Tuesday, April 08, 2008

slopgrass saz jamz

Last Thursday (4th April) I found myself onstage in front of the most wildly enthusiastic audience I've ever faced, and simultaneously dealing with the worst acoustics imaginable. This was in the new Encore Room in the recently reconstructed UWSP University Centre (now the Lee Sherman Dreyfus Building - did they check the initials?). Seemingly, despite all the money, effort and time involved in the construction work, no one thought about acoustics in the venue - it's all concrete and steel, and totally awkward shaped space, feels like playing in a warehouse. I'd been told that my friends Sloppy Joe were playing that evening, supporting the speed-bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, so was planning to be their anyway. But earlier that day, Stef from the band rang to ask me to bring my saz. Originally I was just going to play on "Cold Rain and Snow" and perhaps one other number, but I ended up playing for the whole set (after the first song).

Sloppy Joe - Stef, Gavin, Jimers, Jeff
Sloppy Joe - Stef, Gavin, Jimers, Jeff

It was quite something - as soon as the venue doors opened at 8:00, a sold out audience of mostly students (and a few local bluegrass fans) flooded in, pushed up to the front of the stage and let it be known that they were going to have the best time possible, despite the appalling sound quality. SJ don't get to play in Stevens Point much these days (all the old venues are gone), and some of these students regularly come out to see them at their weekly slot at the Northland Ballroom in Iola, but the overall levels of appreciation were quite overwhelming ("Are you always this well received?" I shouted to Gavin. "No!" he laughed back). They'd just got back from the Suwannee Springfest in North Florida, a festival they play each year (hosting a popular grassroots jam-zone in the campsite), so the band was gelling nicely (even if they couldn't hear themselves properly), and I was able to add some droney saz textures which generally upped the weirdness factor.

Gavin - banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin(?), vocals
Stef - fiddle, acoutic guitar, banjo, upright bass, vocals
Jimers - upright bass, washtub bass, jaw harp, vocals
Jeff - fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, banjo, vocals, acoustic guitar(?)
Jamie - washboard and percussion
me - saz

I can't keep track of who plays what in this band - they're continually swapping instruments.

Listen Here

Sloppy Joe are from Wisconsin and play "slopgrass" standing up. Trampled by Turtles are from Minnesota and play (very fast) bluegrass sitting down. Not knowing any of their stuff, the acoustics (worse offstage than on) made it impossible to assess their music. It sounded like being in a huge tunnel, or as if I were in some extreme, feverish state of sensory distortion. Not a single word sung or spoken through the vocal mics was comprehensible to me. But their many obvious fans in the audience appeared to be having a fantastic time.

I've since been working with Stef, preparing material for her forthcoming solo album. We recorded a few American old-time songs last time I was in Wisconsin ("Willow Gardens", "Pretty Polly", Sugar Hill" and "Sugar Babe") - just banjo, vocals and saz. This time it's "Cold Rain and Snow", "The Cuckoo" (possibly with an intro part based on the original English ballad), the Holy Modal Rounders' "Hoodoo Bash", the 14th century Shropshire ballad "The Unquiet Grave" (via Ween's version, called "Cold Blows the Wind", from The Mollusk, the liner notes of which claim both that Ween wrote it and that it is a traditional "Chinese Spiritual"...Ween humour, presumably), Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and a song called "Boocoo Disarray" by hyper-eccentric South Georgia singer-songwriter Ralph Roddenbery. Some of the rehearsal recordings sound quite good already:

Listen Here


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