Mother Jane is hardly plain
Discovering 'the best undiscovered band' in Lexington
By Rob Bricken

ACE readers recently voted them the Best Undiscovered Band in Lexington. A high honor, to be sure, but kind of a dual-edged sword for Mother Jane. Comprised of vocalist/guitarist Beth Burden, and 12-string guitarist and back-up vocalist Lisa Raymond, these two hatted musicians are more than pleased to be recognized as the best anything, even if it is attached to "undiscovered."

But, as evidenced by the voting, enough people have found their unique folk roots and recognize their songs as some of the best in town. Burden says their music is definitively "folk." Adding after a moment's thought, "Folk with soul in it." Another moment. "Original folk dipped in soul."

Liberally dipped to be sure. Many people have traveled to Mia's and Cheapside, the duo's regular haunts, to hear Lisa's practiced yet nimble guitar work, and Beth's demi-divine voice, as they put out their pleasing tunes.

Perhaps the best image for their songs is found in their name-a combination of Mother Jones, the Appalachian frontierswoman who fought for the rights of coal miners in the late 1800s, and Calamity Jane, the pistol-toting cowgirl-in-a-man's-West. Combine the earthy justice of the former with the wild spirit of the latter, and you get a feel for the vitality of Mother Jane.

But they've paid their dues for the notice they're receiving. "Persistence," they both reply, when asked what they think won them their most recent accolade. Burden adds, "Just getting out there week after week. We play at least two or three shows a week," even though both hold down jobs.

"The difference between seeing us now and seeing us a year ago is phenomenal," Burden adds. "The harmonies are a lot more together than before."

Invoking the restlessness of their namesakes, Mother Jane has refused to rest on their laurels and have just released their first self-titled CD (see sidebar), even though they've only been together a little more than a year.

"You can play four or five years and try and make everything as perfect as you can, but until then you've got nothing to show for it," Burden says of the necessity of recording. "After all that you've got nothing to send to anybody. Everyone told us to take what you have now, it doesn't matter if you've only been together for six months. Just put out the best thing you can and have it to get out there."

The CD was a learning experience, but not a bad one. They were surprised at how many details and administrative duties pile into cutting an album. Their biggest worry was the loss of control when the album was shipped off to be manufactured.

"We had no control over it. We went through a media company," says Raymond. "They sent it off to Canada but we didn't ever have communication with the manufacturer. We just had to hope everything went off right, and the art was right, everything."

"A lot of people have asked us our longtime goals, and why we're not signed yet," says Raymond. "It's not that we don't want to get signed, but we want to stay on the independent level. We've spoken with so many people who have had horrible experiences of losing control. The style, the music, the schedule, the money, even what you wear - [record labels] can decide everything.

"So we're trying to remain in control, and it feels good. That's the only way we would sign with a label."

As for their feel for the genre, "Folk is becoming really popular," explains Burden. "People are getting more interested in stripping everything down, getting it as natural as it can be. I like it like that.

"I think a lot of the mainstream bands are headed that way, what with MTV Unplugged and Storytellers. Everyone's just putting it down, it's just the acoustic guitars. For the clarity, if nothing else."

In a burg where loud club music is still having a heyday, Burden and Raymond sum up the local music scene as "Questionable," at least as compared to other places.

"I came from Boston," says Raymond, "Which is so open-minded... people playing everywhere and anywhere, on the street, whatever. There were a ton of places you can play no matter your music."

Burden moved to Montana for a year, ran out of money and came back. "Montana was where I started, doing open-mic. There's a big folk scene going on there. It hasn't caught on in Lexington."

"It's a problem with the whole acoustic thing. Lexington people want to go listen to loud club music and dance and that's fine, but there aren't too many outlets for a two-woman folk/acoustic band.

She may well be mistaken. Folk and acoustic music caught on (again) in Lexington years ago when Unplugged (now ancient history) ushered in a national revitalization. Here, it was manifest by the initial popularity of the Troubadour concert series, and several years of "y'allternative" and Americana booking at Lynagh's.

But the trend may have simply been and gone - many consider it virtually worn out - though local band Wishing Chair is another popular female folk duo that's still making the rounds, and a few other largely acoustic acts still have major followings.

Mother Jane may have simply missed the peak of the trend, but says Raymond, "We try use whatever resources we have. Clarity. Soul. No special effects. What you see is what you get; it's one of our taglines."

"Folk is something people can identify with, whether it's a bad day or just laughing at ourselves," smiles Burden. "It doesn't have to have a moral message, and we don't try to foist ourselves on people through our music - it's not just mememememe, listen to my problems!"

Among their other goals of getting that independent contract and avoiding being pegged as another Indigo Girls knock-off (the doom of all acoustic women's groups), they are already planning their next CD and want to head down to Austin for a bit. They hope eventually to be able to devote themselves entirely to the music. "It would be great to be able to tour for a few weeks, then come back to town to play intermittently. "That's my dream," says Burden.

With a little persistence, next year, they've always got a shot at winning Local Band Most Deserving of National Attention.

Beat the rush. To be an informed voter catch Mother Jane at Cheapside on Thursday Aug 3, and at Mia's on Aug 9 and 12.

MOTHER JANE/ Mother Jane/ (self-released)

The debut, self-titled record by this acoustic folk trio is a unique effort that attempts to break new ground in what can be an old and often repetitive genre. With Beth Burden's soulful voice, it is hard to avoid the urge to compare some of these songs to Lenny Kravitz's toned-down acoustic work or Seal's smooth first album.

Both Burden and Lisa Raymond are accomplished guitarists, professionally executing these songs with just enough complex rhythm work and solo fills to keep them from falling into the lifeless strumming that plagues less talented folksters. Beth O'Neil's subtle percussion layers round out the simple but full instrumental sound (present on the record, but not for the live shows), and the women harmonize effortlessly to add density to the memorable melodies.

"Come Closer to Me" is a slow burning song in which Burden best demonstrates a controlled soul that the famous "divas" of today refuse to acknowledge is better than their all-over-the-place vocals. It is this restrained passion that makes the record so listenable.

Unfortunately, the lyrics aren't as strong as the record's music and vocals, but most of the songs hint at better stuff, revealing a positive attitude toward the mundane struggles of life.

A true gem, Raymond's only songwriting credit on the record, "Jenna," is a compelling ballad about a strong-willed woman with a dream. It may well be the story of these three talented musicians. -ST