Monday, May 10, 2010

more Wisconsin

My time in Wisconsin involved a couple of trips down to Jeff Sachs' studio in Arkdale where Stef and I continued working on her album of murder ballads and dark acoustic weirdness. By the end of it, acceptable saz parts had been recorded for all twelve tracks, so she'll be able to finish it now without waiting for my return. She's hoping to have it out this summer. As part of this, I got to meet, jam and record with the virtuosic multi-instrumentalist Nathan Sitzman (of Insomniac Gypsy, among others). He's mainly a mandolin and guitar player, but seems quite at home with anything strung (he's been getting into the cello, and was making my saz sound pretty good within a few minutes). As well as Stef's ten songs (mostly traditional, but also Michael Hurley's "Moon Song" and The Holy Modal Rounders' "Hoodoo Bash"), Nathan and I laid down a couple of instrumentals to break things up - versions of "The Cuckoo" (the English one) and "Salley Gardens". These will contrast sung versions of the American reinvention of "The Cuckoo" and "Willow Gardens". These worked out particularly nicely, and I've since heard mixes involving exquisite multiple overdubs by Nathan.

Nathan Sitzman
Nate Sitzman on mandolin

While waiting for Jeff to finish teaching a violin lesson we jammed in his front room - a couple of Nathan's tunes and "St. Anne's Reel", as well as a rehearsal of the "Moon Song" with Stef. I grabbed a couple of other rehearsal versions on my MiniDisc the next time I was down there. And there was also a trip out to Stef and Jimers' new farmhouse near Rosholt where we jammed and rehearsed a bit more.
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As usual, I found myself out at the Northland Ballroom in Iola for one of Sloppy Joe's weekly open mic sessions. I joined them for their own set, along with an up-and-coming bluegrass mandolin player called Bobby Burns (from Waupaca) plus Dale the extraordinary clawhammer player (from the Highwater Band) and his teenage daughter Rachel who's already quite an impressive fiddler.

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Dan Miller, the guitarist and bass player who I've been jamming with on my last few visits to Central Wisconsin met up for an electric session (he plugged his guitar into a beaten up old 60's Harmony amp he got at a garage sale for $25, and plugged my saz into his bass amp):

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We also met up for an outside acoustic session with a few of his friends in attendance around a fire - a certain amount of beer had been consumed (including the local brewery's new "2012 Black Ale"...Point Beer cashing in on the end of a Mayan calendric cycle - who'd have thought it!) so this was a bit sloppy. Mercifully, my Minidisc player schiz'd out and blanked the disc immmediately thereafter, so we'll never really know what it sounded like.

Point 2012 label
Point 2012 label - notice the use of the Aztec (rather than Mayan) calendar!

There was a jam with Peter Fee ("Ghost Riders in the Sky", some Willie Nelson and other country-ish stuff) playing his electric guitar through a Roland MicroCube before we headed over "Kristin's Riverwalk" to see my old friend Isaac Schulz's re-formed lineup of Mad Trucker Gone Mad. It's been many years since I saw the original quarted (only once)...they're a trio now, and didn't sound much like what I remembered. A cover of The Misfits' "Holywood Babylon" near the end of the set stood out. Nice to see Isaac again.

Another evening I ended up by a fire with a group of mostly strangers, as well as the enigmatic guitarist/singer Ed Smith. He was encouraged to borrow our friend Kandra's guitar, so I went and got my saz. This was particularly memorable. I suggested "Landlocked Blues" by Bright Eyes (he was the first person I'd hear sing that, a few years ago) and it turned out that a couple of those in attendance knew the words. It seemed to be a favourite song of one...we played a particularly passionate version, Ed remembered just about all the words, and then it transpired that someone had been recording the whole thing on a digital camera - I'm still trying to track that down. We then worked our way through Damien Rice's "Delicate". Those two songs made me think of a third which would suit Ed: Iron and Wine's gorgeous "Upward Over the Mountain". He didn't know it, but had heard of Iron and Wine (the performing name of Samuel Beam) fact, one night he'd apparently almost got in a fight in a bar with someone who was convinced he WAS Samuel Beam (they have the same beard)!! So I hope he'll learn that one for next time. We played some Neil Young ("A Man Needs a Maid", "Cowgirl in the Sand", "From Hank to Hendrix"), two Mason Jennings songs (one impossible to follow, one easy), a couple of lesser known songs by the band Marcy Playground (who were entirely unknown to me). When he ran out of ideas, I suggested thinking of one of the very first songs he'd ever learned to play. A second or two later we were into a lovely version of "Stand By Me", which brought to mind this little film which is worth a look if you've not seen it (Ed hadn't).

On the way back from one of the sessions down at Jeff's I suggested to Stef that we drop in at the Elbow Room on the Square in Stevens Point for their weekly "songswap". She was too tired, and had another 20 miles to drive, so she left me there and headed off. Within a few minutes of chatting to a friend, I heard someone off at the end of the bar playing "Smokestack Lightning", so I had to go and join him. This was Logan, a friend of Ed, who'd turned up to celebrate just qualifying to be a solicitor (or something like that), and had borrowed Ed's guitar. He then went into some freestyle bluesy Flamenco, and we REALLY hit it off...a few minutes of musical telepathy. Otis of longstanding local blues band Otis & the Alligators came over to ask if we could try that again so he could join us on harmonica (we did, very nice too). Ed concluded the evening by playing a sparse, melancholy, mumbly song (the sort I like), which, when I asked, turned out to have been made up on the spot.

Johnny P (who I travelled with in California) is renting part of his basement to a recent UWSP graduate called Nate who plays some guitar and was keen to jam. So I went over one evening and we recorded some rather nice stuff - he was playing an Epiphone semiacoustic through a tremolo pedal and Fender amp:
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One evening, after I was giving an informal presentation on mathematical philosophy to a group of friends assembled at Shelly's house, Dan M mentioned that his friends Elf Lettuce (the Madison-based jam band who started at UWSP) were playing at the Afterdark. I've met and jammed with their rhythm guitarist Alex once, and had heard many good things about them, so this was a pleasant surprise. I cycled over, and could hear what sounded like the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie" coming from inside. It was. And a particularly good, extended version of it. I assumed they'd been on for a while, as everyone was already dancing (the UWSP tie-dyed/dreadlocked student hippie/activist crowd, very colourful, very friendly). But this was actually their first song. They played two long sets (of course), mixing up originals and jammed out covers. Quite a lot of funkiness ("Walking the Dog", for example), but given a kind of mid-late-70's Dead treatment, the loose, rolling rhythms were like a massage for the energetic body...really easy to move to this music, and felt incredibly good for you. And clearly a really nice, well-intentioned bunch of people. There was the slightly surprising inclusion of Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" (they dedicated it to an audience member who'd hosted their first gig in his basement on Division Street) - but even that got nicely jammed upon. They finished with a long "Not Fade Away", which everyone loved (of course), then bid us goodnight. A couple of weeks later they were to be playing outdoors at the bandshell in Pfiffner Park (by the Wisconsin River). That would be the perfect setting - a shame I couldn't be around for that.

Elf Lettuce logo

Beltane/Mayday happened to coincide with a Saturday night benefit gig back out at the Northland Ballroom. This was to raise money for the new skatepark being built in Stevens Point. This was a chance to see familiar old faces (including Dan Dieterich, once of Mad Trucker Gone Mad, as well as various Wisconsin hardcore/punk bands I've seen over the years, and Erik Moore). The place was pleasingly packed, and entirely enthusiastic. The Chronically Wasted Band played first - very Neil Young influenced (in fact they finished with a trio of Neil songs), then Sloppy Joe, minus Jeff, with Bobby Burns guesting on mandolin and me on saz. Lots of people dancing. That was fun.
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After the raffle, Irene's Garden played, lots more dancing. Everyone loves them. Jenna Lee, the (relatively) new bass player, has added a really powerful dimension to the sound, and she was pleasingly high in the mix.

On my way down to Chicago to fly out, I spent an evening with Maggie and Ken. We had a bit of a jam (Maggie playing acoustic guitar and Ken fretless electric bass) - not hugely memorable, but a few nice songs and tunes:
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Maggie then suggested we go out to see Madison's remarkable The Gomers doing their weekly "Rockstar Gomeroke" at The High Noon Saloon. This was one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed, musically. The Gomerz know (or can somehow pull off) THOUSANDS of songs. So people turn up, choose a song, put their name in the hat, and then get to take the stage with a full band, no rehearsal, and be a rockstar for a few minutes. And they do it with incredible enthusiasm and panache, regardless of whether they like the song or not. We got some obvious/easy choices ("Louie Louie", "Heard It Through the Grapevine", "Yesterday"), but also "Beat It" (sung by a grinning Southeast Asian man strutting around the stage), "The Gambler", "Bad Company", "Burning Down the House", "Behind Blue Eyes", "If This Is It" (Huey Lewis - urg! but done SO WELL), "Don't Change" (a lesser known early INXS single, sung by an awkward youth with a European accent, sporting a Iron Maiden t-shirt and cardigan), an obscure Elton John song and Ween's "Piss Up a Rope"! This has to be seen to be believed (if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin). The keyboard player, David Adler, is particularly impressive - seems to be randomly banging on the keys, but isn't, gets all the harmony vocals just right (just when you think he doesn't know the song) and is an amazing blend of virtuoso musician, surreal comedian and ad hoc bandleader. That was a truly great way to spend my last night in the States.


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