Listen Here - The New Traditionals
Annie and the Hedonists
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, July 3, 2008

New Traditionals
Annie and the Hedonists honor their folk-music roots with a sense of humor, and a new CD

Several years ago at the Gottagetgon, a small annual folk festival held at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds on Memorial Day weekend, a knot of musicians had gathered by the snack bar for the evening picking session. As I walked up to them, I heard a blonde woman whom I’d never seen before singing Ernest Tubb’s 1965 country classic “Waltz Across Texas.”

She sounded like the young Bonnie Raitt, and her sweet, sultry vocals were so exquisite—dead-on pitch, free of strain, and full of yearning—that I was captivated. This had to be one of the performers, I figured, but as a lifelong fan and player of acoustic music, how come I didn’t know her name? I turned to someone I knew and asked who she was. He identified her as Annie Rosen, and no, she wasn’t on the bill, either.

It turned out that Annie and her guitarist husband Jon, the current director of safety and health for the New York State Public Employees Federation, had formed a rootsy acoustic quartet with Steve and Betsy Fry. (Disclosure: In the early 1980s I was in the short-lived Apocalypso String Band with Steve Fry, a mandolin-playing practical joker who named his daughter Amanda Lynn.) The four Baby Boomers called themselves Annie and the Hedonists after a time at a banquet when they ate Baked Alaska with their fingers, the silverware having by then been removed.

With their smorgasbord of early blues, bluegrass, country, Celtic, Tin Pan Alley tunes and contemporary acoustic music, they resist easy categorization. Critics are not faulting them for this, though: Writing about their second CD, Moonglow on the Midway (also reviewed in Metroland on Sept. 14, 2006), the folk journal Sing Out! said, “This Albany-area quartet swings their way through their sophomore release with style, energy and respect for these great old tunes.” Dirty Linen agreed in their February-March 2007 issue, saying, “Annie and the Hedonists have bottled an essence of bohemianism.”

On July 19, the group will mark the release of their third CD, Good Old Wagon, with a concert at the WAMC Performing Arts Studio.

The Rosens and the Frys all come from diverse musical backgrounds. Jon and Annie are from Milwaukee; she is of Yugoslavian descent, and both her parents sang and played the accordion. “Our household was always alive with music,” she says in an e-mail, adding, “I remember watching Lawrence Welk and the Ed Sullivan show. I knew from watching all those shows I wanted to become a singer.”

Jon’s father collected old 78s, and was a fan of jazzers like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, bluesmen like Leadbelly, and also folk music. “He said if it makes your spine tingle, then it its good music,” says Jon in a recent phone call.

Another major influence on Jon’s tastes was Rosen’s uncle, Arnold Berman, now an 84-year old resident of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., who was part of the leftist collective of folksingers who wrote “Charlie on the M.T.A.” in support of Progressive Party candidate Walter O’Brien’s 1949 run for mayor of Boston (O’Brien came in last, but the song was immortalized by the Kingston Trio’s recording of it a decade later).

Steve Fry was born in Lawrence, Kansas, but grew up mostly here in the Capital Region. His mother was a coloratura soprano with various choral groups, and his father a trumpeter in various bands, playing everything from swing to oom-pah to, as incongruous as it may seem, square-dance music. At age 5, the smaller Fry began classical piano, and took up trumpet from 5th grade on. He also has perfect pitch, a genetic gift that cannot be taught and is shared by only 2 percent of the population. “I was, for the one year I was at University of Michigan, the ‘human pitch pipe’ with the world-famous Men’s Glee Club. It was all a capella, and before each song, I would give the key pitch from which the others located their notes.” he says.

Now retired, Fry worked as an administrative law judge for the State of New York, and in his spare time taught himself guitar and mandolin. With five instruments in his musical quiver, including his fine baritone voice, he is the Hedonists’ ace picker.

Betsy Fry, a registered nurse who plays electric bass in the group, and, like the other Hedonists, contributes harmony vocals, grew up near Utica and started singing at an early age before taking up clarinet (Years ago, Steve said that if he and Betsy had had a second daughter, he would have named her Claire Annette) and cello. She also took part in choral ensembles, and later, while at Swarthmore College, discovered folk music through the ukulele. That led to the guitar, and then the bass.

On an early June evening in the living room of the Rosens’ Schenectady home, the group took time out from rehearsing to answer a few questions about life as an eclectic folkie cover band.

One thing they don’t do is write original material. So, for a foursome with the chops to tackle almost any genre in the acoustic realm, why was this?

“We’re not that talented,” said Annie. That seemed far too self-effacing.

Steve explains that decades of listening to extraordinary music has humbled them, but he didn’t rule out the idea. “There are so many great songs out there already, that if, by happenstance, we came up with something that was good we would record it,” he said.

As for how they pick the diverse tunes that they perform, some are suggested by friends or relatives like Uncle Arnold, and others they choose themselves. But only what they see as the best will do.

“It’s got to be a great song, period,” says Steve.

“The strong emotion and the rhythm,” says Jon, asked what his criteria were.

That may sound vague, but it seems to be working for them, judging by their performance schedule (they played the Old Songs festival last weekend, for example), which is online at www.aberman.org/ jonny/hedonist.

Looking back on past gigs, they recall amusedly how they were playing for a folk organization in New Jersey when, as their set was drawing to a close, one of the stage crew came out with a sign that said, simply, “10.” They failed to grasp that it meant they had only 10 minutes left onstage, and thought they had earned the top rating on a 1-to-10 scale. So they kept playing until the staff were forced to send a blunter message.

Annie and Hedonists resume their rehearsal with an a cappella version of the Caribbean song “Shut De Door,” marking a foray into yet another corner of the folk tradition. I leave, wondering what if any musical limits these four have.

—Glenn Weiser

See the article on the Metroland website 
Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2008 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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