Sunday, June 04, 2017

Wisconsin, yet again

I got back from a month in the States about three weeks ago, here's a summary of the musical parts of that trip:

Just as we were about to descend into Seattle, I discovered this Joanna Newsom song on the in-flight entertainment system, the final track from her latest album Divers. Wow. I listened to it on repeat until we landed, now understand what all the fuss is about with Joanna Newsom!

My week in California didn't involve a lot of saz playing, although I did get it out to show Steven, the man behind a biodynamic farm I was visiting (he used to play in a string band up in Round Valley, where Live Power Farm is located, and was curious to hear it). Here he is listening with his wife Gloria:

There was also a bizarre synchronicity involving, of all things, the old swing number "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" shortly before heading back down to the Bay area. There I got to visit Terrapin Crossroads, the canalside venue in San Rafael which Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead set up a few years ago. As well as two indoor performance spaces, it's now got a "backyard" stage (in a neglected public park adjacent to the property which I think he's leasing from the city), and I arrived to witness Phil and three friends (acoustic and electric guitars, pedal steel, no drums) having a great time playing out there to a very chilled audience of old Deadheads, their kids and grandkids running around in the sunshine. It felt like a backyard barbecue, and there was Phil Lesh on the little stage, a few metres away, a huge smile on his face like it was the first time he'd ever got to play his bass live! They do a little Sunday afternoon set there each week, which this tie included "Ripple", "If I Had a Hammer" (from the intro, I thought that was going to be "Uncle John's Band"), "The Mighty Quinn", "Friend of the Devil" and a couple of others. Very nice. It was interesting how even without any drumming, Phil was able to create that unmistakable Grateful Dead groove. A bit later, some of the same players re-emerged indoors as part of a very rockin' bar band playing bluesy country-rock. So I finally made it to Terrapin! ("some rise, some fall, some climb...") And I even got to say a quick "thanks for everything" to Phil and shake the great man's hand. The same day involved hotsprings, giant redwoods, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and hearing an advert for MAPS in between minimal electronica and dub on Berkeley student radio — so most of my California boxes got ticked...

On the train from Oakland to Chicago I spent 2.5 days catching up on music listening while watching the American west roll by and working on the finishing touches of my latest book (a cosmic/local history — watch this space). Robert Wyatt's "United States of Amnesia" sounded especially powerful and poignant as we crossed the Nevada desert. The next morning crossing into Utah, Matt Valentine & Erika Elder's Root/Void album provided the perfect soundtrack to the eerie landscape, along with Songs To Fill The Air, a compilation commissioned by Jeff Conklin of WFMU's "Avant Ghetto" programme, featuring all kinds of psych- and freak-folk artists covering the Grateful Dead, some more vague and strung out sounding than others (Meg Baird of Espers singing "To Lay Me Down" is just divine).

My time in Stevens Point, Wisconsin pleasingly involved hearing my requests played on Mark Polzin's jazz show on WWSP (Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, etc.) — I first used to listen to him and phone in requests 30 years ago, which he still remembers, but we've still never actually met. After his show, I would head down to the Elbow Room for their Tuesday night "song swap". The first of these nights was unusually quiet and soon evolved into just me and Anna Jo (someone I knew vaguely who was just starting to play banjo a couple of years ago and is now a seriously talented player and singer-songwriter). She's got a great repertoire, both her own songs and other people's, and accompanying on the saz was pure joy.

Anna Jo tuning up in New Orleans

Anna Jo's housemate Tyler was sitting listening throughout and joked about my willingness to join in with an experimental noise/drone jam he and his friends were planning the next night. I said I'd love to join them, and ended up recording this late the next night, in the middle of a thunderstorm:

Listen Here

Peter Fee came up from Madison to visit his mother one weekend, so I joined them one morning and we had a fireside saz/guitar jam. Pete's been getting into a Finnish tune called "Metsakukkia" which I was able to pick up fairly readily. His mother filmed some of that on her smartphone, but that's yet to surface. He also played some country-ish stuff, his own "Vampire Song", and then we had a long jam where he moved from shakuhachi to guitar to trumpet. Again, none of this got recorded.

The final visit to the Elbow Room saw me arrive in the middle of an epic rendition of Neil Young's "Southern Man" (involving multiple guitars, banjos, mandolin, double bass, trumpet, harmony vocals). I quickly got the saz out and joined in. Amazing energy and coherence, and it was all seemingly being filmed by Jim "The Oz" Oliva on Stef the bartender's smartphone...sadly the record button never got pushed! But that one will live in my memory. After "Old Joe Clark" and some freaky blues with regular Joe, Anna Jo and I got into some heavy, weird modal/drone banjo/saz jams... a shame none of this got recorded.

As happens every time I visit central Wisconsin, I got brought out to the Northland Ballroom near Iola one Wednesday night to join my friends Sloppy Joe as part of their weekly thing there. This time Gavin was away in California, so it was just me, Stefanie, Jeff and virtuoso banjo affiliate Dale. This meant a lot more musical space (there's usually loads of people on stage), so I could play a bit more freely. My playing was a bit clunky that night, but the locals didn't seem to mind, and I was able to extract a few acceptable bits from my recording:

Listen Here

On my way down to Chicago to fly out I spent a night in Madison, unexpectedly got to see Kandra who I'd not seen for years (an amazing singer who doesn't sing much) and met her housemate before she headed off to play a show with her band White Bush Unicorn. Peter and I jammed a bit on his porch the next morning: "The Road to Lisdoonvarna", "Matsakukkia" again, some improv...

And this was the thing that stood out from my in-flight listening on the return flight. I was aware of the late 70's Belgian band Aksak Maboul (via DJ Stashu on WFMU)...they were part of the Henry Cow-affiliated "Rock In Opposition" movement. But it seems there was some kind of "lost album" (or something) in their catalogue which various other artists have recreated track-by-track. So I'm not even sure who's on this one, but it starts to sound like Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge guesting with Stereolab if you stick with it:


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