In the vanguard of a thriving new folk revival are second-generation folksters such as the Mammals, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and Johnny Irion, who played to a packed Club Passim on Thursday night. They were raised in the folk world that grew out of the '60s revival, so they were literally born to the music, and they wear it like a second skin.
The Mammals are to old-time string-band music what Nickel Creek is to bluegrass. The trio consists of Pete Seeger's grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, fiddle legend Jay Ungar's daughter Ruth, and former ska-rocker Michael Merenda, the folkie-come-lately of the bunch.
Like Nickel Creek, the Mammals' innate understanding of the music's vocabulary and nuances allows them to function simultaneously as mavericks and keepers of the flame. Ungar's fiddle was playfully raw and wry on rollicking old-time reels and a rowdy Cajun two-step, but was as delicate as lace behind Merenda's moody, provocative, and surprising ballads. One might expect Pete Seeger's grandson to pick a mean banjo, and Rodriguez-Seeger did, but he is also a superb rhythm guitarist. His brisk strokes were impeccably sympathetic to both melody and lyric.
Guthrie, who performs with her husband, Irion, is Arlo's daughter, and granddaughter of legend Woody. Her songs are lean and circular, like her grandfather's, rippling with inner rhymes, telling images, and single lines that feel like songs unto themselves. She displayed flashes of her father's wit in a smartly silly road meditation that began, "49 and 49 make 100, when you round it off."
Irion writes crisp, melodically infectious folk-rock songs shimmering with humanist insight. He is also a cinematic guitarist, playing licks that enveloped Guthrie's songs so completely they felt like extensions of the melody.
The evening ended in a friendly song swap. Irion led everyone on his stunning reinvention of 85-year-old Pete Seeger's recently written ode to Martin Luther King. In Irion's hands, it became a darkly urgent battle cry for peace. Guthrie converted an obscure lyric of her grandfather's into a saucy rafter-rouser. Everyone joined in an encore of the old populist hymn "Satisfied Mind," and in the grand Pete Seeger fashion, a younger Seeger roused the crowd to song. The evening ended in the sure, joyful sound of a new generation taking firm possession of old traditions, just as has been done since the first song was sung.
The Mammals, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
At: Club Passim, Thursday