Rising acts perform at the Folk Alliance International Conference 

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click to enlarge PHOTO BY AHRAM PARK
  • Photo by Ahram Park

The Electric Lungs might be the loudest band booked for the conference. After all, the long-acquainted foursome didn't exactly start with the gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar.

Before becoming the Electric Lungs, Tripp Kirby, Marc Bollinger and Eric Jones were in a group together called Action Figure — what Kirby calls a "straightforward pop-punk band." It came apart, but the musicians reunited in May 2012, when Kirby set about "trying something different."

That difference turned out to be keyboard whiz kid Jason Ulanet, who was ready to plug in. The result so far: last March's Simplified and Civilized, a debut that goes off like a bomb in a mailbox. No one's ears are safe from Kirby's unholy scream-singing or Ulanet's temperamental, grimy organ.

Simplified and Civilized isn't a record that's easy to file. "Punk" still seems like the best box to check. But there's no keeping the Electric Lungs from the FAI's big folk party.

"If you listen to a few of the songs, they do have that kind of three chords and a melody and a story at the root of them," Kirby says. "There are definitely songs that have that kind of storytelling tradition. We all listen to a little bit of everything. That's one of those things that we definitely pull from, just not as obviously as some other things sometimes."

Sitting at a booth at the Brick, Kirby is the opposite of the gnarly, frustrated figure he sounds like on record. He's polite, even a little reserved. He looks freshly shaved, and there's not a single hair out of place in his slicked-back coif. And he's right about how his new band tugs at some old roots: Kirby was a co-founder of the local rockabilly outfit Them Damned Young Livers. Lured by a friend who loved country, Kirby says his tenure with that project forever altered the way he approached music.

"My songwriting really changed from that point on," he says. "I started focusing more on the melody and the lyrics than on my cool guitar riffs or whatever. I think that was a big turning point."

Fittingly, Kirby has a highly inclusive take on folk. "I think all music is technically folk music," he says. "It's something where you just connect with people lyrically, mainly by telling your story and hoping they relate to it. I think it's something very visceral and very organic, and I think there are different ways of doing that, probably as many different ways as you can think of."

The Electric Lungs play at 11 p.m. Wednesday, February 19, on the Shawnee Stage.


click to enlarge PHOTO BY AHRAM PARK
  • Photo by Ahram Park

There is no shortage of amiable, acoustic coupled-up teams in the folk world. Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane, who perform as Victor & Penny, know that. But many fewer such duos train a guitar, a ukulele and two voices on music of an exceptionally niche vintage.

"We didn't think people would actually be interested in this kind of odd little 1920s and '30s jazz project on ukulele and guitar," McGrane says with a laugh. "That's not a formula that people go, 'Oh, yeah, this one's gonna shoot you straight to the top, kid.'"

Freling and McGrane are not married, but they've been a musical duo for about as long as they've been together as a couple (since 2008). Both are in their 40s, and McGrane — who has a background in film, theater and commercial modeling — is a bright, bubbly sylph, one of those enviable women unlikely ever to look old. Freling, dressed in a fuzzy mustard-yellow sweater and a woven fedora when we meet, gives off a likable Jason Bateman charm.

Charm is Victor & Penny's stock in trade. There is no difference between the people they are onstage and in real life. Since November 2010, the two have been collaborating on a self-invented subgenre they call "antique pop."

"We started talking about what music we could do together, and he was listening to a lot of the early guitarists, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and I'd been singing music from the '30s and '40s for many years, and so we had this overlap," McGrane says. "We found that we had a real genuine love for all these old songs. We try to dig for ones that aren't that well-known."

"That was what was appealing to us right off the bat, doing some of the more obscure stuff," Freling says.

McGrane continues: "The more we got into it, the farther back we started going. We play anything from the turn of the century to the '50s, really — we move around a bit. There's a rich Kansas City tradition of jazz and pop from that era, too, so we come by that honestly."

In 2012, they released their third album, Side by Side, stocking it with eight oldies and one retro-sounding original. It puts very bygone-sounding jams — "Slow Poke," "Pork and Beans," "The Sheik of Araby" — on a jolly, jangly carousel ride, with results as nostalgic as they are refreshing.

"Hardly any of these songs were written for the ukulele," McGrane says. "Jeff takes all the guitar chords and translates them for me to ukulele, so that we can still get these great-sounding jazz chords, except on a four-stringed instrument that really isn't designed to sound like that. I'm essentially playing rhythm guitar with a ukulele. It's part of what makes us sound the way we sound."

And if decoding older music for contemporary recitation isn't folk, what else would be?

"Folk has a much broader definition today than it used to, and — and this is why I think we fit in it — I think we're now going back to a simpler form of getting the music across to people," Freling says. "It's music in pure form, I think, and that can be jazz and bluegrass and pop music."

"It hearkens back to tradition," McGrane adds. "It's us adding to that tradition. It's what oral storytellers do, and what we're trying to do is look back and see where we came from and decide what we can add to it today. And I think that's where folk music is right now."

Victor & Penny play at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 19, on the Washington Park Place 1 Stage, and at 7 p.m. Saturday, February 22, on the Pershing West Stage.

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