Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sloppy Joe collaborations

We left it a bit late, but it happened. I left Stevens Point on Friday, but on Monday, Stef from Sloppy Joe came and got me, took me out to Jimers' little cabin north of town where we rehearsed a few "old-time" songs, Stef playing clawhammer banjo and the musical saw, accompanied by me on saz and Jimers on upright bass. We then drove down to Adams County to do some recording in Jeff Sachs' basement studio (Jeff's another member of Sloppy Joe). We ended up laying down skeletal versions of "The Willow Gardens", "Red Rockin' Chair", "Pretty Polly" and "Sugar Hill". Neither of us are particularly at home with studio recording, but Jeff was very patient and helpful and accomodated our wish to record the saz and banjo parts simultaneously. He's put some rough mixes together, which I might make available here, or I might wait until all the final mixes are ready (Stef's putting together a solo CD of traditional material). Her banjo style is a pleasure to play along with and her saw playing is becoming incredibly accurate and expressive.

I stopped to pay attention to the lyrics at one point. "Willow Gardens" and "Pretty Polly" are both gruesome murder ballads. The former, I'm sure, is derived from the Irish ballad "Salley Gardens" (also known as a Yeats poem), no gruesome murders there! So I suppose the Appalachian types who imported it added a bit of sensational violence to liven the song up a bit. "Red Rockin' Chair" is a man-grumbling-about-wife song in the same basic family as "Cold Rain and Snow" ("I ain't got no use for your red apple juice", etc.) and "Sugar Hill" is basically a "threat song" aimed at anyone intended to interfere in a certain moonshine operation ("If you want to get your eyes knocked out/if you want to get your fill/if you want to get your head chopped off/come climb on Sugar Hill"). Not too far off gangsta rap subject material, all round.

Stef brought the most remarkable "bag o' cheese", a seemingly endless selection of fine cheeses in a plastic bag, of which we ate far too much. But then I suppose we were in Wisconsin.

a Wednesday evening at the Northland Ballroom
a Wednesday evening at the Northland Ballroom

A couple of nights later, I joined Sloppy Joe for their weekly session at the Northland Ballroom in Iola (a tiny place west of Stevens Point). Gavin's Georgian cousin Jason took me out there in his pickup truck, and we stopped to pick up Sarah (formerly of The Stellectrics and Irene's Garden) who pointed out that one tiny, nondescript community we passed through is actually called "Peru", for no obvious reason whatsoever. Not a lot of Peruvian immigrants in this part of Wisconsin! The Northland session is basically a weekly open mic which used to be hosted by the High Water Band, recently handed over to SJ. They play a set, open up the stage for a while, then play another set. This time they had both former member James (visiting from Florida, on his birthday), myself and Jamie (formerly of Moon and Burnt Toast and Jam) sitting in with them. James plays guitar and sings, Jamie plays washboard ("a drumkit on a rope", as he puts it). This was a lot of fun. I'd only heard some of the songs once, years ago, some not at all, but somehow managed to slip into the groove quite effectively. The crowd is a highly encouraging mix of bohemian student types who'd come out from Point in search of a bit of authenticity and local farming characters from the Iola area who just wanted to come out for a bit of music and dancing. At one point, we were playing Michael Hurley's "Wishbone" (surreal Seussian lyrics) and I looked down to see two little white-haired old ladies waltzing...Wonderful. I recorded most of what we did, but stupidly only brought one MiniDisc. Immediately after that expired we played consecutive killer versions of "Sugar Hill", the SJ original "Salt Creek Road" and "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?" (sung by James, my Dad would have loved that, I remember him singing it often when I was little). We played all of the songs Stef and I recorded, plus one I really wish we had, "The Cuckoo" - definitely the highlight of my evening (this was a lot closer to the Be Good Tanyas' version than the Pentangle one).

Listen Here

I got given a Sloppy Joe "Banjolope" T-Shirt (a banjo with antlers, and a whole story to go with it) and a belated Christmas present from Stef and Jimmers - a "build your own Stonehenge" mini-model kit. We built our own little Stonehenge on a bar-room table in Iola, and I think that's probably a first.


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