Sunday, May 13, 2012

Wisconsin again

I'm back in Central Wisconsin again. For my last night evening in Canterbury I decided to get into the the fact that I was going (and thereby leaving behind the oncoming wave of nightingale song, bluebells, stitchwort, speedwell, red campion...), so I invited a few friends over for an "American" themed evening: vegan hotdogs (!?) with all the extras, American beer, pickles, popcorn, etc. plus a playlist full of Otis Redding, The Ramones, Sam Cooke, Lynryd Skynryd, Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Dead Kennedys... Paul Clifford came over with his guitar — he's Canadian, so that added an interesting angle. Also Ben from Arlet, who sang some old-time American songs ("Tell it to Me", etc.). Paul broke the news that Levon Helm (drummer/singer from Canada's The Band was known to be on his deathbed. He sang a fragile version of "Ain't No More Cane" (a Leadbelly song they interpreted on The Basement Tapes), a kind of Canadian/American Helm tribute.

The next evening I was in Madison, WI with Peter Fee (still enthusiastically learning trumpet, also gypsy jazz guitar style and taking singing lessons). He met me at the UW Memorial Union where the bus from the airport stops, was supposed to be accompanying one of his students from the alternative Shabazz high school at an open mic there (they'd worked out a version of "Comfortably Numb"). The open mic had been cancelled, so we ended up chatting — Peter, his student and a couple of Shabazz friends, really pleasant young people — good-natured, musically aware, culturally engaged, creative and curious...that was encouraging.

Pete and I then headed over to Maggie and Ken's house. They're both in multiple bands, among them Ken's "Seven Stone Weaklings" playing British punk classics for the sheer joy of it, and Maggie's Neil Young tribute band "Shakey". But Maggie's now also singing in Madison's superbly eccentric Balkan/gypsy/klezmer mashup band Reptile Palace Orchestra, and Ed, the dombura player, turned up thinking it was a rehearsal night (they rehearse in M&K's groovy 70's style basement). So we ended up having a bit of a saz/dambura/guitar/trumpet jam... and then a discussion about Breton music, the Madison folk dance scene, and then Robert Fripp's 1952 Les Paul (which he's reverentially held, as Biff from RPO also works as Fripp's US guitar tech and was once entrusted with it for a short period).

playing saz in Maggie and Ken's front room (Ed's dombura just visible)

A couple of days later in Stevens Point I was embroiled in the weird annual vortex that is Trivia Weekend. If you haven't experienced it, you'll probably never get it — a very particular, peculiar kind of way of spending a weekend with a floating crowd of people whose company you enjoy. I dropped in and out for a few hours at a time — the between-question music selection gets me every time — the same forgotten popsongs, glamrock, doo-wop, synth pop, novelty songs, Motown classics, a whole amalgam of jewels and trash joyfully issued forth from the 90FM transmitter, the soundtrack to this most absurd quest being acted out in hundreds of Stevens Point basements, all under the gleeful watch of Jim 'Oz' Oliva. Most of them are songs I never hear any other time. During the more-urgent-than-usual one-song-per-question hour we got the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus is Just Alright By Me" back-to-back with Golden Earring's "Radar Love" and The Doors "Riders on the Storm". Creedence's "Fortunate Son" sounded particularly excellent blasting out of the stereo after a quickly answered question. And then there's always Foghat's "Fool for the City". Ah, Trivia...

JP and I trying to remember what the question was...

The following Tuesday I went down to The Square to check out the Elbow Room's weekly songswap, but the place was crowded and noisy as the result of a baseball game having just been on. It was impossible to hear anything, but I did my best to jam along with a rather rough version of The Band's "The Weight". After that, a silver haired old freak who'd come closer to listen shook each of our hands "For Levon Helm". I then ended up talking to an older ecology student, with Turkish and Bulgarian parents, who knew what my saz was, has one herself, bought in Holland, knew quite a lot about the ashq tradition, etc. (I'm used to people here just asking me "is that a sitar?".) We went outside so she could hear it properly. Then someone walked in with a full-sized harp! Not what you'd expect in the Elbow Room, but yeah, great...wrong night though. I sat right behind her, and it was lovely, but you couldn't hear it from a few feet away. A guitarist and fiddler led some old folk songs that Garcia and co. brought to wider attention: "Dark Hollow" and "Peggy-O". Could have been perfect in another time and space.

90FM's "Saturday Morning Freakshow" (Jim Oliva unashamedly playing hippie classics) and Sunday morning "Acoustic Revival" featured Levon Helm tributes, too. His death had been announced when I'd arrived in the US — I think he may have died around the time I was between continents. The Wednesday night I was out at the Northland Ballroom again...Sloppy Joe were pickin' there way through "Henry" by the New Riders of the Purple Sage (a song we all associate with our friend Chad Kelly, RIP) when I walked in.

A few songs later they came out with a very nice version of Levon Helm's "Ophelia" (I got a recording of that and emailed it to Paul Clifford back in Kent). Stef invited me up a bit later in the set to play the old favorites: "Cold Rain and Snow", "Sugar Hill", etc. but also a song Jeff sings, "Never Make it Home" (originally by Split Lip Rayfield, I've been told) with Stef really going for it on the musical saw — the equivalent of what Tim Blake's doing with his theremin these days. I'd arrived in a bus from Point, a 'party bus' full of exuberant students who make the trip each week. Their presence in the Ballroom, on top of the regular local crowd, lifted the noise floor to the point that I couldn't really hear what I was doing. But it was good to see/hear everyone. Dale's still guesting on banjo, absolutely bang-on every time, playing that's precise, but super-fluent and comfortable in its groove. His daughter Rachel was also joining in with SJ on fiddle, now part of her own "Back Alley Blossoms" with another Rachel (guitarist) and Laura (upright bass). Laura's friends Anna (she from the wiggly corner of the otherwise rectangular Kansas) and Mackenzie have also got their own thing happening, playing their first tentative, but well-recieved set of old-time standards with two other friends on the eve of Anna's birthday. Sloppy Joe have done a great thing making this weekly space where people can get started performing in public in a really cosy, welcoming, supportive environment. As they often they do, they backed up a silver haired old singer (called Coran? perhaps?) with an idiosyncratic voice, a guitar he'd been playing since he was in the Korean War and a HUGE smile, just to be up there with this lovely bunch of (relatively) young, friendly, and eminently capable musicians.

Thursday I jammed with guitarist friend Dan Miller, as I do most years. He's got set up with a nice mic, audio interface and software, so we've been recording quite a few sessions of free guitar/saz jams in his girlfriend's garage in the late evenings. He's keen to do the editing/processing/collaging, which is nice (it's always me, the compulsive archivist, who does this), and I'm happy with his approach which is to accumulate many, many hours of free playing, and then methodically distill it down to a "diamond", a solid 40 minutes of something truly worthy. So I've been enjoying those sessions, just allowing myself to get lost in the music, feeling no pressure of being recorded.

Friday, Stef came over with some pre-mixes of tracks from the album of hers that she and I started off five years ago with my saz and her guitar-bass-vocals-saw, old American murder ballads mostly, and a few obscurities. She's recently been adding tracks from various people (Gavin's guitar and harmony vocals, some accordion from the accordion player in the young local band Horseshoes and Handgrenades, Rachel R playing fiddle, etc.) What I heard was everything all happening at once, so it's hard to assess, but with the right mixing I think it could be a pretty good record. She's hoping to have it out for June, but I think that might be a bit ambitious, considering how long this thing has been in the pipeline.

The Saturday night was just brilliant — Irene's Garden opening for Reptile Palace Orchestra at a recently established venue called Kristin's Riverwalk. The space is actually really good, the sound was perfect, both bands were on top form. Irene's Garden have such a young spirit about them when they're playing — it's almost like Jenny, Sarah and Wheaty (who were part of the original Stellectrics in the early-mid 80's) haven't really aged. It's clear that they have, visually, but at some subtle level there's a ageless grace about what they're doing. Not just helping to bind together a community of like-minded people in the area, but really moving things forward with their writing and playing and energy.

RPO are now my favourite band from Wisconsin! They're a lovable crew of oddballs, looking like some time-travelling wayfarers from various times and places, fronted by Maggie dressed like what I'd imagine a 1920's Bulgarian dance orchestra vocalist might have looked like. Their accordionst also plays French horn (as I once did — always nice to see them show up in unexpected places), the clarinet/sax player is superb, as is Biff on processed violin, Bill on textural electric guitar and Ed on dombura (all in RPO fezzes). In place of a bass, they have someone skillfully plucking six-string electric cello. Maggie rose to the occasion (a big one from her, she being from this town, known to just about everyone present), filling the very big shoes of Anna Purnell who she replaced. She was singing in five or six languages, convincingly, to my ears (and often in 11/8, or whatever!)

Near the end of the set, after Maggie's highly imaginative storytelling approach to introducing the members of the band, Biff went mental on his electric fiddle during an extravagant, extended rewrite of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" where the fiddling competition involved Irish, Bulgarian, bluegrass and avant-garde styles taken to their absolute limits. Generally I found their interpretations of the Balkan and Eastern stuff works best for them, although they write some interestingly quirky material. The encore started off as an amusing throwaway song about short-term memory loss (trying to remember why you just got up and walked into this room...), and then suddenly, unexpectedly, plunged into the most epic rendition of "Comfortably Numb"! That song's 33 years old now, almost part of a kind of folk repertoire, and everyone got swept up in it, singing, swaying. At first I thought "what?", "what are they doing?" but then I was swept up too...and what a rendition! Graceful clarinet lines, blaring French horn crescendos, Biff shredding on the violin, Maggie fully throwing herself into the vocals. It was more thrilling musically than seeing the Floyd lineup reuntited and playing it for that 2005 "Live 8" thing in Hyde Park (and that was pretty spine-tingling). Everyone was left elated.

A week later, Irenes invited me out to "Mercury" Dave's studio near Rosholt. They'e almost finished their new Interplanetary Love Songs album, and wanted a bit of saz on "Fogg's Plateau", a song that goes back to Stellectrics time. So I'd worked out a part and practiced that. I did a few takes and both I and they were happy with what they got. Then they asked me to try a few takes on "Moment", a song I didn't know half as well. But that went fairly well, and there's probably some usable stuff for that one, too (there was one particularly tricky section — Wheaty really likes his unusual chord progressions).

Beltane morning I cycled down the Wisconsin River in the sunrise, great blue herons flapping through the mist, lots of other wildlife. I played some saz near the Native American mounds near the confluence with the Plover River and then carried on 'round the southern half of the 'Green Circle' bike trail.

Since then it's just been the garage jams with Dan, but that's sustaining me musically. It's nice to have an outlet for free improv playing, as it's often quite folkie or song-oriented music (and often in quite a narrow range of styles) when I'm staying here.


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