Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Wisconsin again

Four weeks in central Wisconsin mid-April to mid-May that I haven't got around to blogging about yet.

I didn't cross paths with musician friends as often this time as I have done on previous visits (I was happily working on my history book, so that was fine). My saz playing was mostly limited to the weekly "songswap" down at The Elbow Room on the square in Stevens Point. This evolves from year to year. At the moment, the old crew are sort of playing an early shift, then making way for a younger crowd (very confident UWSP students playing proficiently and singing harmonies). The first visit I remember the old crew (guitars and double bass, but also including an excellent trumpeter I didn't know) playing "Almost Cut My Hair" and The Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman". The trumpeter got a Trombone Shorty jam going before they all drifted out to be replaced by the new crew (who I assume are mostly in a band together) who'd all been at a funeral, so all dressed in black. Guitars, ukes, hand drums, playing CCR's "Looking Out My Backdoor", "Billie Jean", "Rocky Racoon", various songs I didn't recognise, possibly their own. I enjoyed just taking this in while chatting to Loopy, et al. A punky girl with a banjo sang that Four Non-Blondes song, at least partly ironically, I would assume. But I was blown away to hear one of them sing "Finnegan's Wake", having memorised a LOT of its innumerable verses. I was reading Ulysses at the time, thinking a lot about what it'll be like to read Finnegans Wake when I get round to that. Not too much of a sense of the sing-a-long togetherness which the songswap is good for creating, but I was happy enough to play a bit, listen a bit, drift off into the night.

A few days later I was back in the same bar listening to Prince on the jukebox with Johnny Pea and Gavin. None of us had been into Prince when I lived there and knew them in the mid-80s, but we'd all come to (slightly grudgingly?) admit to his creative brilliance. So JP rang up and suggested a Prince session at the Elbow. We ended up sharing Prince memories and general mid-80s cultural memories — I'm glad that happened, just stopping and looking back at that period from thirty years away. The next day my sister Kate told me about how Niagara Falls had been lit up purple that night (for the Queen's 90th birthday, but NOBODY was thinking about the Queen that night...).

The next song swap, I can remember some old time fiddle, Chaz and Gerry singing a Nick Lowe song, a Marcus Bovary (and then another by request from a major fan, the fan and Jim "The Oz" Oliva singing along, everyone singing MB's praises). A lovely moment when I was just about to leave, but Tiata called me over to play, so I played some solo saz, everyone went surprisingly quiet, really listened, and it was one of those rare occasions these days where I felt that I played quite well). That went on for a bit until Cody and UWSP friends came in. He sang Mike Pinto's "Tricky Nicky" (fun to play along to), a couple of originals, then Wayne Cochran's 1961 teen tragedy song "Last Kiss" (as resurrected by Pearl Jam?!)

I did a quick visit to Madison to see Kenny, Maggie and baby Frances, plus Peter and friends. Pete took me over to his bass player Charles' house for a basement jam (saz, bass and P on drums). The levels were a bit high, so the recording's rather "hot" (but that adds a grunge feel, Peter reckons).

Listen Here

The next night we caught a set from old Stevens Point character Mike McAbee at the Parched Eagle microbrewery. He lives in Iowa now and makes a living touring Midwest bars with his guitar and "menu" of songs (people just shout out requests from the menu and he plays them, has a lot of fun in the process (he's got a wireless pickup and headmic setup, so wanders comically round the bar, even outside, while he's playing). I got him to sing "The Rocky Road To Dublin" off the short "Irish" section of the menu (it was mostly classic rock and country, but stuff like the Violent Femmes too — he does a great "Add It Up").

Back in Point for the next songswap, various configurations of musicians young and old worked their way through John Prine's "Spanish Pipe Dream", Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey", "Mrs. Robinson", a wildman guitarist singing "St. James Infirmary" with his punky washboard-playing girlfriend (great!), "Country Roads", a "La Bamba"/"Twist and Shout" mashup... That was more of the old songswap vibe that I remember.

I got out to the Northland Ballroom in Iola once for Sloppy Joe's weekly session (they play a set, host an open mic for a while, backing up singers who want backing up, and then play another set). JP, Marty and I arrived in the middle of the open mic bit, and then I ended up sitting in with Jeff, Steph, Bobby and Dale (Gavin had to leave early for work reasons, but we got to connect at the bar first) playing a late set for almost no one but ourselves (it was killer stuff, and typically one of the rare occasions I wasn't recording): "Cold, Rain and Snow", a Gordon Lightfoot song I'd never heard before, "Pretty Polly" (pretty wild), Michael Hurley's "Moon Man". I sat out for banjo maestro Dale's new twisty, turny tune "Roundabout".

A couple of nights later, not long before heading back to Canterbury, I caught Moogie (Chaz and Gerry, a lovable local couple who play guitar and bass, plus my friend Shelly on drums) at a new venue called The Beat. A nice, chilled low-key bar gig where they got to have fun playing all their favourite Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, etc. plus some originals.


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