Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Leaving Wisconsin

I'm just about to leave central Wisconsin and head back to the UK. So much music has been going on around me here that I've not really had time to blog it up, so here's a summary of sorts:

Tuesday night 'Song Swap' at the Elbow Room. I got to the last three of these. Last time I was over, this was a weekly event at the (now defunct) Clark Place. That was a better space in which to do something like this (a good old fashioned pub singalong, really), with everyone gathered in an appropriately-shaped space including a piano and plenty of room. The Elbow's a fairly nondescript (but very welcoming) bar on The Square, not the best acoustics, and with a long, thin shape which isn't conducive to a central focus. But it's still good to see something like this happening. I ended up playing along with a lot of the stuff I expected to hear (Neil Young songs are a big favourite) as well as some surprises. There's a pleasant emphasis on songs everyone knows, regardless of how ridiculous. I found myself wondering whether anyone had ever previously played along with "Stuck in the Middle with You" on a saz! The first of the three nights, I was priviledged to, along with Ed (fine guitarist and walking jukebox) back up Otis (of local blues veterans Otis and the Alligators) with his mighty voice and array of harmonicas - a funky version of "Big Boss Man" and a passionate "The Thrill is Gone" come to mind. The same evening I overheard someone strumming away somewhat timidly off to one side singing Richard Thompson's "Black Vincent Lightning 1952" - it turns out he knew it via a cover by an American country band, having never even heard of Richard Thompson (or having realised that the motorcycle in question was a classic British model).

Brandon and Ed outside The Afterdark
Brandon (on bike) and Ed (with guitar) outside The Afterdark

Thursday night open mic at The Afterdark (formerly The Mission). I got to the last two of these. Both times I turned up with my saz, not particularly concerned about playing, but open to whatever might happen. During past visits, I've played these with Ryan, Vinnie and/or Gavin. Solo 'performance' isn't really my thing, so I was rather hoping there would be someone down there to jam with. The first time I arrived, I was glad to see a small drum kit set up on the stage, and to see Ed jamming some bluesy stuff with an excellent drummer, unknown to me (he's called Brandon). We made eye contact and I was beckoned onto the stage, plugged in, and away we went. The open mic 'list' was fairly empty that evening due to terrible weather, so we played for quite a while. Afterwards, Ed was asked what the name of our band was, and got to gleefully inform questioner that we'd never actually played before. I was encouraged to play a couple of solo pieces, and was sufficiently warmed up by that point to do so quite happily - "Ambee Dagez", "King of the Faeries" - the usual stuff I seem to gravitate to for these situations. Singer-songwriter Shawn Wolfe (who has a band called the Unschooled Ruffians and was hosting the open mic) got up to sing a few songs, invited me to join him on a countryish thing called "Three-top Mountain" (I think), which I'd never heard, but seemed to be able to follow (and really enjoy). The next week, the event was hosted by Mark Marti (who I remember as a 90FM DJ back in the late 80's when I lived here, but had never met). Ed and Brandon were both there, so I signed up and then got them up with me when my turn came. We played three or four pieces, where I'd just suggest a key and a vague rhythm or vibe to the others and away we'd go. This was among the most memorable things I've done musically for a long time, and typically (as with the previous week), it went unrecorded. On the way out of the coffeehouse, the barrista called me over to give me a note an anonymous audience-member had left saying how much (s)he had enjoyed our set and hoping we'd be back the next week. Unfortunately, there wasn't a next week, as that Thursday a couple of bluegrass bands (Eddie Danger and The Blueheels) had been booked. Also, I'd seen Brandon at a UWSP senior recital (Ryan's trombonist friend Dan Eaton playing some jazz standards and excellent originals) a couple of days earlier and discovered that he'd fallen off his bike and broken his collarbone. He might just have been able to drum (having an arm in a sling, but a working wrist), but it probably wouldn't have been wise. Brandon also plays tabla and had been hoping to meet up for a saz/tabla session, but that'll have to wait until next time I'm around.

Dan's recital flyerthe anonymous note
Dan's recital flyer; the anonymous note

The day after the last non-open-mic I took my saz down to the coffeehouse knowing that Ed was quite likely to be around with a guitar. Indeed he was, so we recorded a few impromptu pieces (including a couple of songs he made up on the spot – one 'talkin’ blues', talkin' about the awful weather that day, and another, subtler creation, which was spontaneously punctuated by Ed announcing "Here comes the hail!", as large hailstones started raining down on the pavement outside the window we were facing). I'm glad I got a chance to do that. If I were around here all the time, I could imagine we might get a band together - but that seems to keep happening to me wherever I go, and I concluded long ago that it's much more fun to keep things moving and stay spontaneous.

Listen Here

As well as the two gigs I played with Sloppy Joe, blogged below (with audio available), there were several other collaborative happenings:

On Friday 18th April we ended up busking (with legitimacy!) in Stevens Point's Main Street as part of the Portage Country Artists' Alliance "Arts Walk" project. This involved local artists displaying their work in shop fronts while musicians played in the street. The terrible weather didn't stop a lot of people turning out for this, although I didn't notice any other musicians. We took the initiative and set up under the marquee of the old (now derelict) Fox Theatre, tuned up, put a bucket out, passed 'round a hipflask of Tullamore Dew and launched into the usual amalgam of traditional bluegrass standards, nontraditional slopgrass originals, 'old time', twisted Americana (Holy Modal Rounders, Michael Hurley, John Prine) and straight-up country (Hank Williams, George Jones). The whole band was present minus Jeff, plus Jamie on washboard and me on saz. This was among the best times I've ever had in this town. Various friends stopped under the marquee to listen, kids running around, Johnny P blowing bubbles, an unexpected Jennifer Ebel (yoga teacher who has hosted some excellent music sessions here, and since moved to Colorado) we were playing the "War Whoop" (a raucous bluegrass standard, I believe) some members of a local bellydance group (not the usual ones I've accompanied in the past) emerged from nowhere and started freestyle raving on the pavement. Sarah from Irene's Garden (playing together again, I’m glad to hear) suddenly appeared with triangle in hand, ting’ing along most effectively – and appropriately, as she’s credited as "riddim sistah" on the SJ's Touched in the Head album. The town centre here has been pretty dead lately due to a disastrous mall development and ever-expanding out-of-town megastore sprawl, so it was excellent to inject some anarchic creativity into the place.

The organisers of the Arts Walk stopped by and offered to feed us if we played a set at their afterparty in a shop two doors down. So of course we did, keeping the vibe rolling -more familiar faces coming and going, more kids running around, belly dancers, bubble-blowing, snacks and wine. We couldn't stop at this point, so the decision was made to invade the Elbow Room. Apart from the aforementioned weekly Song Swap and the occasional set by local troubadour Mike McAbee, live music isn't really a feature of our favourite bar. There's no PA and hardly any room to fit a band in. But I pointed out to Stef how saloons on The Square (the earliest feature of this 150-year-old community) must have had unamplified bands playing in them for decades before the coming of electricity - so why not us, now? After a bit of initial hesitation (the bar being somewhat hectic by this time on a Friday night) we got our instruments out and played a short, but extremely high-energy and very well-received set. Bruce, the owner of the place, who I'm not sure I've ever seen before, happened to be present, and clearly very happy to see this going down, buying us all drinks. It was one of those instances of timeless musical communion that I live for. The peak was probably Gavin singing the Rounders' re-write of the traditional "Riverboat Gambler", Jamie's washboard rhythms keeping everything nice and tight, the whole band (except me) singing backing vocals. Great stuff.

The next evening (20th April, or "4/20" by American reckoning) was the Sloppy Joe 10th anniversary campout party at a campsite west of Wausau - also a full moon. Various friends of the band from around the state showed up, most of whom I'd never seen before. There was some campfire bluegrass jamming before SJ kicked off in the campsite's indoor venue space. I got a chance to play with Bobby Byrnes (Burns?) and his musical brothers from Waupaca - really enjoyed that...Bobby mentioned his ancestory from Nenagh (in County Tipperary), somewhere I know vaguely. I've recently been contemplating the way in which Irish music got 'swung' (possibly via contact with the African diaspora) into bluegrass, and in the case of his playing this seemed more evident than usual. The band played a monster of a show to a super-enthusiastic and hyperkinetic audience, as the occasion demanded. I was very happy just to be part of the audience - they've had so many guests over the years that I couldn't see that they'd want yet more saz in the mix on this particular occasion (just because I happened to be around)...but halfway into the first set, Stef called out "Is there a saz player in the house?". I was soon tuned up, plugged in, and jamming along with gusto. I particularly enjoyed watching the first half of the second set, then found myself back onstage for particularly high-energy versions of "The Cuckoo" and "Hoodoo Bash". Gavin leaned over and asked "Are you recording this?"...and of course I wasn't - the whole scene was too much of a party to think about batteries, discs, microphones and wires. One for an eventual Akashic Records release, I suppose. After they'd finished we were back outside 'round the fire. I have vague memories of jamming with Jeff and some random kids until very late, but it's all a bit of a blur.

The next Monday, Stef drove me down to Jeff's studio in Adams County so we could record some more stuff for her solo album. Last time I was over, we laid the foundations for "Willow Gardens", "Sugar Hill", "Red Rocking Chair" and "Pretty Polly". This time it was some more traditional American stuff - "The Cuckoo" (with me playing an intro based on the English version I know via Pentangle) and "Cold Rain and Snow" (the American version of which we both know via the Dead, the British version I know via Pentangle) - as well as the c1400 English ballad "The Unquiet Grave" (which Stef picked up from Ween's album The Mollusk as "Cold Blows the Wind", claimed in the liner notes to be both a "traditional Chinese spiritual" and written by Ween), the Holy Modal Rounders' "Hoodoo Bash" and Ralph Roddenbery's "Boocoo Disarray". It was a pretty intensive 12-hour session (I was most impressed by Jeff's patience and overall way of operating in the studio) and we didn't quite get 'round to recording Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" or the Surfers' "Wooden Song". But Stef now has the makings of a very interesting solo project; she and the rest of the band will be adding their various layers of saw, fiddle, banjo, bass, guitar, etc. in the coming weeks and months.

* * *

Last full day in the States - I spent most of Monday at Ellie's house in Madison, hanging about in her luthiery workshop and playing music. Our original plan was to build an electric saz, but a combination of insufficient time and Ellie returning from the dentist mashed up on anaesthetics meant that we had to be less ambitious. In the end, she supervised Michael (who's building a guitar in her workshop and learning the basics of instrument repair) in creating me a new nut for my instrument – made of bone and all done with great precision, replacing the blue plastic abomination I bodged together a year or two ago. This means the open strings vibrate with a much greater richness. The next improvement will be to re-fret the whole thing – saz frets are tied on, made of some kind of nylon thread, so I acquired 40ft of black fishing line from a friend in Stevens Point and now have to work out how to tie the special luthiers' knot which keeps them from going askew (and thereby creating a nasty buzzing sound).

Once that was done, Michael and I jammed on some of his songs (he's a highly original songwriter with a locally-based trio called MF7, played me some of their recent album – good stuff). Ellie joined in on mandolin, acoustic guitar and (pear-shaped) octave mandolin. Peter Fee stopped by a bit later with an acoustic guitar. Homebrew beer was flowing, as was ridiculous amounts of high-quality cheese of every imaginable variety (rescued from the - where else but Wisconsin? - World Cheese Championships...does cheese flow?), Kentucky bourbon and general goodwill – a very vibrant household, nice to have spent time there.

Later on, Peter and I met up with Ken and Maggie (now part of Wisconsin veteran singer-songwriter Marcus Bovre's band SoDangYang over at the High Noon to see PROG (a highly dedicated cover band who play a mix of Yes, Tull, Rush and early Genesis). We caught there third set which consisted of "Siberian Khatru" (never thought I’d witness that song being covered!), "Aqualung" and "Cross-Eyed Mary", a lesser Rush number and "Watcher of the Skies". All of which were etched on my brain as a teenager. The drummer manages to switch in and out of time-signatures without missing a beat, singing a convincing Jon Anderson, Geddy Lee and Peter Gabriel through a headmic. They seem to have a good sense of humour, despite being earnest musos. The acoustic guitarist, flautist and voice-of-Ian-Anderson joked with me about having made about $10 each that night (imagine the amount of effort that goes into rehearsing Siberian Khatru!). He reassured me that they're unlikely to give up despite the economic realities of playing to tiny audiences... "We're steeped in this stuff," he said.

note left on Ellie's front doorPROG flyer
note left on Ellie's front door; PROG flyer

There's a strange symmetry to this, as last time I arrived in Madison on my way over from England, I was met by Peter and Maggie, who'd just seen PROG playing.

Driving back to Peter's, Maggie played me a tape she'd recently picked up (someone dropped a load of old cassettes over at WORT where shes still working part time). Marcia Ball – ultra-groovy New Orleans music - sounded amazing, really must check her out. For now, here's a pretty good example of what she can do: "Red Beans".


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