Monday, May 20, 2013

Reptile Palace Orchestra, Irene's Garden, Yid Vicious and a karaoke machine

11th May 2013
Central Waters Brewery, Amherst, Wisconsin

A few days after arriving here, my two favourite Wisconsin bands played a gig together. In a brewery. I was expecting it to be in some kind of venue attached to a brewery, but no, it was really in the brewery, giant stainless steel tanks full of various craft beers filling up most of the space, along with all the associated equipment, the bands tucked away in a corner. This was a great social occasion too, most of the people I know 'round here came out for this.

Reptile Palace Orchestra played first, my friend Maggie even more in her element as vocalist than when I first saw them last year, excellent use of French horn, Biff the violinist/guitarist (in leopard-print fez) is just phenomenal (he's also Robert Fripp's Stateside guitar technician), their setlist incorporating elements of Eastern European folk tunes, klezmer, calypso, dub, lounge, 80s New Wave, rock and unclassifiable weirdness. For a while I was thinking how similar they were to some British festival bands (that typical 'mestizo' mashup of styles which has emerged in recent times), but as their set progressed, it became apparent that they're something else again. Perhaps only Madison, Wisconsin could have given rise to something like this.

Last year I got asked to play saz on a couple of tracks on the album Irene's Garden were working on. I'd almost forgotten about this, having wondered a few times during the last twelve months whether it had ever been completed. It has: Interplanetary Love Songs was there on the merchandise table along with the tye-die T-shirts, etc.. Jeff the guitarist presented me with a copy, and I was suprised to see that I'm listed in the band line-up (rather than in the small print). That was a nice surprise. Several members of the band asked me if I'd brought my saz along. I hadn't (would have seemed presumptious, and their songs have far too many chord changes to play unrehearsed). But when they started with "Fog's Plateau" — one I recorded with them — I rather wished I had. The band has yet another drummer, a UWSP jazz student, considerably younger not just than the original members of the band, but than the band itself (I first saw them in '87 when living here). Only slightly older, bassist Jennilee is now super-confident after a couple of years with the band. I joked with Jenny (one of the originals) that the band could eventually evolve into become some kind of central Wisconsin musical dynasty, with her, sister Sarah and keyboardist/songwriter Wheatie becoming 'ancestral band members' centuries after they've gone! It was a long set, and I was still a bit jet-lagged, so I wasn't able to fully take it all in, but caught most of the set before I started to fade.

After getting a lift back to town with John and Molly we ended up at Guu's to check out some DJs from Chicago, one a friend of John. A much younger and more rowdy crowd was stomping to a mix of hiphop and electro. Dr. Dre's beats from 2001 sounded surprisingly mighty coming out of a decent set of speakers all these years later, and the kids seemed to love it...

* * *

A week later I got a chance to see Maggie singing guest vocals with the Yid Vicious Klezmer Ensemble from Madison. Despite the rather dubious name, they're the real thing. Greg (clarinet) and Kia (French horn and accordion) from RPO are also in this band, along with supremely confident players of fiddle, sax/bass clarinet, acoustic guitar, drums and tuba. The gig was in the now defunct Stevens Point synagogue (the Jewish community here having dwindled to the point that it was no longer viable to keep it open) which is now kept as a museum. Maggie's dad is one of the curators and she thought it would be a good way to get people into the place (like myself, everyone I know had been past the building countless times but never actually been in it). This was an excellent opportunity to be able to share a musical event with my mum and dad. They were largely unfamiliar with klezmer and completely blown away by the band. It was presented in a sort of cultural/educational format, with band members explaining different aspects of the history of the music between tunes, but in an appropriately light-hearted and irreverent way. They ended with a "KlezMex" tune originating in Denton, Texas with mariachi elements, called "El Zopilote Mojado" ("The Wet Buzzard") — they've apparently invented a cocktail with the same name!

Just before going along to that, Pete Fee and I headed out to the O'Donnell farmhouse to see our old friend James and his family. He and Shelly got married at the Winter solstice (to coincide with the end of the Mayan Bak'tun and supposed 'end of the world') and she's due to give birth to a baby girl the day I fly out of here. There happened to be a kind of extended O'Donnell family reunion, with a whole entourage of cousins, etc. up from Chicago. They're all descended from Chicago Irish immigrants, and it was fascinating to watch the goings-on. Rather than just standing around eating and drinking, the whole thing revolved around a karaoke setup in the garage. People were scattered in a loose crescent facing the 'stage', eating, drinking, laughing — a genuinely happy extended family scene. Everyone was having a go singing, and it was striking how much vocal talent this family has. Most popular were Sinatra-style crooning numbers and Irish traditional songs (although we got some Beatles and 70s cheese too). I missed James singing his standard "Wichita Lineman" (Glen Campbell's "existential country" song from 1968), but Peter got up and belted out "Fly Me to the Moon" and "If I Were a Rich Man" to enthusiasic applause before we had to head back into town for the klezmer. But what really got me about this scene was how close it was to the Irish "screagha"(?) tradition where people take turns singing songs in a social setting...James mentioned that his old father might even get up and sing, that he had "his song" that he always sang, in fact everyone in the family back in the old days would have had "their" song (presumably even the shy ones and the less capable singers). And yes, Mr. O'Donnell got up, sang a Sinatra number (and even got into doing all the moves), then an Irish song about fighting off an impudent fellow in London with a shillelagh, oldest son John with a wonderful drunken smile singing along and gesticulating wildly towards the seated family members. "Let that be a lesson to ye!" he went around shouting at everyone good-naturedly. The Irish accents were flawless, and the genes are still pretty intact, so a lot of Irish-looking faces about — we could have been up in Donegal.


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