists today are paying their respects to music of the past through clever reinterpretations, and others are applauded for finding an uncharted direction for their own sound, essentially guiding the listener to something new or toward evolved interests.
But few have likely challenged themselves in the same grueling manner as DC native Jake Blount, who with his latest recording — a work of Afrofuturism titled The New Faith — has taken on the unthinkable but tantalizing mission of conceptually forward suiting a collection of traditional Black spiritual songs into a bleak future, where the figurative cast of characters is essentially a clan of religious believers turned nomadic or displaced by hastening climate change, war and the meltdown of civilization.
The result is apocalyptic, foretelling and bracing, an eye-opening and innovative approach to songs that have been created by Black people and shared, or in numerous cases misappropriated, by others for generations.
Out in support of the new record, released in late September by Smithsonian Folkways, Blount made a stop in the Charm City last Friday night for an alluring and enlightening evening of music at the Creative Alliance, where he presented two distinct sets of songs representing his diligence and prolificity as a roots musician and an intellectual who’s made it his life’s work to study, celebrate and perpetuate African American and indigenous songs.
Listen to Jake Blount’s newly released Afrofuturism album, The New Faith, via Spotify:
And before Jake even took the stage, those in the room were welcomed with a reading of the venue’s formal Land Acknowledgement, which pointed out that the building sits on the ancestral homelands of the Piscataway and that the neighborhood “was built on a complicated history that reflects the city’s and country’s struggles with racism and white supremacy.”
The four-piece band took the stage and Blount — a studious and well-spoken musician and a courageous activist, too — would offer constructive and insightful commentary on the songs and emotions he’d share throughout the two sets, with the first being a set of old-time or bluegrass songs, some traditional and some he’s already recorded.
This tightly woven posse — comprised of New Zealand fiddler George Jackson, bassist Nelson Williams and multi-instrumentalist/instrument maker Gus Tritsch — spun timeless versions of “Reuben’s Train” and “Raleigh and Spencer,” coaxing the shimmy out of an intimate audience even if it was a seated one.
His rustic, prudent voice comingling with the mix of strings busy at work, Jake brings an ageless reflection to any arrangement — he seems to uplift those with an already pleasant trajectory and his expression is so dynamic that it pictorially darkens the deserted-island setting of his new project that from its very origins is harsh, startling and surreal.
“It’s nice to be back here in Baltimore, for the first show of our own here at the Creative Alliance,” said Jake, who’s now based in Providence. Speaking to the crowd from underneath his cap, his eyes were bright and transfixing as he embraced the opportunity to address a room of people willing to learn more about his music and the many people who have influenced it.
And his own studies have clearly put him on a path to making a tremendous impact on the bluegrass and old-time music scenes and he rightfully draws inspiration from his own unique existence as he goes.
Jake earned a degree in enthnomusicology from Hamilton College in Central New York in 2017, right around the time he’d release his first self-titled album, Reparations. Jake is a founding member of Bluegrass Pride, an organization that provides encouragement and support to LGBTQ+ musicians at all levels. And at just 27 years old, it’s safe to say that Blount has already become an inspiration and positive influence on many, and his newest album sees him as an emboldened trailblazer in the wake of unthinkable challenges faced in recent years by both Black and LGBTQ+ populations.
“I know some of you are wondering ‘where is that?’” a reference to The New Faith from the stage in Baltimore. “But I learned on this very long release tour that we can either give people whiplash or we can open for ourselves. And I think there are some old-time music fans in Baltimore, is my experience.”
He was hinting, of course, at the Baltimore Old Time Music Festival, where he’s appeared alongside some of Charm City’s most notable musicians, like the event’s co-founder and host, clawhammer banjoist Brad Kolodner. While Kolodner wasn’t in the room — he had his own gig — Kristina Gaddy, a widely respected Baltimore-based author on banjo and a banjoist herself, was in attendance, and Jake would warmly address her from the stage later in the night.
Working through the first set, a treat on its own, Blount would move between the banjo and the violin, including a mesmerizing solo that found its way into what Jake later said was a version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” originally recorded by Kentucky fiddler William Stepp and then reworked for Andrew Copland’s song “Hoe-Down.”
Like the best musicians who reimagine passed down songs, Jake would share the names of original recording artists or those who popularized the material, even engaging the crowd about their familiarity with some of these individuals. Blount would round out the set with a pair of tunes pulled from his first two solo recordings, his especially sullen take on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “We’re Gonna Hunt the Buffalo,” from his premiere.
Before charting his own course, Jake had led the string band The Moose Whisperers and forged fruitful relationships on his way to releasing the 2020 sophomore breakthrough Spider Tales, famously heralded by The Guardian as an “instant classic.” He went on to win the Steve Martin Banjo prize, although it was not his first award, and he was ultimately invited to events like the Newport Folk Festival.
Last Friday night, Jake and company were fresh off another high-profile appearance — one in Jake’s old stomping ground, no less, for what will likely translate to a captivating Tiny Desk showcase upon its eventual release on the NPR Music YouTube channel.
The desk, they joked, isn’t all that tiny. And when the group returned for the evening’s second set, the members might have looked just as they had minutes before, but they’d indeed shifted their psyche to what Blount promised would be “futuristic doomsday cult format.”
Beginning not with a song from the new album, but a single he put out in early 2022, Jake led his inventive arrangement titled “The Man Was Burning,” which draws from numerous sources, primarily a piece he found on a Smithsonian Folkways LP titled Virginia Worksongs.
At Creative Alliance, this song manifested using a similar electric track as on the digital release — Jake controlled this with a device hooked to a laptop — and it fashionably cojoined an old dusty blues sound, with Tritsch popping off from his wide, flashy Silvertone and Blount letting the soulfulness of his voice surge and give sway to the composition.
Watch the official music video for Jake Blount’s “Didn’t it Rain” via the artist’s YouTube channel:
Moving into the new album, Jake was leading a sermon and he went right at a critical subject: he asked to hear it from those who were “nervous about climate change,” and of course many in the room shared an emotional response.
“The Downward Road” featured a grooving and roving blend of strings and beats with worldly textures and outright hip-hop phases, which the mostly quiet Gus stepped to the mic to handle in impressive fashion, surprising some in the crowd with his dynamism after playfully retreating from the mic earlier in the set.
And together all these voices would join Jake’s to create the remarkable effect of a desperate and despondent pack of roamers connecting through song, reckoning the horrible decisions of those who came before them, with nothing left to do but suffer together.
The band inserted “Three Shoes,” a gorgeously taut piece from Jackson’s outstanding album, Hair and Hide, and it seemed to naturally flow into Jake’s cinematic creation. Jackson, now living in Nashville, showed himself to be the extraordinary, mesmerizing violinist he’s reputed to be, and Nelson would have his opportunities as well to show his exactness but his personality too, providing some of the most intriguing banter of the night in the form of a ramble on Cleopatra, of all subjects.
As the set moved along, Jake would get deeper into the backstory for some of these pieces, including the history of the banjo and banjo music itself. Flashing Gaddy a smile as he spoke with deep admiration for her book titled Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History, Blount shared the tale of “Mr. Baptiste,” a Jamaican who is believed to be the first American composer of African descent and presumed to be the first transcriber of African music within the Americas. Of course, this history — like that of so many Black musicians — has been lost over the course of time.
As he shared some of this and applauded Gaddy’s writing, Jake of course took a moment to acknowledge Baltimore’s potency, crediting its current cast of important musicians, artists, writers and many other creative individuals.
“Baltimore, you have a lot of power in this city.” He even joked about it: “If Baltimore could just CALM down …”
But he did rejoice his love for the city in earnest, and attendees raised their drinks in agreement.
Still, it was an important segue, as it exposed the care Blount’s exerted and helped illustrate the tireless research he’s done to get to this level of skill and confidence with the banjo and the fiddle, both of which he handles masterfully, but it also spoke to the passion and determination with which he’s dug into history to reveal the truth behind African-American music, the origin the songs and in some cases their fate, all with the hope of artfully resurrecting them and honoring the Black people who brought them to life to begin with.
Listen to Jake Blount’s critically acclaimed 2020 album, Spider Tales, via Spotify:
Even if listeners might not realize it, Blount — who comes from an interracial family — is effectively enhancing their connection to the past. In Baltimore, he’d go on to discuss Bessie Jones, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other crucial figures. Channeling these and so many of those he’s studied, Jake’s effort alongside his mates yielded a harmonious, gospel-influenced take on the new album’s closing track, “Once There Was No Sun.”
Not hesitant to express his feelings, Jake shared his disappointment in a particular review analyzing his recent album, though he did not state the publication nor the author’s name. The article had, as he put it, cast his use of one of the songs in particular — “Death Have Mercy,” originally recorded by Vera Hall — as narrowly suiting his needs for a concept album.
Rather, Jake told the Creative Alliance crowd, songs like this and others he chose have been traditionally sung, adapted and readapted by Black people — and others, often without proper credit — for “for a very long time,” and that he simply wished the writer had done more research to understand the thrust of The New Faith in the first place.
“When we all have a larger platform to speak about things than we probably should, you should read about things before you write about them,” said Blount, who has himself written about music and understands the inherent risks involved. Jake pointed to the liner notes of the album, wishing the reviewer had spent more time grasping what he was doing.
The frustration certainly seemed valid, especially when considering what Jake is up against as a gay Black man trying to make a difference with his music and his words. A quick glance at his Twitter account reveals this part of the existence to be, from an outsider’s perspective, incomprehensibly difficult, when it shouldn’t be a struggle in the first place
But it all provides pertinent context to his newest offering that makes it that much more necessary to the evolution and longevity of roots music, and by presenting unearthed songs in gripping character, projected through the scope of modern-day threats against humanity coming to deadly fruition, Jake’s created something to be marveled.
In Baltimore last weekend, Blount would perform a staggering solo before serving up more of the standouts from his freshest album, including “City Called Heaven” and “Didn’t It Rain,” strengthening the case that it is indeed the achievement he set out for it to be and sending the audience home fulfilled by sounds that represent centuries of collective studying, playing and sharing of knowledge about these crafts.
Precise, patient, and graceful as a performer, and a devoted agent of the music he researches, Blount seems to be on a mission. And while Jake’s music and his message should be heard by listeners of all walks of life, and certainly not just those in the Black and LGBTQ+ communities, he should be particularly celebrated by music fans in the DMV any time he pays a visit.
Raleigh and Spencer
Mad Mama’s Blues
Jake Solo (included Bonaparte’s Retreat)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night
We’re Gonna Hunt The Buffalo
The Man Was Burning
The Downward Road
Three Shoes (George Jackson song)
I Am The Devil
Once There Was No Sun
Death Have Mercy
Jake Solo (Tangled Eye Blues)
City Called Heaven
Didn’t It Rain
Rocky Road to Dublin
Here are images of Jake Blount and his band performing at Creative Alliance in Baltimore on Dec. 9, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.