Farren balanced? You make the call

Upon seeing that Marilyn’s on K had switched its recent policy of booking jazz acts on Sundays—no use competing with Old Ironsides’ Prescott Showcase jazz series in the same time slot—to something involving Irish music, I was prepared to recount one of my more memorable encounters with leprechaun disco as a column lead.

Short form: late 1970s, driving to San Francisco with my friend Mike to see iconic Irish band the Chieftains, splitting a quart of Jameson Irish Whisky on the way. Upon arriving, I bought another quart of Jameson, stuffed it into my overcoat, entered the Masonic Auditorium, and polished off the entire bottle. When the music started, I needed to ask bandleader Paddy Moloney a question about his uilleann pipes, and I stumbled onstage and promptly passed out.

There’s nothing like coming to waking consciousness on cold drunk tank concrete; by then it was early morning. Upon being released, I plucked the major chunks of dried vomit off my shirt and went looking for my car, which had vanished. Seems Mike had come looking for me, and he’d totaled the Ford into a light pole before catching the next Greyhound out of town. I needed more sleep, so I entered a church at dawn and fell asleep on a pew. Later, upon hearing organ music and the sound of weeping, I peered over the pew in front of me to see several rows of people facing an open casket.

For years after that, I recoiled at the sound of tin whistles.

Fortunately, the Guggenheim Grotto, the Dublin-based trio at Marilyn’s, was closer to the Beatles than the Clancy Brothers. Its members alternated between acoustic guitars, a viola, a Korg keyboard, a cajon (a box-like percussion instrument) and an electric bass, but their hallmark was their sweet vocal harmonies, which were reminiscent of the 1980s New Zealand band Crowded House. Quite sweet, really.

The evening’s surprise, for me, was the opener: singer-songwriter Justin Farren. I’d seen him before and thought he was a bit of a tuneless Woody Guthrie clone. That must have been a seriously off night for him, because here he was remarkably more three-dimensional.

The bespectacled Farren, to put it in an easy-to-understand thumbnail description, is like a male version of Ani DiFranco in the way he crams rushing torrents of words into the lines of his songs, which often unspool in a reel of offbeat observations that pleasantly jar the listener. At times, his voice swoops upward into a falsetto; think the late Jeff Buckley, or former Frank Jordan frontman Mike Visser. Jay Shaner, a big fan of Farren’s who was in the house, mentioned Jack Johnson, too, although Farren’s music is less laid back than Johnson’s.

Farren played two songs solo on his acoustic guitar, then introduced his new band: Aaron Linkin on electric bass and multi-instrumentalist Brian Rogers—who also plays in his own band, along with the “restaurant jazz” combo Four Guys From Reno—on drums. Linkin and Rogers provided a nice folk-funk backbeat that worked well behind Farren’s lead; at times they were a bit choppy, but this was their first gig.

Farren is a rare original, and it’ll be interesting to see how his music develops with this new backing band. He’s definitely someone to watch.