Folk acts going electric is a story as old as 1965, when Bob Dylan stunned purists by recording half of his fourth release, Bringing It All Back Home, with -- of all things -- an ornery bunch of rock and rollers. That year, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band joined him at the Newport Folk Festival for a set during which the boos often threatened to overwhelm the amplified music.
Dylan knew where he was headed with his new plugged-in approach, even if his fans didn't. Specifically, he was on his way to the best releases of his career and a sound that -- with a little help from the Byrds -- revolutionized pop music. Back in '65, however, Dylan was stuck. Traditionalists -- many of whom had cheered him a year earlier when he toured with only his harmonica and guitar -- felt betrayed, and fans of rock and roll didn't know what to make of all that poetry.
Since then, folk's parameters have loosened -- or, perhaps, blurred -- significantly. In 1994, a year shy of three decades since Dylan's Newport appearance, the Nields -- present-day folkies in the process of beefing up their sound by going from unplugged to plugged -- played the festival, becoming one of the few unsigned groups ever to perform at the prestigious event. For them, the jeers took a back seat to cheers.
Always a crowd pleaser, the Nields are led by Nerissa Nields, her husband David and her younger sister Katryna. The Massachusetts quintet is fed by the belief that sweet, pretty, poised and tasteful can be just as much a part of powerful rock and roll as nasty, ugly, disheveled and off-color.
"My generation came of age in the mid-'80s, when dance music was big," says Nerissa, a smart, sensitive, 28-year-old who shares vocals with her sister and songwriting duties with her husband. "That was music that I never connected with."
The things Nerissa does connect with are classic rock and folk, and the Nields' latest CD, Getting Over Greta, achieves a spunky, funky union between the two. As the body moves to the earthy grooves of Greta's more propulsive numbers, the head mulls over its choice lyrical insights on growing up and getting older. True, maybe "I Need a Doctor," "King of the Hill," "Goodbye" and the title track won't ignite a mosh-pit frenzy, but they rumble along assertively, nonetheless. They also avoid sounding spineless and insincere, a common result when electric guitars and a 4/4 beat are applied to acoustic music with no compositional forethought. And if Katryna Nields' singing is just a hair too self-conscious -- a bit obvious in its Joni Mitchell-meets-Dar Williams quirkiness and elasticity -- at least the others have the sense to back her with playing that's raw and uninhibited, sending Greta's tales of innocence and experience spinning in playful and unpredictable directions.
Nerissa Nields fits the profile of your typical '90s folkie: intellectual, introspective and polite, with a stable upbringing and a mother and father who nurtured her more ephemeral creative urges.
"My dad's a lawyer and my mom's a teacher," says Nerissa, who grew up in McLean, Virginia, a well-to-do suburb of Washington, D.C. "They definitely believed that their girls would be artists. It was something that didn't come as much of a shock to them.
Nields' parents listened to Dylan, Pete Seeger and Simon and Garfunkel, and, for a while, so did she, singing folk tunes for fun with the rest of the family. At ten, though, her attitude toward music changed with the purchase of her first records. The year she was born, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arrived to send pop music off on yet another experimental course. A decade later, Nerissa discovered Lennon and McCartney for herself, and committed more seriously to the songwriting hobby she'd begun at age seven.
Nerissa admits that she and her sister weren't particularly close while growing up. But the one area in which they did connect was singing, even though Katryna had more interest in musical theater than the Beatles. Nerissa says it wasn't until 1987 that the two began singing together, something that first happened outside the family living room.
"She was in high school and I was in college, and we met David that summer," recalls Nerissa. "So the three of us went around playing open mike nights with a repertoire of maybe six songs. We had the greatest time. At that point, we discovered it was something we really liked."
Soon enough, the fun was over and it was back to school for Nerissa, then an English major at Yale; a year later, Katryna followed her sister to Connecticut, where she majored in religion at Trinity College. The trio's musical evolution on hold, Nerissa continued to write, taping her tunes and keeping her voice in shape singing with a vocal group. "There's a big tradition of a cappella groups at Yale, and I started a folk version of that with guitar accompaniment -- a very unwieldy 20-person Peter, Paul and Mary cover band," she laughs.
Meanwhile, Katryna concentrated on musical theater at Trinity and also sang with an a cappella group. For a while, the younger Nields was uncertain about her career in music. But by the time Nerissa and David were married in 1991 -- and David decided to take his wife's last name so that the group, a la the Ramones, would share a common surname -- she had come around. After college, the three settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, and began working as an acoustic trio, funding their music with jobs at a local private school. Nerissa's parents gave their daughter studio time as a wedding present, and the group made good use of it, recording a demo. The tape became the Nields' first release, 66 Huxey St., which sold 5,000 copies.
Through the early '90s, the Nields' mailing list, which started at 34, grew to more than 10,000, and three more homemade recordings -- including the 1994 standout Bob on the Ceiling -- went on to sell a combined 17,000 copies, a number large enough to attract the interest of Elektra Records. Anticipating the problems of recording a major-label debut with only three members, the Nields recruited a college chum of Katryna's, bassist Dave Chalfant, who brought in Dave Hower on drums. Finally, the fully fleshed-out version of the Nields that Nerissa had always envisioned was a reality.
"By the time we started the group, David and I were married and Katryna was living with us," says Nerissa. "We were an unusually close band. We lived together; we breathed together; we were a family. We always wanted to be a band, but we were this tight little trio, and when we tried to play with other musicians, they just didn't fit. But Dave Chalfant did, and we spent a year sort of courting him."
He succumbed to their blandishments just in time for the Nields to get their band together and book recording time with Gin Blossoms producer John Hampton at Ardent Studios in Memphis -- and just in time for Elektra to back away from its deal. "It all happened at the last minute," recalls Nerissa. "And it just seemed like it was nothing to them."
That experience and the emotional trauma that came afterward taught the Nields a hard lesson. In the end, they chose to not field any more big-dollar offers, signing instead with the small Razor & Tie, home to their friend Dar Williams.
All three Davids -- Chalfant, Hower and Nields -- had backgrounds in playing rock, says Nerissa, so the transition from acoustic to electric was relatively smooth. "We were always a high-energy act -- even when we were acoustic," admits Nerissa. "Plenty of people in the folk industry would say, 'Well, you're not really folk.' "
Even so, Getting Over Greta -- as raucous as it is radiant -- is an abrupt shift into harder territory. But it's also a smooth one. Some of the ease in transition can be credited to Greta producer Kevin Moloney; the rest can be attributed to the group's success in coming up with material that can stand the weight of a heavier instrumental approach.
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"I look at our songwriting, and I think it's changed subtly but not radically," says Nerissa. "The thing that's really changed are the arrangements."
And thankfully, those changes have come with minimal fan backlash; the group's grassroots support base has continued to grow.
"I'm sure we lost a few people along the way, although it certainly didn't seem so at the time," says Nerissa Nields. "But we've certainly gained more than we've lost. We are -- and were -- a band that plays constantly, so our fans really watched us evolve on-stage. They sort of bought into that process because of that. They were there. They watched it happen."
The Nields perform at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $5. For info, call 528-5999.