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Curtis Cartier takes a listen to Santa Cruz folkies Amanda West and Hip City Cruz.

By Curtis Cartier

Folk music is a deceptive term. For some, it's rock & roll's pansy cousin and invokes boring images of paisley dresses, campfires and kumbaya sessions. But for others, and for a whole lot of Santa Cruzans, folk music represents heroes like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Janis Joplin and champions the message behind the music. And with Amanda West playing the Cayuga Vault this Friday and Hip City Cruz hitting Don Quixote's Saturday, Mu_Z couldn't be more folkin' excited to get barefoot and spin in circles.

Sets in the West
When Amanda West was studying cultural anthropology at UCSC, a campus doctor told her that she had cancer and about six months to live. After that, West lived her life like it could end anytime and took each new day as a gift. And a month later, when a second doctor said the first was nuts and she was fine, she says she was relieved but that her outlook on life had changed forever. "I saw life and death a lot differently after that," she says. "And it's definitely carried over to my music." West has been singing as long as she's been talking. But over time her child's soprano matured into a vibrant contralto, and today she sings with textbook clarity and emotion. It wasn't until the ripe age of 11, however, that West picked up her first guitar. But instead of practicing pop songs and scales, she immediately began writing her own music. And after leading the four-piece band Walpurgis Night in college, she went solo and released her debut album, The Way to the Water, in February. The disc has a barebones sound of sad and somber guitar strokes along with the occasional haunting violin but is highlighted by piercing vocals. "I love to sing about life and all the weird things that come along the way," she says. "I'm very interested emotionally and intellectually in the experience of being human."

Hip to be Square
While West relies mostly on five strings and a larynx, local four-piece folk and blues outfit Hip City Cruz adds flutes, pianos and the occasional mandolin to give more texture to its soft backwoods ballads. Although recently formed, the quartet features seasoned musicians, including lifetime singer Lynette Mello and Jewl Sandoval, a familiar face around the Bay Area blues scene. The band shines with layered tearjerkers like the veteran-inspired "A Toast," which sounds like soft rain at funeral. They also surprise with more upbeat tunes like "Joshua Fit the Battle," which blends plenty of swinging harmonica into a heavy blues riff. With a healthy sprinkling of bluegrass to complement the blues and folk, HCC defines itself as a sharp ensemble that explores plenty of territory without sounding too busy. And in celebration of the band's soon-to-be-released debut album, Hip City Cruz's Donny Q show is being billed as a "CD Release Party," and the band is promising to make it a night to remember. So for everyone from the die-hard skirt-twirling, callused-footed patchouli mongers to the conservative closet folkers who refuse to believe that their Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen albums might as well be Joan Baez records, make sure you head out and see how Santa Cruz gets the folk down.

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