Friday, May 15, 2015

Wisconsin again

I'm sitting in my central Wisconsin friend Peter's basement down in Madison, my last night in Wisconsin after four weeks. His band (currently unnamed) is rehearsing — they're playing a kind of intelligent rock music, with elements of prog and spacerock, a new bass player, a young guitar virtuoso ripping it up, etc. Soundibg good. I passed through here shortly after arriving into Chicago a month ago. We usually jam, but that didn't happen this time — we did drop into a bar called Crystal Corner to see a Nick-Lowe-obsessed pub rock band called Bing Bong, though — some nice covers of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and T. Rex's "Bang a Gong" to finish.

Up in Stevens Point, my saz didn't get played much at all (years ago I'd visit and there would be several open mics each week, basement jams, barroom sessions, but things have changed in town). The Elbow Room on the Square still hosts a Tuesday night "songswap" where people stand around with instruments (mostly, but not all, guitars) and, in theory, sing the kinds of familiar songs people can join in with. When it works, it's great, a proper barroom sing-a-long, people expressing themselves musically and giving each other space. When it doesn't, it can be a horrible mess, but people just drink and talk louder then and it doesn't really matter. I got to three of these. Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Creedence, that kind of thing. Mostly American, although the Beatles are popular, Donovan, the Stones, Floyd. I rarely get find myself in situations jamming along to songs by Jackson Browne or Townes van Zandt, but once a year it's quite alright by me. One night I was introduced to Matt, a guitarist from "Shakey", my friend Maggie's Neil Young tribute band from Madison. He's up in Point studying Natural Resources and Public Policy, and admirably saved a particularly unfocussed songswap by belting out a handful of well-chosen Neil songs and getting the whole bar involved. We then ended up having an excellent conversation about Wisconsin politics and the UK general election.

Several key venues have closed down in recent years, so rather like Canterbury, the local music scene has suffered as a result. But I did find a few things. On 25th April (just after Earth Day), the UWSP chapter of Save the Frogs put on an event at the University Center featuring three acts: a nine-piece reggae band Kyerokaya — students and ex-students, I would guess, the kind of large band it's hard to get together in one place an practice regularly, so understandably, some of the details were a bit blurred out in their set, but when they hit a groove, it really kicked in and I was among an enthusiastic semicircle of people dancing to sweet, dubbed out reggae music. Very nice. The last song had a very different character, sung by one of the guitarists (his only vocal) and sounding like something out of the early Kevin Ayers catalogue, kind of "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes" meets "Caribbean Moon". They were followed by a four-piece "Americana" band called the Hi-Matics, and then an energetic jam trio called Prodo with a very impressive guitarist (exploratory playing, more Trey Anastasio than Jerry Garcia).

most of the Kyerokaya lineup I saw

A week or so later I saw a Milwaukee "jam electronica" band called Undercover Organism play at Guu's on Main. They started very late and I was slipping in and out of consciousness by the time they played their first set. I had to go and sleep before their second set when they had Henry, the guitarist from Prodo, guesting. I'd spoke to him while they were setting up and heard about his experience of finishing his degree at UWSP and then heading out to China to be a professional musician for a few years. The band started their set by stoically explaining that their guitarist had announced he was quitting the band that very morning, so they were just going to jam, and mingle in some of their songs. I can't remember much about it, the kind of spacerock jam that can seem tedious for a while and then becomes briefly transcendent. The cusp of sleep was perhaps the optimal vantage point to appreciate this.

A week after that, Chris Norman and David Greenberg, a Canadian "Celtic folk" duo played a the Sentry Theater north of town (part of a complex associated with the local insurance giant). I wasn't too interested in a concert in that kind of setting, but it was announced that they'd be leading an informal Irish-pub-type session in a nearby restaurant/bar so I went along to that and was surprised to see some locals turned up with instruments to join in (a couple of flutes, a couple of guitars and a harp). It's been years since I've played any Irish music, so I didn't bring my saz along, just sat in a corner with a book of Zen poetry I'd been given and enjoyed the ambiance. I also briefly dropped in on the Portage County Cultural Festival at the local high school a week or so later, saw another local(?) group of folkies playing Irish tunes as well as numerous groups of enthusiasts in anachronistic national costumes demonstrating various music and dance — good to see some growing global awareness in mid-Wisconsin, but for my tastes it was a bit too much of a "cultural supermarket" trading in stereotypes.

(As I type this, Pete's band are working out a minor key "vampire" interpretation of CCR's "Bad Moon Rising"...)

Charles and Santana from Pete's band on stage recently

On 29/04 I got taken out to the Northland Ballroom out in the sticks near Iola to join in with the weekly bluegrass-type-session that's hosted by my friends Sloppy Joe. Gavin was down in New Orleans and Jimmers was at home, so it was just Stef and Jeff from the band, but ably assisted by the inimitable mandolin player Bobby Burns, the even less imitable banjo player Dale and Russ the banjo player from current local heroes Horseshoes and Handgrenades, playing fiddle. My playing was pretty rough that night, but it was fun and I don't think anyone really noticed. Lynn, with whom I travelled down to the Suwannee Springfest in N. Florida a few years ago, has a new trio called Ukelyptus, 2/3 of which played a short set that evening, as well as a newly formed and rather tenuous folkie quartet making their first public appearance (the best place for such things). My highlight of the evening was Kevin the outsider-banjo-player/naive-singer-songwriter singing his transcendentally awkward songs about dinosaurs, Billy Idol concerts, etc. He did a rough-as-it-gets cover of Syd Barrett's "The Gnome" and a totally surreal song about the banjo having been drinking and various other inanimate objects being similarly animate before trailing off into some diffuse instrumentals. A nice social evening too.

Annoyingly, I missed the sunrise on Beltane morning (having lost track of how many days there are in April) but got down to Whiting Park, near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Plover Rivers where there's a cluster of Native American burial mounds, around sunset that evening and played solo saz through the twilight.

The last Elbow Room Tuesday night songswap ended with a really interesting jam involving me and Jacob, one of the guitarists from Kyerokaya, that reggae band I'd seen (he'd been wearing a Nirvana T-shirt that evening, and playing vaguely prog-ish lead parts, so he'd stood out). He was playing acoustic this time, some unusual progressions that I seemed to be able to follow effortlessly (despite the Point beer and background noise), but I can't really remember much more than that.

Heading back via Madison today I got to drop in for the afternoon to see old friends Maggie and Ken and their month-old baby Frances. They're both still involved in various bands (Maggie was still singing with Reptile Palace Orchestra while heavily pregnant), although that will no doubt slow down a little bit for the next while. That afternoon Ken went to pick up his double bass (a late 19th century Austrian or Czech model that had been in his family) after five years in a local repair workshop, quite an occasion. It came back looking and sounding wonderful, and at his urging, I had a go. The total mystery of how anyone manages to play fretless instruments in tune was partially resolved, as I quickly began to find my way around on the fingerboard (a combination of intuition, trial-and-error and adaptive muscle memory). Quite addictive, but I don't think I'll be switching to double bass any time soon.

[Now back in England, continuing this entry:] Then it was over here to catch Pete's band rehearsal. That "Bad Moon Rising" went into a very promising jam, and then Charles the bass player and I somehow ended up talking about Syd Barrett, then Soft Machine. To my surprise, he started enthusing about the first two Softs LPs, how massively influential they were, and about what a great bass player Kevin Ayers was. Very few people I speak to have picked up on this (thinking of him mainly as a singer-songwriter, poet, dandy, character, whatever...), and certainly never anyone in the USA. So I gave him the links for my Canterbury Soundwaves and Canterbury Sans Frontierès podcasts, as I'm sure he'll appreciate them. He turned out to be a pretty serious Deadhead too (saw about 250 Grateful Dead shows, had hippy parents, etc.), was into Blake, Keats, Shelly, Finnegan's Wake... So if I lived in Madison and wanted to get a musical project together, I know who I'd want as my bass player!

Rob the drummer and Tad the keys player had to leave, so Pete suggested I get my saz out and jam with him, Santana (the excellent young guitarist) and Charlie. He plugged me in, added some reverb, then got behind the drums and surprised us all with some very tasteful jazzy drumming. This was a lot of fun, and felt particularly good as I'd not really had a chance to play any free music while over here. Some bits worked quite well:

No embedded player? Try here.

We ended up over at Charlie's house nearby, sitting up late and talking with him and his wife Ginger about music, politics and life in general. A great way to spend a last evening in the States — spaced out, jamming with Charlie Brown (that's his name, no joke).


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