Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On Wisconsin

Quite a lot of musical activity to report since the Florida excursion... [incidentally, that long write-up of my Suwannee experience attracted more comments than any previous blog entry, as well as particularly satisfying one relating to the previous posting about my time in Buffalo, which makes me remember why I bother with this blog - it was from David Nanni from Red Headed Stepchild, check it out]

There was a weekend which involved jamming on a Friday night (actually very early Saturday morning) with Peter (electric guitar), Shelly (drums) and Bob (bass - formerly of Irene's Garden), then, later that afternoon going up to Erik Moore's place in Wausau for more jamming with him, Shelly and Peter. Erik's got a baritone ukelele now, played brilliantly through wah-wah and fuzz.

Listen Here

He also gave us all copies of a new CD compilation of stuff he's done, including a couple of covers of his songs by other people, one being an electronic version of "Pin-up" by a Brazilian MySpace contact he's never actually a lot of Erik's songs, this one is very personal, mentioning numerous friends by name, so it's funny hearing an anonymous Brazilian singing earnestly about these Stevens Point characters. The CD also includes a memorable electro-acoustic cover of Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf".

On the Sunday, Pete and I were invited along to join Shelly, Bob and Wheaty (keyboardist and one of the founders of The Stellectrics, before they became Irene's Garden) for a rehearsal - they're getting a 'lounge rock' band together, trying out various lead instruments and front-people. Being aware that this was just a guesting situation, and with Pete riffing away enthusiastically and Wheaty piling on the chord changes, it was hard to know where to put myself, musically...but it was a worthy challenge and the recording sounds better than what I remember the session feeling like.

Bob, as well as playing a very solid bass (and some guitar, keyboards and drums), has also taught philosophy and logic (having written a PhD dissertation on consciousness, computation, the "symbol grounding problem", etc.). The following weekend, he ended up leading a philosophy discussion that I was invited to at Shelly's house (an informal group that meets occasionally), talking about the mind-body problem. That made for a very interesting early evening - fifteen people sitting around with bottles of beer - and varying amounts of knowledge, insight and rhetorical ability - trying to make sense of the relationship between the phenomenon of neural activity and the experience of consciousness.

Irene's Garden were playing a (fairly rare, these days) show that night, though, so we wrapped things up fairly quickly - the mind-body problem still unresolved - and headed downtown to catch the second set. It was in the basement of what's now called "Steel" - a tacky nightclub which was formerly the Clark Place, and before that the VFW Hall where our friend Marty Cable used to put on hardcore bands in the late 80's. The band continues to try different line-ups - Sarah, Jenny and Wheaty are what's left of the original Stellectrics, Jeff's still on lead guitar after a good few years, there's a familiar looking drummer, and an excellent new bass player (I mentioned to her afterwards that I'd been seeing this band since 1987, and how I found her playing perfect for their sound - she laughed and pointed out that she was born in 1987). They played a semi-acoustic set, Jenny on mandolin, Sarah on acoustic guitar and Jeff on acoustic some of the time. I was expecting all the old favourites, but they've been working on a lot of new material, and it sounded excellent, really refreshing. They're not trying to re-live anything, very much looking forward, despite the fact that the audience was composed almost entirely of old friends (not much of a younger crowd, but great to see they're still doing their thing regardless).

I would have liked to have concentrated a bit more on the music, but kept being greeted by a succession of old friends, so I was half-listening, half-conversing and shuffling around a bit on the edge of the dance. At one point where Sarah didn't have any singing or guitar parts to worry about, she (now a grandmother of five years!) was down in the audience dancing with the rest of us, something I remember happening almost twenty years ago, impressing me (then and now) with the sense that this band was very much "of the people".

Irene's Garden a while back
Irene's Garden a while back (looks like Bob on bass)

As soon as Irene's finished their set and started packing up (sooner rather than later, as the nightclub soundsystem kicked off upstairs), Van Morrison's song "Tupelo Honey" started playing over the PA. This isn't a particularly well-known song of his, but I'd had it, distinctly, in my head all that afternoon, for the easily identifiable reason that I'd bought my parents some authentic tupelo honey down in Florida as a small gift. I'd always assumed the song somehow refered to Tupelo, Mississippi (home of Elvis), but it turns out that there's a tupelo tree, and its blossoms give rise to this particularly noteworthy, sweet, floral honey. Anyway, I'd been wanting to hear that song all day, and it just came of those things.

Tuesday nights are now "song swap" at the Elbow Room, almost certainly the most cheerful and tolerant of Stevens Point's many bars. It's an entirely acoustic event (although on one occasion, Loopy set up his keyboard with a very small amp). I got to three of these - one was very country-oriented, one a weird blend of country and metal and the third pretty much just rock and metal, but all with acoustic guitars - and my saz, of course. It's all a bit of blur now, but I have some vague recollections of the first one: playing "Hey Hey, My My" with Tom and then going off into a jam...Joe (who turned out to have run a squat bar on Berlin for years) siging "St. James Infirmary", something with Loopy on Keys, something bluesy with Otis (of the Alligators) on harp and someone else on keys... Neil Young's "Pocohontas", Robert playing Leadbelly's "Midnight Special", the Stones' "Dead Flowers", "Wagon Wheel" (that song again) and a Radiohead song I didn't know...Jason from local country/classic rock cover band Rattlesnake and Eggs played the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" (something I've not thought about for at least fifteen years, but seemed to be able to play), Hank Williams' "Jumbalaya", Bob Seeger's "Turn the Page", and a gleefully delivered succession of gratuitously stupid country songs and raucous barroom sing-a-longs (there was even something that began "I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/I went to pick her up in my old truck"!)

The next week, afer having dinner at JP's house over on the west side and listening to Tom Waits' Bone Machine, we headed down tot he Elbow. Someone called Steve, a bit of a walking jukebox, played something off Damn the Torpedoes, "Hey You" from The Wall, "Learning to Fly" off that dubious late 80's Waters-less Floyd LP... then I got into some really interesting classical/metal inspired jams with Dale (who's known for playing elaborate Slayer and Metallica medleys on his acoustic).

The third one involved Neil Young's "Old Man", the Marshall Tucker Band's "Can't You See" an unidentified song by Tom, Metallica's "Fade to Black", "Comfortably Numb" (i got to play the second solo, and got really into that!). I got talking with Jim Prideaux, Amherst-based architect (of Cornish descent) and guitarist with local blues heros Otis and the Alligators. Someone was asking for Led Zeppelin, and some got played, but we were deep in conversation, but then suddenly he was leading us through "Stairway to Heaven", with Steve taking the vocals, about four guitarists plus me - a bit of a mess, but lots of fun (the rock crowd from Rosholt loved it - one of whom kept expressing his enthusiasm for "the guy with the gourd" - i.e. me). I've only ever attempted to play that once before, and it was a simplified reggae version (with Justin Love at the Lost Troubadours gig in Brighton last year), but it's amazing how familiar it is after all these years of hearing it - my fingers just knew what to do.

Thursday nights in Stevens Point are open mic at The Afterdark (what was once The Mission). I got to a couple of these and jammed with Ed (a couple of bluesy pieces got recorded, and sound really rather good).

Listen Here

On one occasion a trio of young beardy student folkies got up and played old country/bluegrass/gospel stuff - "May the Circle Be Unbroken", "I'll Fly Away", "Wagon Wheel", etc. - very similar to the Suwannee vibe. But then, for something completely different, Candra (who last year was always sitting quietly at the back of the coffeehouse making a sculptural chainmail headdress out of beercan pull-tabs while I was jamming with whoever) got up and sung an a capella re-write of Bessie Smith's "Graveyard Dream Blues" (it seemed simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, so I had to ask her about it in the end), before supplying backing vocals for a young friend singing refreshingly weird and not-at-all-country songs about frogs, icefloes and geology.

There was a brief prog-ish jam at the house of a reclusive bass player called Buzz who Peter introduced me to. We intended to do more of this, but it never came together unfortunately.

Trivia weekend - this is a part of St. Pt. culture that can't really be explained, only experienced. No jams, but Erik Moore showed up with his ukelele to our team HQ on 2nd Street and provided late-night entertainment on the smoker's porch, making me wish I'd brought my saz. As a result of 90FM's playlist, I ended up with various oldies, novelty records and rock classics stuck in my head for days after (The Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is Just Alright With Me", (the incongruously British) Foghat's "Fool for the City" and The Ramones' "Rock 'n' Roll High School" come to mind...the one everyone seems to remember from Trivia is The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird", which for some reason has become almost synonymous with the contest). Maggie and Ken turned up from Madison to join us ("Servants of the Beer God") on Friday night. They're still both playing in Marques Bovry's band SoDangYang, and gave me a copy of the new four track EP Piñata (including a song MB wrote for Maggie to sing lead on) - good stuff.

There was a most enjoyable and free jam with Dan Miller once again in the old house on Franklin Street overlooking the river. He played his Washburn six-string electric bass guitar, what he calls his "big heavy guitar", and some really beautiful sounds were produced that afternoon.

Listen Here

We were hoping to get together at least once more, ideally with Alex from Elf Lettuce (as we did last year), but sadly that didn't come together.

One Wednesday, I sat in with Sloppy Joe for their weekly slot at Iola's Northland Ballroom - something of a tradition now. Dale, the amazing banjo player from The High Water Band, joined us for the second set. The open mic portion of the evening (between sets) began with Shawn Wolfe singing some of his songs, then a banjo player with a captivatingly tuneless voice called Kevin - he played a couple of songs, can't remember the first, but the second was "There's a Hole in My Bucket" (the children's song). He was quite extraordinary - apparently has been coming to the open mic for years, used to regularly flee the stage in a moment of stagefright terror, and clearly is still not at all comfortable on stage, but he keeps coming back, and somehow that lends his performance a weird validity. The words "New Weird America" have been diluted to a point of meaninglessness now, but (at least to me) this was entirely new, weird and American. A young picker from Waupaca called Bobby Burns (with roots in Neenagh, Co. Limerick) got up and sung a couple of ballads with most of SJ backing him - I jammed with him and his friends a the SJ 4/20 campout last year, and we got talking. One of the songs ("Off to Sea Once More") was learned from the Garcia/Grisman Grateful Dawg DVD, something I must check out.

SJ started their set as just Gavin, Stef and Jeff (it's all very relaxed these days, Jimers and Jamie still at the bar with their regulation bottles of Sierra Nevada pale ale). The first song was the best example I've yet heard of the gorgeous, earthy harmonies Gavin and Stef seem to effortlessly produce - it was a mining ballad called "Dark as a Dungeon", and sadly, my MiniDisc wasn't fully set up at that point. It was for the second song, but my saz wasn't coming through the PA (problem with my lead) - that was "Make Me a Palette on the Floor", which I'd have loved to have joined them for. Jeff found me a lead and I then joined in on Hank Williams' "You Win Again", followed by a succession of country, bluegrass, gospel and 'slopgrass' originals. I really love this band - and I'm quite sure I'd love them if they didn't happen to be my friends. They seem to embody everything I like about American music and culture, and so it's a real honor to be welcomed onstage with them whenever I'm around.

the Northland Ballroom, quite some time ago
the Northland Ballroom, quite some time ago

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Towards the end of my stay, I got out to Stef's farmhouse out in Scandinavia for a jam. Lots of songs - can't really remember much about it, apart from how tired I was - my eyes couldn't stay open, I was surfing the boundary of sleep and waking, and during at least one song, I fell asleep while playing the saz - my hand just fell off the fretboard. I recorded all this, though, and some of it's just about worthy (Michael Hurley's "Moon Song", George Jones' "From the Window Up Above", Stuart McNair's "Building a Fire", Guy Clark's "I'm All Through Throwing Good Love After Bad", The Hackensaw Boys "Box of Pine").

Listen Here

She also played me some of Michael Hurley's new album, Ancestral Swamp and some old songs off a Folkways LP called Folk Ballads from the English-Speaking World (she's particularly interested in an old ballad about the silkies). In the morning we listened to some recent, bluegrass-inspired Dolly Parton, including her version of "Stairway to Heaven"(!)

During my last full day in Stevens Point, I got a phone call from someone who'd once heard me jamming down the Elbow Room, and hence found myself cycling over to the west side (house number 1117 - synchronistic weirdness tying in with a late night conversation at Stef's - another story...) to record a saz track for a song by The F.I.B.'s (a local band based around a couple of guys from Illinois - "F.I.B." is unfavourable Wisconsin terminology for men from Illinois, you can probably work it out). They're a quirky band, not limited by any particular styles, having a lot of fun and writing dozens of songs at the moment. This song was called "Spider", with a Flamenco-ish flavour, and I could see why Jim, the songwriter thought to include my saz (the A mode he wrote it in is slightly reminiscent of North African music). I felt very comfortable with the song and the relaxed attic recording set-up, so I laid down four takes for them to pick and choose from, as well as a few possible intros they could use. The band - Jim, Paul and Stan - were all most appreciative of my efforts, as was their engineer and cohort Amanda.

It was only after the last take that it occured to Jim to mention that in the week between then and the previous time we'd talked about this possible recording session, HE'D HAD A HEART ATTACK - a full-on heart attack, while they were engrossed in another recording session. He'd only got out of hospital on the Thursday, and this was Saturday afternoon. Clearly this man was enjoying life to the full, wholly aware of his own mortality, so his positive response to my contribution to his song felt really quite moving.

The last night at home with my parents I played a few games of chess with my dad (and won one! triumph at last!) and put together a playlist of interesting sounds: Yusef Lateef, Ornette Coleman, a field recording of pygmies in the Ituri rainforest, Spiro, a Soft Machine bootleg (Oslo '71), Dembo Konte, Gilles Peterson's compilation of groovy Brazilian electronic, Mulatu Astatqe. Usually, when I'm there, I listen to lute music, classical guitar, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ruben Gonzalez (the sort of stuff they already like), but I thought I'd expose them to some different stuff. And they were getting into it, my dad even unconsciously nodding along to some Brazilian D'n'B as he contemplated his next move.

Another pleasant surprise was discovering a compilation tape I'd recorded for my Mum in 1989 or 1990. It started with "Kana Vatsvene Vopinda" by Mechanic Manyaruke and the Puritans, from an LP I bought around that time from a little shop in Camden (no idea where that ended up). Pure, joyous, Zimbabwean gospel music from the 80's, the sort of stuff I used to tape off John Peel and Andy Kershaw back then. I remember listening to it back then and how happy it would make me feel...and it sounded just as good now. I recorded the song onto my laptop and have been listening to it repeatedly (you can hear a short clip here).

I got a lift down to Madison with Peter, via the Native American petroglyphs at Roche-a-Cri (overlaid with layers of 19th and 20th century graffiti, carved and sprayed - "a catalogue of fools", were the words that came to mind, although I found myself wondering what the original rock carvings would have looked to the tribal elders at the time, who'd almost certainly have been continuing a long, long tradition of revering the unblemished rockface) and Devil's Lake, which, in the mist, made me think of North Wales, Guatemala or Japan, but NOT southern Wisconsin. We drove straight to Ken and Maggie's, where Maggie (now working full time at wonderful WORT) made us dinner. We then jammed on the porch - Eno's "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" (from Taking Tiger Mountain), Stephen Stills' "Long May You Run", Townes van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty", some nice jams...Ken got home late from work, and we jammed some more (something Pete's working on in five, a Marques Bovry song, "Burning Airlines..." again, "Ghost Riders in the Sky", even some ELO(!)) I'm quite happy with my edited highlights:

Listen Here

Devil's Lake, Wisconsin
Devil's Lake, Wisconsin

Peter had hoped that we could meet up with the Malian kora player Tani Diakite, now resident in Madison (Sloppy Joe shared a bill with him once at some cultural event, and Gavin copied me his CD enthusiastically a couple of years ago). That didn't happen, but perhaps next time. The same night, up in Stevens Point, Pato Banton, with an eight-piece band, was playing at The Afterdark. They only ever seem to have juvenile punk bands playing there these days, and the night a semi-legendary reggae artist turns up from Birmingham, I had to leave...


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