Tuesday, June 11, 2013

a month in Wisconsin

I'm just back from about a month over in central Wisconsin, not so much of a social/musical visit as in past years, but there were a few worthy sessions.

Tuesday 21st May was Sarah Ludeman's surprise 50th birthday party out at her farmhouse near Amherst. This is Sarah from Irene's Garden, the band I got to see shortly after arriving, old friends who've been playing together in various forms for thirty years. Sarah's sister and bandmate Jenny lives just up the road, this rural area east of Stevens Point being a bit of a cultural nexus for some years. A lot of familiar faces from the music scene, as well as Sarah's extended family, had showed up to surprise her. She dealt with it well (knew something was up, just not sure where/when), soon joined in the fireside jam that I'd started with Jeff Lamarche (guitarist in Irene's). Stef and Gavin from Sloppy Joe were soon there supplying upright bass, guitar, banjo and appropriate song selection as was needed, their friend Nate playing some speedy mandolin and singing along. Sarah started on triangle, moved on to her rhythm box, did a few songs with Jeff. It's all a bit blurry now, but I remember "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown", Gavin singing Tom Russell's "Blue Wing", a ropey "Tennessee Jed" (of all the Dead songs, why that one?), a surprisingly effective instrumental cover of "I Will Survive" led by Jeff and I, and which sort of started as a joke.

Swapping rhythm box and triangle with Sarah was a hilariously spontaneous, fast-talking and unpredictable woman in a straw hat called Stef (another one — "one fourth of the quadra-Stef", as she introduced herself, so along with Stef Lee (Sloppy Joe) and Stef Jones (local sculptress) there must be another one on the scene). She kept shouting out the most random requests imagineable ("do you guys know any Cars?", she drawled, laughing, "Play Roundabout!", "Play something funky with long solos!", "Red Barchetta!", "Old Cotton Fields of Home!", etc.)

The highlight for me was Sarah's dad enthusiastically joining us on guitar to sing Grandpa Jones' "Eight More Miles to Louisville" and a few Hank Williams songs. He's probably not had a chance to play against a groove like that for some time, and meanwhile his great-grandchildren were playing on a trampoline nearby!

29th May was another Wednesday night session out at the Northland Ballroom in Iola, something I manage to get to at least once a year.

I got a lift out there with Jamie who played a bit of washboard (but mostly socialised at the bar), Stef, Jeff and Gavin were there representing hosts Sloppy Joe, supplemented by banjo-maestro Dale and his daugher Rachel (fiddle), plus Nate, Bobby (the latter two singing, playing mandolin, guitar and probably other instruments), and me noodling along on saz. No SJ originals this time, but they've got a vast and ever-expanding repertoire of American song which means the Wednesday night customers at the Northland get something completely different every week. This time it included various bluegrass and old-time traditionals as well as songs by Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Tim O'Brien and Larry Sparks. Two long sets, lots of instrument-swapping and coming and going from stage. Bobby's girlfriend Mackenzie who I saw there just over a year ago play her first ever, rather tenuous, open mic set with friends Anna, Malory, etc. was up there confidently playing bass on a couple of numbers. Nice to see that. Some highlights here:

Listen Here

Sloppy Joe and friends elsewhere: Nate, Jimmers, Stef, Jeff, Gavin, Jamie

Friday 31st May down at the High Noon Saloon in Madison was the first night of a two-night event called "Pauliefest", dedicated to the life and music of Paul Heenan, a musician and recording engineer beloved of the local scene who was tragically gunned down by an overzealous policeman last November when on his way home from a gig. My friend Peter Fee recorded with him, and that evening featured his band Beyond Reason (entertaining and continually surprising rock music, not easy to classify or describe) and Paulie's friend the Hometown Sweethearts, a super-high-energy dance trio who play a lot of 80's popsongs as well as the occasional number from other decades. One of the Sweethearts used to be in Ladybeard with Isaac and Eric from Stevens Point who, thinking about it, I've known for 3/4 of my life. Eric, now a master brewer as well as musician and sound engineer, was at the desk — I got to say a quick hello. Various friends of Paulie have set up "Paulie's Gift" a charitable foundation to help fund youth music programmes, music therapy, etc., and this was the first fundraising event.

Tuesday 28th May and 4th June, The Elbow Room. Stevens Point's most tolerant bar (or only "weirdo hippy bar", depending on who you ask) hosts this weekly "song swap". It's perfect musical anarchy, as befits the atmosphere and reputation of the place. Anyone turns up with any instrument (I've seen a harp in there) and plays anything. Sometimes people listen and join in with songs everyone knows. Sometimes people take turns playing obscure songs no one can join in with. Sometimes it splits into two or more sessions down various ends of the bar. Sometimes it's total chaos with everyone playing on top of each other. That's what was going on the first time. Various country/roots songs being strummed and sung by someone with another eight string players all furiously and clumsily soloing on top of each other. Painful. I ended up chatting with Tiata (part of the dance group I worked with around 2001) and others rather than playing. I'm not sure why I went back the next week, but I'm glad I did, as it was almost the opposite. Good song choices that everyone could join in with, not too much background noise (it was a miserable rainy night, so not the place wasn't so busy), some decent listening going on between players.

They were playing the Garcia/Hunter song "Friend of the Devil" when I walked in, I had my saz tuned up in time to play an extended weird solo on that one, not something I get to do very often. The Band were popular that night, with "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" getting played, also "The Weight" and "Cripple Creek". Mackenzie's friend Anna (from the nonorthogonal corner of Kansas), who had appeared in public with a banjo for the first time just over a year ago, was present and now fully at home on her instrument. She's got a great selection of songs worked out, too, John Prine's "Fish and Whistle", Todd Snider's "Too Soon to Tell", a Tom Waits song I'd never heard before, and a long, slow, spooky version of "I Know You Rider" that had such a vibe to it no one wanted to stop playing. Various songs came and went..."Knockin' on Heaven's Door", some Neil Young, Tom Petty, Betsy Cline...The evening ended with Anna and I bashing out a very wobbly but well-intended "Sitting on Top of the World" for the last few people standing.

Thursday 6th June, my last night in the States, I was down in Madison at Maggie and Ken's house, rehearsal HQ for Reptile Palace Orchestra, The Binmen, Seven-Stone Weaklings and other local bands they're involved in. We were going to have a little session, but it turned into far more than that. Bill from RPO rang to say he had an Icelandic visitor. I had no idea, but the band were formed by Sigtryggur Baldursson, the drummer of The Sugarcubes, exiled in Madison while his wife did her PhD there! When she finished and they headed back to Iceland, the band continued as an all-Wisconsin unit. One of his musical collaborators, Steingrimur Gudmundsson, was visiting, we were told, and he was a tabla player. So they turned up, together with Jeff, drummer with local klezmer ensemble Yid Viscious (and percussionist in the Madison Symphony!). Ken was at work, so Bill, Steini, Jeff, Maggie and I got things started. Before long, Biff Blumfumgagnge, the extraordinary (in every way) violinist/guitarist for RPO (as well as Robert Fripp's Stateside guitar tech) wandered in with a huge grin while we were jamming on the Greek tune "Kaike en Sholio", got his violin out, and dived into the musical maelstrom. Peter turned up with his trumpet a bit later, and Kenny got home from work and joined on upright bass. It went on late into the night when there were just four of us left bashing out a ridiculous attempt at "Interstellar Overdrive". In between, tunes from Iceland, Turkey, India and Jamaica had been explored and unravelled...

Listen Here

The next morning Maggie made a splendiferous vegan breakfast while we listened to the Garcia/Grisman album, and before I knew it I was on a plane heading for Toronto...

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coda: That last night in Madison, Rush had somehow come up in conversation. Local progressive rock cover band PROG (featuring one or more of Biff's bandmates from The Gomers) had recently played side one of their Moving Pictures album live, and someone was asking Pete if he'd got along to that. He arrived late, he answered, in the middle of the instrumental track "YYZ". As he pronounced it "Y-Y-Zee" I couldn't help but (in good humour) correct him to the Canadian "Y-Y-Zed". Biff then (in equally good humour) threatened to hit me. Less than 24 hours later, I was collecting my luggage at Heathrow and noticed "YYZ" on the luggage tag. "That's a weird coincidence," I thought. Then I noticed it on all of the bags. Could the three-letter airport code for Toronto airport be "YYZ", I wondered? Maybe in honour of local heroes Rush? Not out of the question. I've since looked into it, and discovered it to be the other way 'round...they named this tune after the airport code. In fact the rhythm is based on the Morse code version...

[Someone else's luggage tag...click on images below for expanded view.]


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