Sunday, April 24, 2011

(un)expected cadences in Central Wisconsin

At Sarah L's request, I dropped in on an Irene's Garden rehearsal a couple of days after that wonderful concert in Appleton. This was at an upstairs room in downtown Stevens Point (above what used to be the Graham-Lane Record shop). They want me to play on two or three tracks on their soon-to-be-recorded Interplanetary Love Songs album. We're going to arrange this online, and with any luck I can get Matt Tweed to record my saz parts on the Pondlife mobile studio. We ran through the songs they have in mind, and I felt pretty comfortable, apart from a handful of unexpected chords. Wheatie, the keyboardist/composer, tends to write really harmonically complex songs (although they always sound very organic).

Andy Letcher gave a talk called "Towards a Minimal Theory of Psychedelic Action" at the Breaking Convention conference in Canterbury just before I left, and he proposed the metaphor of music, particularly what he called "the unexpected cadence" — when music takes your mind in a certain direction, so you think you know what it's about to do, and then it turns a corner — the introduction of novelty into consciousness. (Being in Canterbury, he couldn't help sneaking in a mention of Caravan, who were particularly good at that). The Stellectrics/Irene's Garden were/are all about the unexpected cadence.

A couple of days after the Irene's rehearsal, I was down at the Elbow Room, Stevens Point's most tolerant bar, down on the old :Square, for the weekly "songswap". Lots more unexpected cadences: Donovan's "Mellow Yellow", America's "Sister Golden Hair", various Beatles songs,... As well as the usual Neil Young, etc., the songswap crowd seem to like chord-heavy songs, which are always a bit of a challenge to fit my modal noodlings into. But we played our way through "Norwegian Wood", "Paint It Black", "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and a few others. The pleasant surprise of the evening was The Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues", something that's not so well known in the States (I've not played it since the time in the campsite in Wiltshire last summer with the extremely drunk canal traveller called Lenny). It was a pleasantly quiet night down at the Elbow, due to heavy snow (for April) keeping people away, so everyone could hear each other. It felt more like someone's front room rather than just another bar. And there was a more diverse set of instruments than usual — just one(!) acoustic guitar, plus an electric, a ukelele, mandolin, fiddle, harmonica, and my saz.

Out at the Northland Ballroom in Iola the next night, there were a lot less unexpected cadences, as I sat in with Sloppy Joe and friends for their weekly Wednesday night session. I arrived as they were playing "The L&M Don't Stop Here Any More" (one of two songs Stef was hoping to finish up her solo album with while I'm around). The stage was pretty crowded — Sloppy Joe with Jamie on washboard plus friend Nate on mandolin, Art and Dale from The Highwater Band (guitar/vocals and banjo, respectively) and Dale's teenage daughter Rachel on fiddle. So I just listened and enjoyed it for a while. Amazing stuff, sounding almost 'arranged' despite the looseness of the whole thing. There's usually a young crowd of UWSP student eco-hippies in for these nights, but the Madison-based psychedelic jamband Elf Lettuce were playing on campus that night, so it was mostly an older, rural crowd, very appreciative, some dancing, much whooping and cheering (including a man of mystery known only to the band as "The Tambourine Guy" who yelled "Yeeeaaahhhh!!!" from the bar every time the music stepped up a notch, i.e. quite often).

I eventually ended up on stage just as Nate was about to attempt a kind of novelty bluegrass cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". We got through that. Then a lot of other stuff, some familiar, some unfamiliar. Gradually things thinned out and I was just playing with three of four (Jeff or Jimmer on standup bass, Nate or Bobbie Burns on mandolin/guitar/vocals). Nate and I closed things out with attempts at "Down By the Sally Gardens" and "The Cuckoo" — the British versions I'd taught him last year when we were recording for Stef's album. Rather sloppy, but only a handful of people were left at the bar by that point (around 1:30), so no one minded.

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The night after that, I was over at Jeff and Maude's house (Jeff's the guitarist from Irene's Garden) for some experimental jamming. Jeff's been working on playing one-handed electric guitar (hammer-on style) while using his other hand to play a bass guitar (laid flat on a table) and his feet to trigger loops with some kind of pedal setup — amazing to witness! We tried out a few different ideas of his, including something in seven which worked quite well, I thought. He switched to acoustic guitar for a while, but then Maude came home from teaching a knitting class and we ended up sitting talking til late. Hopefully we can jam further next time I'm over there.

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During my time in Point, I dropped in on another Irene's rehearsal (the first involved Rick the drummer but no bassist, this one featured JennaLee on bass but no drummer, and worked better from my point of view). That was Beltane — That morning I'd got up early to cycle down to the confluence of the Plover and Wisconsin Rivers and watch the sunrise and play some saz by the Native American mounds there (which none of the locals seem to have heard about, despite them being probably 2300 years old — and this is in a place where a 150-year-old building gets revered as "historic").

There were also another couple of Elbow Room songswaps. "I am the Walrus" worked surprisingly well despite its unexpected cadences, "Six Days on the Road" was fun (that's a country trucker anthem made famous by local-ish hero Dave Dudley), Tom Petty's "Last Dance with Mary Jane" sounded good, as did ELP's "Lucky Man" (not something I thought I'd ever play). And Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My" was epic. A police car pulled up as I was walking across town that night, making me understandably nervous... but then the cop inside quickly put me at ease by asking "Excuse me, but is that a banjo?" I explained that it wasn't, and then he asked if I'd been playing at the Elbow Room. "You guys sounded fantastic!" he enthused — it seems he'd come in briefly to see the owner about something, although I'd not noticed at the time. I think he thought we were an actual band. And presumably I was the banjo he thought he'd heard.

There was another Wednesday night at the Northland with Sloppy Joe and friends, during which I played quite a bit...

Listen Here afternoon and evening out at Jimmer and Stef's place near Rosholt playing music and partaking of a vegan feast (thanks everyone! especially Sarah for the truly awesome (not a word I use easily!) tofu cream pie with Door County cherries!)...

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...AND Stef finally got it together to pass on to me the premixed versions of three pieces we recorded for her long-in-the-making solo album last spring ("The Cuckoo", "Sally Gardens" and Michael Hurley's "The Moon Man"):

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There was a final songswap on my last night in town (I spent most of this chatting to Johnny P and Gavin about local psychedelic history, missed my chance to join the music, but did play a little bit of blues with Otis and Jim from Otis and the Alligators just before closing time).

The next evening I was in Madison jamming with Peter, Maggie and Ken at M&K's new place which backs onto the hill formerly known as "Radar Hill" (not sure what it's called now, but we saw a gorgeous sunset from up there after dinner). They've got a music space (naturally) in their wonderfully retro 70's basement, and Peter invited Nic the drummer from his new (as yet unnamed) band over to join in. He's playing trumpet these days — fairly basic stuff, but good to see him diversifying. A couple of very rough jams got recorded:

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From there it was a bus to Chicago and then a train to Colorado. A couple of days hiking in the Rockies, singing kirtan and chanting at a basement ashram in Boulder with Sistas Luna and Rachelle before flying back to Englande and it's springtime wildflower and birdsong profusion. Perfect.


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