Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Bowie and Bing Christmas

From September 1977, this is bizarre and yet quite endearing.

(HT: Shira Burton.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The New York Times Gets Snaptastic

In a recent Allan Kozinn piece, he really served up a couple of snap-burgers.

From the start of the story:
Lincoln Center is undertaking a grand renovation, with Alice Tully Hall as the first building to be refurbished. When the revamped hall opened in February, the priorities became clear: Now it has a beautiful public space (mostly a restaurant) and a rich new veneer. But what had been Lincoln Center’s most comfortable hall, and the least problematic acoustically (it had been a little dry), was transformed into a space that feels cramped and industrial, and has virtually no acoustical resonance.
And OK, maybe that's just factual. But dig what comes later:
Just before Lorin Maazel conducted Mahler’s Eighth Symphony to close his chapter of the New York Philharmonic’s history in June, he spoke briefly about his tenure in New York, saying that “seven years ago, seven years seemed like an eternity.” He could not have put it better: his seven years on the Philharmonic podium seemed like an eternity from this end too.
Boo-yah, Lorin Maazel! Watch out!

The actual article, by the way, describes a lot of cool collaborations going on in the contemporary classical world by folks like the awesome Alarm Will Sound.

The New York Phil Goes Miller Theatre

To delve into contemporary classical music for a moment here, I was intrigued by Anthony Tommasini's review of the New York Philharmonic's first Contact! concert at Symphony Space. In many ways, the set-up of the concert reminded me of Miller Theatre, since the venue is of about the same size and interviews with the composers were emphasized.

All-in-all, Tommasini indicates that it was a well-received concert:
Listeners of all ages, including lots of eager-looking young people, filled the hall. Audience members chatted animatedly during intermission, swapping reactions to the first two pieces.
After Tommasini knocks composer and conductor Magnus Lindberg for his interviewing skills when it came to his talk with composer Marc-Andre Dalbavie -- go ahead, Tony, say it, "He's no George Steel, but..." -- he praised Dalbavie's piece in no uncertain terms:
Still, the music was mesmerizing. Mr. Dalbavie has an acute ear for lush colorings and pungent, post-tonal harmonies. This pensive work evolves in fragments and gestures, with strands of chantlike melody interspersed with sustained sonorities and tremulous colorings. In one unexpected, exhilarating outburst, the instruments break into a kind of free-for-all toccata.
And then he concludes the review with a great description of Arthur Kampela and his music.

I've known Arthur Kampela mostly as a Miller Theatre patron (where he often would be dragging his young son to hear contemporary classical concerts). I always found him an engaged listener and a pleasant patron of the theatre. I knew he was a composer (and had heard rumors of his rocking out on guitar), but I think I've only ever heard one of his pieces of music and a brief one at that.

For this concert, Tommasini recounts,
Arthur Kampela, a Brazilian-born New Yorker and a gregarious talker, was a hit with the audience as he explained that his piece, “Macunaíma,” was inspired by a 1928 novel that follows the exploits of a fantastic young man, loosely based on Amazonian folklore. The character, born black with the capacity to turn white, winds up a mystical entity, a “constellation of pleasure,” as Mr. Kampela put it.

The piece came across as a restless, wildly colorful but rather messy romp. Imagine a makeshift work by a Brazilian Ives. At the start, half a dozen players with colorful hand drums walked slowly up the aisles in the hall and joined the ensemble onstage. Soon everyone broke into a rowdy din of frenetic rhythms and every-which-way riffs. At one point some players went behind a curtain, where you heard them playing bits of marching-band music and laughing.

There may be a real piece in “Macunaíma” somewhere. I would like to hear it again. It was certainly fun for the players, who were good sports, and for the audience, which whooped during the ovation.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winkle Gathering

I was reading the New York Times obituary for John Storm Roberts, a noted world music scholar.

The last paragraph in the obit is a quotation from Roberts about the type of music that he was willing to put out on his Original Music label:
“I don’t care how esoteric it is, but it’s got to be terrific,” he said. “Not this ‘you-can’t-hear-it-and-it’s-terribly-performed-but-it’s-really-very-interesting-because-it’s-the-only-winkle-gathering-song-to-come-out-of-southeastern-Sussex’ attitude.”
When my cursor lingered over the underlined "winkle-gathering," the floating text that popped up said, "Yes, there really is such a thing. Here is a picture of it."

Pretty cheeky for the Old Grey Lady, no?

The link goes here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WKCR's Annual Bach Fest Approaching

WKCR has a new (and possibly improved) website! Look at that.

The big news, of course, is that the annual Bach Festival starts on Monday -- J.S. Bach around-the-clock for 10 straight days!

This year, the focus is on Bach Around the World, and I think that they'll sneak in a little Bach on the banjo at some point, so keep your ears open for some Collegium Bela Fleck in between the Bach Collegium Japan and Collegium Vocale Gent.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Appropriating Magnetic Fields' Songs for Political Commentary

Sarah reminded me today of the "Hey, Paul Krugman (A Song, A Plea)" that we covered back in March here on Sound of Blackbirds. When I watched it again, I was pointed to this commentary on Krugman and Obama's sometimes difficult relationship.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lucy Wainwright Roche in Chicago

I'm live-blogging from Lucy's CD line. Really.

She just put on a great opening set here at the Old Town School of Folk Music - lots of laughter and a sing-a-long.

She opened with a quick ditty but then really opened up the show with Richard Shindell's 'Next Best Western.'

We sang along on Bruce Springsteen's 'Hungry Heart' - although Lucy had to tell us that we were not living up to the level of the early show to get us going. Lucy had a great story about being back stage at a festival watching Neko Case, having some guy bump into her accidentally, doing the double-take when she realized it was Bruce Springsteen and then being too shy to pass along the CD with 'Hungry Heart' on it.

'A&E' about a date that ends up in the emergency room and a really strong song about Chicago rounded out the set.

Over the Rhine is up next.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Off-Duty Santas

This website has photos of "off-duty Santas." Number three is folk festival favorite ASL interpreter Dave McCloskey!

(HT: Blythe Sheldon.)

New Two Man Gentlemen Band CD

I just love the cover on the new Two Man Gentlemen Band disc -- it looks like a classic jazz recording (which it very well might be actually).

Of the CD, the Gents say:
Serious Business Records announces the release of "LIVE in NEW YORK!", the fifth full-length recording from The Two Man Gentlemen Band! Recorded in the Summer of '09 in a packed, steamy SoHo loft, the record captures all the fiery, sweaty, non-stop action that is a Two Man Gentlemen Band concert.

For the month of December, the CD is available exclusively through the Serious Business Records website.


The album will be available digitally (iTunes, Amazon, etc.) on Jan 12th and at all Two Man Gentlemen Band recitals in 2010.

Gentlemen in your stocking? That does sound nice, doesn't it?
Sounds naughty to me, actually, Gentlemen...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Back to School with Robin & Linda Williams

Today Robin & Linda Williams brought Their Fine Group (featuring Jim Watson on bass and Tony Williamson on mandolin) to Armatage School in South Minneapolis for a great afternoon concert, starting off high energy as ever...

- Old Plank Road (kick-ass version with some sweet mando solos)
- I'll Be Coming Home for Christmas
- Old Toy Trains (before this, Robin declared it was Miller time--Roger Miller time. He also told a story of doing a duet of "Chug a Lug" with soprano Maria Jette. "I don't think she knew it was about moonshine.")
- The First Christmas Gift
- Rise Up Shepherd and Follow (with 2 mandolins, banjo and harmonica--very nice!)
- Feed My Sheep (dedicated to Mike Seeger--one of the highlights)
- Invisible Man (nice singing by Linda)
- A Virgin Most Pure (a capella)
- Brightest and Best
- Shotgun Shells on a Christmas Tree (following Jim Watson's ever hilarious pitch for the Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group Boutique)

After a nice break where folks perused CDs, air fresheners and jar openers, the band returned for another fine set...

- Nothing But a Child (the Steve Earle song)
- On a Quiet Christmas Morn
- Together All Alone (with real nice bluesy mando solo)
- Breaking Up Christmas
- Last Train to Poor Valley (Norman Blake song inspired by June Carter Cash's stories of the Carter family Christmases in Poor Vslley)
- Maybelle's Guitar and Monroe's Mandolin
- Saving My Place (after some funny stories about Linda's aunts and uncles)
- Silent Night All Day Long
- Mary Had a Baby

Following a very enthusiastic encore: Just As Long As You Love Me (with special lines about spending Christmas in Minneapolis)

After catching up with Robin, Linda and the boys, I stopped by the Fine Group Boutique on the way out and picked up a jar lid opener. Jim Watson was very happy.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

RIP Jack Cooke (1936 - 2009)

I was sad to see the news that longtime Clinch Mountain Boy Jack Cooke passed away on Tuesday.

Jack played with the Stanley Brothers briefly in 1955 and then -- as is perhaps often forgotten -- spent four-and-a-half years as one of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. In 1970, he rejoined the Clinch Mountain Boys and has been a regular and much-loved feature of Ralph Stanley's shows ever since then. (As Ralph almost always would note, Jack was also the mayor of his hometown of Norton, Virginia, in 1963.)

I rather liked Jack's 2006 solo release Sittin' on Top of the World. He did a really nice job with "Gotta Travel On" and "My Little Georgia Rose," and the disc captured the two songs that he most frequently sang during Clinch Mountain Boys shows -- the title track and "Long Black Veil."

A big hats off to the man on the bass fiddle. Thanks for all the great music, Jack!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Amazing Origami

Eric Joisel does some pretty ridiculous origami -- for paper sculpture, it's really quite out of control.

Of interest to readers here might be his exquisite series of musicians.

(HT: Jayne Chu.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Storyhill & Cliff Eberhardt at Cedar

Cliff Eberhardt celebrated the release of his new album 500 Miles: The Blue Rock Sessions tonight with a show at Minneapolis' Cedar Cultural Center.

Red House labelmates and hometown favorites Storyhill opened up, starting off with songs from their release coming out in 2010...
- Avalon
- World Go Round (first time hearing this--beautiful)
- Ballad of Joe Snowboard
- Town Talks (really nice new song--bluesy and very catchy)
- Give Up the Ghost
- Blazing Out of Sight (very nice version!)
- Better Angels
- Caught in a Mess (this is a truly amazing song--made me cry)
- Get Away (with a nice intro about how Cliff likes this song followed by some funny banter about stealing some of his chord progressions)
- Happy Man
- White Roses (this was an amazingly high energy rendition of this Storyhill classic--got the rather sedate Sunday audience pretty excited)
- Highlight (written for Chris' wedding but sung for a couple in the audience celebrating their 35th anniversary)
- Well of Sorrows
- Paradise Lost (nice closer)

After a nice break where I caught up with the Storyhill boys and got this year's Storyhill Fest Midwest t-shirt (with my name on it!), Cliff got on stage, starting off with a really nice cover...
- Bye Bye Blackbird
- I Want to Take You Home (one of my favorites from the new CD)
- Have a Little Heart
- I Want Money (the most down and dirty version I'ved heard him do--awesome! Followed by a story about accordion player Joel Guzman who suggested that the CD cover should be of Cliff exposing himself to an ATM)
- Your Face
- Trouble For Life (a particularly nice version)
- Memphis
- The High Above and the Down Below (w/Tim Fast on harmonica--very nice!)
- 500 Miles (w/Tim on harmonica)
- Land of the Free (w/Tim on harmonies--always love this)
- Back of My Mind

Encore: Goodnight
2nd Encore: The Long Road

Funniest moment of the show was when Cliff said that had someone had suggested he make a kids album, and he decided he probably could do a "time out" album with songs like "Think About What You Did." All in all, a great show with Cliff at the top of his game.

Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head

Alex Battles shared this video on Facebook, and that compels me to share it here.

What a classic! Great New York City shots. John and John being beautifully dorky as they bounce around. Lots of tread with fairly simple production techniques. Bravo, They Might Be Giants!

They played a free show at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut on Friday night, which I skipped in favor of seeing Washboard Slim and The Blue Lights at the New Haven Brewery (and by "seeing," I mean standing in the back of the brewery getting a good buzz on while talking to the Piselli brothers and assorted hangers-on).

But it looks like it will be another They Might Be Giants New Year's Eve -- the last one was December 31, 2005, I think, in Brooklyn -- as we're going to go see them in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Cello Grooves

Driving around Connecticut with my father yesterday, he put the November/December Dirty Linen Sampler CD into the stereo. The opening track is "Full Moon, Baby" by Putnam Smith, a Maine-based banjo-playing singer-songwriter. It opens with some solid cello riffs, and so I said, "Rushad Eggleston!"

Well, no, as it turns out.

The cellist in question in Seth Yentes, a former chess champion, current chess coach and one-time candidate for the Maine House of Representatives. (He lists his address as Monroe, Maine, the hometown of my friend Kate Grossman, former WKCR-FM Classical Music Director. Kate reports having been his babysitter! No way!)

I'm now giving my first listen to all of Putnam Smith's disc, and Seth Yentes lays down some solid groove on a couple of the tracks.

Here's a sample of Putnam and Seth together:

(Photo from Ctd 2005.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fela! on Broadway

Ben Brantley has published a very enthusiastic review in today's New York Times of Fela!, the Broadway musical (recently promoted from Off-Broadway) about the life and music of Afrobeat creator Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Brantley says that "there has never been anything on Broadway like this production" and that the musical "doesn’t so much tell a story as soak an audience to and through the skin with the musical style and sensibility practiced by its leading man." The music for the show is by Antibalas and therefore is no doubt of high qualithy.

In an article from the Sunday New York Times, Jon Pareles describes Fela and Afrobeat:
In Africa, Fela, who died at 58 of complications from AIDS, is a figure to rival Bob Marley as both a musical innovator and a symbol of resistance. Afrobeat, the style he forged in the early ’70s, combined African rhythms and messages with the jazz and funk that Fela absorbed during his education in Britain and the United States. Ghanaian highlife, Nigerian Yoruba rhythms, Afro-Cuban mambos, James Brown, John Coltrane, Nina Simone and, yes, Frank Sinatra all flowed into his music, which sounds exactly like none of them.
WKCR DJ Brian Linde used to play lots of Fela on the overnight funk show Night Train, and I distinctly remember getting my Fela-groove on the one time that I hosted the show and having an excited caller -- at 3:00 a.m., mind you -- check in wanting to know what was on the air.

I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it to the Broadway show, but I hope that I can.

French Folks Singing Two Man Songs about American Presidents

I'm back from a tour over at the Two Man Gentlemen Band's blog, where one can find an in-depth discussion of being offered post-concert drinks by fans, a notice that the Gentlemen have successfully rhymed "Pierce" (as in Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States of America) with "beers," some brief thoughts on Hall and Oates and the following excellent but too brief video, a portion of a cover version of the Gentlemen's "William Howard Taft" from France:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

John Gorka's CD Release Show

Right now I am sitting in a packed house at the Cedar, enjoying John Gorka's hometown show celebrating the release of So Dark You See. Here's what he is playing for his first set:

- When She Kisses Me
- I'm From New Jersey
- I Saw a Stranger with Your Hair
- I Know (by audience request)
- I Think of You (this Utah Phillips song is on the new CD)
- Writing in the Margins
- Let Them In (a particularly nice version)
- Where No Monument Stands (a William Stafford poem he set to music)
- Fret One (a funky guitar piece--his first instrumental ever to be recorded)
- Trouble in Mind (another cover on the new CD)
- People My Age
- Branching Out

Gorka promises banjo in the second set..will let you know if he comes through!

The Clash of the Legends: Jill Sobule & Erin McKeown Take on Minneapolis

Tuesday night I met my friends Diana and Dean at the Cedar Cultural Center to see the first of 3 shows there this week. Having missed the tour posters (pictured here on the left), I was unaware that Erin McKeown and Jill Sobule were doing a whole tour together and that we'd be treated to such fabulously fun collaborations. Here's the setlist from their very enjoyable show, starting out with a poem composed that evening about Minnesota with Jill doing a dramatic reading and Erin backing her up on keyboards...

JILL SOBULE's SET (playing lots of songs from her great new album California Years):

- Minnesota Poem (w/Erin on keyboards)
- Where Is Bobbie Gentry? (w/Erin on guitar)
- A Good Life (a nice sing-along)
- Somewhere in New Mexico
- The Rapture (w/Erin on keyboards and vocals. A really catchy song inspired by an email conversation with an ex-gay minister. You can read the lyrics to this new song on The Huffington Post)
- Wendell Lee (a great accounting of some of her past relationships, going back to her high school boyfriend Wendell Lee)
- Mexican Wrestler
- Jetpack (When she asked the audience for several different song options, I yelled loudly for the song about the jetpack...I was rewarded for my efforts because this song was very fun indeed!)
- Strawberry Gloss
- Cinnamon Park (w/Erin on keyboards and vocals)

ERIN McKEOWN's SET (playing keyboards and guitar--a nice mix of old songs and some from the new Righteous Babe release Hundreds of Lions):

- The Little Cowboy
- Fast As I Can
- Paper Moon
- (Put the Fun Back In) The Funeral (love this one from her new album)
- Minneapolis (only available as a bonus track when you buy the new CD on iTunes)
- The Boats
- The Rascal (w/Jill adding some pretty amazing percussion by hitting her lap; also added some hilarious guitar bits)
- Coucou (w/Jill on xylophone)
- Santa Cruz (first of a few songs Erin did on keyboards)
- The Lions (liked this new one a lot too)
- Cosmopolitans (liked this version much better than the one on Grand)
- Rhode Island Is Famous For You
- We Are More (w/Jill on guitar--very nice version with lots of audience participation!)

- America (they got a dude from the audience to come on stage and hold the lyrics to this Neil Diamond classic while the gals hilariously imitated Neil's vocals and Erin did some pretty great xylophone work)
- Single Ladies (a folkified version of Beyonce's hit, proceeded by a great introduction by Erin about how meaningful it was to discover that she and Jill shared a love for the same music)
- Survivor (Jill introduced this as an older song that has meant a lot to her, indicating this would be more of a classic folk song...and then they launched into the most awesome version of this Destiny's Child song ever!)

This show was probably the most fun I've had on a Tuesday night in months...If these gals are coming near you, go see them! You can check out their schedule and their latest videos (including one done backstage at the Cedar, featuring their cover of "America") here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Today's Top Tune on KCRW

For those of you who don't already know, LA-based tastemaker station KCRW offers a free download as part of their Today's Top Tune feature on their website and as part of their iTunes podcast. Today's song is from Pieta Brown's upcoming EP Shimmer, produced by the legendary Don Was (Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Rolling Stones).

Mary Travers Memorial Service

From the New York Times:
Mary Travers Memorial Is Scheduled for Nov. 9

A memorial celebration of the life and music of the folk singer Mary Travers will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at Riverside Church.

Ms. Travers, who with Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey formed the renowned trio Peter, Paul and Mary, died on Sept. 16.

Besides Mr. Yarrow and Mr. Stookey, participants in the celebration will include Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Anne Meara, Eli Wallach, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Moyers, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and former Senators George S. McGovern and Max Cleland.

The service will be open to the public. Tickets will be available on the day of the event on a first-come-first-served basis. Half the seats will be reserved for invited guests. The church is at 490 Riverside Drive, between 120th and 122nd Streets, in Morningside Heights.
Looking forward to the John Kerry/George McGovern version of "500 Miles."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bono Supports Obama's Nobel Prize

One of the best things about having my sister move in with me is that the New York Times now is delivered to my door every Sunday. You'd think I'd be better at keeping up with it, but sadly it's taken me a few weeks to discover this opinion piece by Bono, making the argument that President Obama does indeed deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. If you missed it like I did, it's worth the read.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Andy Bean Moving Beyond Just Two-Man Music

The latest update from the Two Man Gentlemen Band includes the news that
Andy Bean will be plucking his banjo & guitar along with Lauren Ambrose's No Name Rural Jazz Band Sunday, Nov 15 at Joe's Pub in NYC.
Wow! I had the pleasure of seeing Ms. Ambrose in the Shakespeare in the Park productions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet and would so much like to see her making some music with S. Andy Bean -- by which I mean making some music, just for the record.

Lauren Ambrose, I would also like to note, is New Haven, Connecticut, born and bred!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Falcon Ridge Going Back to Three Days

Word just came through the Falcon Ridge newsletter that they're scaling the festival back to just Friday, Saturday and Sunday this year:
FRFF will be returning to a 3 day format, next year's dates are July 23, 24, 25, 2010. The pros and cons have been discussed a good deal on the FR Forum, it's basically a preservation of quality over quantity issue. We've ADDED ON so many things over the years, the whole structure is wobbling a bit. We still plan to open for earlybird camping maybe even on the Weds before but all stages will begin on Friday.
I've enjoyed the four day festivals -- Richard Thompson played on a Thursday night, for instance, so how can I not have fond memories of that fourth day? -- but I also understand why three days makes everything just a little bit easier for the organizers.

I do like the idea of opening the camping up early, too. When I've thought about whether I'll try and arrange my schedule such that I'll be in the Northeast in July, I've thought about Falcon Ridge mostly as an opportunity to hang out and make music with friends, so a Thursday of just doing that would be great.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hot Brazilian Guitar

Wikipedia tells me that he is "widely regarded as the greatest Brazilian guitarist of all times [sic]," so color me embarrassed for not having heard of him before, but my political science colleague Milan Svolik hipped me to Baden Powell last night.

Dig this:

(The red border indicates either my embarrassedness or his hotness -- your call.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stumbling Upon Bluegrass in the Strangest Places

My gym is located in the Lincoln Square Mall here in Urbana. The Lincoln Square Mall is one of the strangest places that I have ever been -- it looks like a mall, and it sort of even feels like a mall, but there's no one there for the most part, except when there is (sometimes but not always) a sudden influx of people on the weekends. Much like I am not sure if I will ever stop saying, "Wow, it's really flat out here," when driving on I-57, I'm not sure if I will ever say, "Wow, this place is weird," every time I walk into the empty Lincoln Square Mall.

Today as I was leaving the gym, I heard a familiar noise. And I saw in the distance a circle. And lo and behold, there was a bluegrass jam going on -- in front of the empty Lincoln Hotel's mallfront entrance.

I only stayed for two songs, since I had to come home to write lecture notes -- and you can see how that's going -- but there was a good vibe, and I enjoyed what I heard.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Do The Swell Season and The Zambonis Have in Common?

As far as I know, they don't share a similar history of dating and then continuing to be in a band together after the break-up. No, they both record their albums in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the ol' Arsenal of Democracy itself!

The Swell Season is the collaboration between Glen Hansard (of The Frames) and Marketa Irglova. They played a couple that falls in love through music in the movie Once, and then they went and fell in love themselves, except it didn't quite work out, but they still make music together!

And according to the article in the New York Times from this past week, they recorded their second CD, Strict Joy, at Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport.

Now, Tarquin Studios is no slacker operation -- Peter Katis has recorded The National, Interpol, Spoon and some other big-time acts there, including my beloved Zambonis. (See my concert review from February here.) And Peter also sometimes plays with the band, too, although his brother Tarquin (the namesake of the studios) is more regular (along with Dave Zamboni, Jon Aley, and the Hockey Monkey, of course).

Will The Swell Season appear on the next edition of The Tarquin Records All Star Holiday Extravaganza? I can only hope. (Although good luck producing anything that tops The Happiest Guys in the World's "I am the Groundhog (And It's My Day!)")

Update: Apparently, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova even attended a Bridgeport Sound Tigers game while they were in the Park City.

(HT: Beth Popp.)

Dr. Ralph on Newgrass Music

For those who missed it, there was an article in the New York Times this week in anticipation of Ralph Stanley's autobiography. My favorite line:
The hippie types didn’t know any better; they really thought they was playing bluegrass. You’d hear a solo on electric banjo and like to murder the man a-playing it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Christine Lavin and Political Psychology

My Illinois political science colleague Jeff Mondak has written a song with Christine Lavin about the genetic determinants of political behavior. (Jeff has written a number of poems and songs for kids.) In addition to Jeff's contribution of a couple of verses, Christine also consulted with political scientists John Alford and John Hibbing (who with Carolyn Funk published one of the breakthrough articles on the topic, "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?," in the May 2005 American Political Science Review), and she got Washington Post humorist Gene Weingarten to lend his brain to the endeavor as well.

You can find the result, a song entitled "Hardwired," on Christine's website. The song surrounds a five question test to figure out if you're liberal or conservative. (I'm more conservative than you might think.)

Jeff reports that Christine has been singing it in concert and has been enjoying watching the audience from stage as they take the quiz.

(Since we like keeping track of songs about Pluto here on Sound of Blackbirds, we should note that Jeff also has written a song entitled "Pluto's Not a Planet Anymore.")

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Smithsonian Magazine Article on Jewish Bluegrass

Jen Miller has written a nice piece for Smithsonian Magazine about Jewish bluegrass and old-time musicians.

For several paragraphs, she talks about Jerry Wicentowski:
Bluegrass lyrics celebrate country living, but many of the people singing them are city folk. Jerry Wicentowski grew up in Brooklyn in the 1960s and fell in love with bluegrass during the folk revival. For religious Jews like Wicentowski, there was a rebellious element to being a fan of the music. Bluegrass became his escape. During the week, he studied at an insular yeshiva; on the weekends he played guitar in Washington Square Park.

After earning a Master’s degree in Hebrew and Semitic Studies and then drifting away from Judaism, a series of life events led Wicentowski to return to religion. Eventually, he found himself a man with two strong identities: a Jew and a bluegrass musician. He began to fuse the two. Wicentowski worked on an album with mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman called “Shabbos in Nashville,” which featured Jewish songs in the style of 1950s bluegrass. Later, he founded his own band, Lucky Break. The Minnesota-based quartet bills itself as “uniquely American, uniquely Jewish,” by mixing “the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z’mirot,” or Sabbath songs.
I met Jerry once years ago when I had first taken over the Moonshine Show, and he was playing with Andy Statman and some other folks at a coffeeshop -- I believe -- in Brooklyn. (I couldn't tell you where today. I can tell you that it was the first time I ever saw Andy Statman play live.) We had a nice conversation; he sent me a copy of his CD Lucky Break when it came out, and I spun it a number of times on WKCR.

Jerry was just back in New York for one of his periodic appearances this past weekend. He performed at the Parkside Lounge on Monday night, I know, and I'm sure it was a good show, too.

Miller also talks about New York City favorites Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys in the article.
Historically, [Leverett] says, “Jews and Southern Appalachian people have a lot in common. They’ve been driven out of their homes, have lived hard lives, and have used music for strength.” Leverett’s vibrant blue eyes tear up when she talks about the displacement that poor Southerners experienced in the 1920s, when they were forced to leave their homes and seek out work in the cities. “There’s the same homesickness in Jewish folk songs,” she says.
(HT: Tina Aridas.)

Heavy Metal Tribute Night Coming Up at Le Poisson Rouge

Word has just come over the Internet that Dangerous (the heavy metal Michael Jackson tribute that I raved about here) will be going head-to-head with Tragedy (the heavy metal Bee Gees tribute that I've never seen) with Misstallica (the all-female tribute to Metallica) mopping up afterward at Le Poisson Rouge a week from Saturday night (October 24th).

Details here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rush It Over to the Radio Station!

I love the stories from the early days of rock 'n' roll where record producers rush the singles over to the local record station to get them on the air right away. The most famous of these is undoubtedly Sam Phillips taking Elvis Presley's first single "That's All Right" (which, as we all know, had "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the B-side) over to Dewey Phillips (no relation) at WHBQ, where Dewey Phillips played in 14 times in a row.

In the obituary for country record producer Shelby Singleton, there's a similar story about Jeannie C. Riley's breakthrough hit:
Perhaps [Jerry Kennedy's] most memorable session working with Mr. Singleton, he said, was the one that produced “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

The song, a sendup of small-town hypocrisy written by Tom T. Hall, became a No. 1 pop and country hit for Mr. Singleton’s Plantation label in 1968. It also made Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson, an aspiring singer whose name Mr. Singleton changed to Jeannie C. Riley for the session, an overnight sensation.

“He was so sure that he had something magic with that one that he had an acetate of it made just as soon as the session was over,” said Mr. Kennedy, who played the indelible Dobro guitar part on the record. That evening Mr. Singleton got the music into the hands of Ralph Emery, a tastemaking disc jockey at WSM in Nashville, and by the following morning it was making its way up the charts.
Today, I guess the rush is to get new songs up on YouTube or your own website or maybe a tastemaking blog.

Missed Show: Gavin Friday at Carnegie Hall

The Gavin Friday bash that was held at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago sounds like a total blast. The basic plotline was that Gavin Friday said that he wanted to play Carnegie Hall before he turned 50, and so he was able to sneak in just a few days before his 50th birthday, and he brought along a bunch of friends:
  • U2 rocked out on "King of Trash"

  • Shane MacGowan appeared on stage with a whiskey bottle in hand

  • Lou Reed on guitar, Laurie Anderson on violin and John Zorn on saxophone swung "The Light Pours Out of Me" into "Sweet Jane" -- wait, stop, John Zorn playing saxophone on "Sweet Jane"? Holy schemeeeeezers!

  • Bono singing “The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing"

Roseanne Cash Telling It Like It Was

Roseanne Cash has just released an album called The List based on a list of classic country songs that her father, Johnny Cash, made for her "in an effort to expand [her] teenage taste in music beyond the Beatles."

She sat down with Deborah Solomon for a New York Times interview a few weeks ago, and she didn't pull punches:
Did you have a good relationship with [your father]?

It’s hard to be close to a drug addict when they’re active. He was erratic and withdrawn. But when I was 17, he said, Come with me, and I left the day after I graduated high school, went on the road with him. It was wonderful. He was clean and sober by that time. That’s when he wrote the list for me, on the bus.
I haven't heard the album yet, but Elvis Costello duets on "Heartache by the Numbers"; Bruce Springsteen on "Sea of Heartbreak"; Jeff Tweedy on "Long Black Veil"; and Rufus Wainwright on Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings." Wow! And then Roseanne sings "Girl from the North Country," "Take These Chains from My Heart," "Miss the Mississippi and You," too! Sounds like a winner so far.

Pete Wernick on Steve Martin

From this year's International Bluegrass Music Awards wrap-up:
Pete Wernick introduced [Steve] Martin as “a man who needs an introduction” to the bluegrass community. With a name like “Martin,” Pete observed, he could have been related to Jimmy Martin or Benny Martin—but he wasn’t. “He took the typical bluegrass career path of learning magic tricks, learning to make balloon animals and working at Disneyland,” Wernick said, adding that Martin now refers to his movie producing and acting career as “the lost years,” in an effort to “turn his life to oblivion, poverty and banjo rolls.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Piano Stairs

If you turn the stairs into a piano, people will take the stairs!

(HT: Miguel de Figueiredo.}

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival - Saturday - Including Robbie Fulks Killing Saturday Night

Since I had to spend most of my day working on lecture notes, I didn't get to see as much of the fuller day of the first ever Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival as I would have liked.

I finally got over to the main stage around 5:00 p.m. and saw most of the set from Austin-based Los T Birds. Playing Tejano and Conjunto music, these guys had a good sound and a fun act. I arrived just as they took a turn for straightahead country, singing a successful version of George Jones' "Today I Started Loving You Again" and then a slightly less successful version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." After "The Cowboy Cumbia," they played a Ramon Ayala norteno. Then they talked about the moment when the Mexican and American and Texan musics got all mixed up, and they played "Wooly Bully" much to the delight of various members of the audience who either were already dancing or wanted to be dancing.

I was a particular fan of Dr. Sonny Trujillo, the Professor of Accordion, who didn't move around all that much but sure could play! Dr. Julian Limon Fernadez, the president of the group and Dean of Drums and Percussionology, thanked the Virgen de Guadalupe (who resides in his bass drum) for keeping the rain and wind away, and the group played a cumbia estilo texas to end their set.

I was walking back home to get some food when the sound of brother-and-sister duo Kate and James Hathaway convinced me to turn around. They were singing a mournful country gothic number with shades of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, so I figured I would see what they were all about. With James on guitar and Kate on the Andean charango and making good use of their sibling harmonies, they were worth catching. I particularly liked a song with the chorus, "I don't know where I'm running from or to / But I'm running from you." I liked it because they made that lyric sound much more heartfelt than the novelty country lyric that it might be. They also had the accompaniment of a lovely sunset.

Then I did go home for dinner.

And then I came back for Robbie Fulks. And what a show he put on! With his gangly legs tapping out the beat, his bluegrass-trained hot fingers flying up and down his fretboard and his big smile and witty words keeping the crowd entertained between songs, this was non-stop entertainment par excellence, starting with the band playing an introduction for the WWHP radio DJ who was introducing them!

The running joke of the night was the fact that this was a folk festival. Robbie said, "Look, I'm not a folk guy whittling in the woods or drawing murals of tractor accidents... I'm not sure why they booked me." And later, "Maybe we can insert some comments about public policy? Or ask them to sing along? That's very folk, right? Well, let's play this one in a laid back style." And finally, "Maybe they booked me because my last name is Fulks, and they got confused, huh? Well, I'm glad my last name isn't Hospice... That would make for some tough gigs."

The folkiest part of the set was a great version of U. Utah Phillips' "Orphan Train" featuring the harmony vocals of bassist Mike Fredrickson back-to-back with Benny Martin's "That's a Good Enough Reason," during which Ed the drummer beat our the rhythm on the microphone stand. The Benny Martin song is about the way that a woman looks in a miniskirt being "a good enough reason" to be in love with her. As Robbie said, "Benny Martin just wrote about any subject that entered into his weird head.

Noticing that the crowd wasn't exactly overflowing with UIUC students, Robbie said, "It's great to be here on the edge of campus. We have a lot of people under the age of 75 here! You guys are majors in hippieology, huh?"

Every song in the set was pretty terrific, and the musicianship in the four-piece band was ace, whether Robbie was talking the solo himself on his acoustic guitar or Grant Tye playing extremely tasteful solos on the electric. They played tight but had a lot of fun, and they all produced excellent solos on the set-closing "I Want to be Mama'd." (Robbie did, as you maybe can see if you look in the lower righthand corner of the photo here, sit down during the drum solo.)

In a show full of non-stop awesomeness, there were nonetheless three highlights for me:
  • Robbie introduced the song "No Girls Allowed" by saying, "This next song is a hillbilly song. Short of opening a still and getting arrested or going to a NASCAR event, this is as hillbilly as it gets." The turnaround lyric of the song is "No girls allowed -- just women," which feeds into the most brilliant lyrics that I've heard in 2009, I think:
    Yeah, my fiancée,

    She’ll know some Bronte,

    And a little music beyond Beyonce.
    Brilliant. That is brilliant.

  • They started getting all spectral and new-agey on the guitars and symbols, and then when Robbie started singing, "She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene," the crowd went nuts, realizing that they were playing Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." They played it as if Lou Reed had written it, and it was awesome. Apparently, Robbie has a whole forthcoming album of Michael Jackson songs. Watch out, World!

  • And then the encore was -- with urging from the crowd, including maybe six or seven shouts from yours truly -- "Let's Kill Saturday Night," and it was just perfect -- what a great song and what a rockin' performance. I don't know how I'm going to get it out of my head, and I don't know if I want to.

The whole set list was as follows:
  • Goodbye, Good Lookin'

  • Parallel Bars

  • Cocktails

  • Georgia Hard

  • It's Always Raining Somewhere

  • Cigarette State

  • No Girls Allowed

  • Tears Only Run One Way

  • The Buck Starts Here

  • Rock Bottom, Pop. 1

  • Still a Lot of Loving (??)

  • Orphan Train

  • That's a Good Enough Reason

  • Busy Not Crying

  • Every Kind of Music But Country

  • Billie Jean

  • She Took a Lot of Pills and Died

  • Can't Win for Losing You

  • I Want to be Mama'd

  • ENCORE: Let's Kill Saturday Night

Yeah, he played a few songs.

Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival - Friday

This weekend was the first ever Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival, and there has been some really amazing music blowing through the blocks of downtown Urbana -- blocks that luckily/amazingly are walking distance from my house. I mean, in New York, I was never able to go back home for dinner before going to see Robbie Fulks or anything like that.

Last night, I was over at The Iron Post (where earlier this month I regrettably missed Charlie Sizemore -- found about that show just a bit too late). I came in about midway through the Corn Desert Ramblers' set. They were playing straightahead bluegrass favorites. Their fiddler, Dan Andree (pictured here), had a really smooth touch and some solid chops.

After a brief break, fiddler Liz Carroll took the stage. I don't think that an hour of music has ever passed so quick for me -- it was that great that I was actually like, "What? It's over? No way..."

Liz is no joke by any stretch. As we reported here, she played at the White House on St. Patrick's Day. Last night, she was joined by Jim DeWan on guitar, and the two of them performed a non-stop set of tunes (including two vocal numbers featuring Jim -- one of them a David Mallett song) that had, for instance, two women trying to Irish stepdance in a crowded bar.

They opened (appropriately) with a set based around "The Champaign Jig Goes to Columbia" and then moved into a set of Cape Breton tunes. After a totally groovalicious set starting with "The Roman Boys," Liz said, "Wow! We're practically impaling you with Irish music!" And we were loving it. The next set was "Princess Nancy/Out on the Road," the latter tune inspired by a dog that is no longer with us... (Oh, that's sad...)

Before the last set, Liz said, "I'm going to have to take it slow because I hope to have some hair left at the end of the weekend" (by which she meant on her bow, but I had to be told that). Then they proceeded to lift the roof right off of the place. Starting with "The Silver Spear," the last set was fast, it was grooving, it was hotter than a prairie dog stuck in a tailpipe and it was just damn amazing.

We demanded an encore, and it took a little bit of work, but they came back. And Liz admitted, "Ok, the truth is that we kind of just lost our minds there! Is that the fastest that we ever played? ... Oh, Jim says that he actually nodded off for a bit. I see..." For the encore, they played "The Diplodicus Jig" by request -- it's named after the longest dinosaur. Another brilliant one.

Hats off to Liz Carroll and Jim DeWan!

From the Iron Post I rolled up the street (one block closer to home actually) to the Rose Bowl. This place is a honky-tonk in the classic style, and the band that was playing, the Prairie Dogs, was a great roadhouse band. Armed with guitar, bass, resophonic guitar, banjo and a couple of banjo jokes, they play a mix of country, bluegrass and western swing.

I walked in to the sounds of "Y'All Come," and soon they were singing "Mountain Dew" and "Sixteen Tons" and "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" and "I've Just Seen a Face"... Hey! That's not a country standard! Or well, I guess maybe it is these days.

A Merle Haggard medley -- "Mama Tried / Okie from Muskogee / Old Man from the Mountain" -- was followed by John Prine's "Paradise" and then a medley of "Wreck of the Ol' 97 / I've Been Working on the Railroad / New River Train" and then Jimmy Martin's "Ocean of Diamonds" and "Sophronie" and then -- yes, they had to -- "Happy Trails."

What a hit parade! People were dancing and kicking back beers and just generally loving it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

XM Broadcasts Womenfolk Special

XM Satellite Radio will broadcast my 2009 Womenfolk bird special "I'll Fly Away" on Tuesday, September 22nd at 11 am CDT/12 pm EDT. Airing on XM's folk channel The Village, the show features your favorite bird songs including local Minnesota artists and KFAI listener requests. If you have a satellite radio, tune in! If you don't, just get a free online subscription.

Ray Alden RIP (1942 - 2009)

Tina Aridas sent word this morning on the NYbluegrass-oldtime mailing list than Ray Alden died yesterday morning; he had been battling cancer.

A collector, a record producer and a fine musician, Ray contributed an incredible amount to the old-time scene over his life, and luckily, a lot of those contributions were in the form of compact disc compilations -- such as the American Fogies and Young Fogies series on Rounder -- so his legacy will live on. Most recently, he has been heading up the Field Recorders' Collective, a group that issues big and beautiful compilations of old-time music field recordings -- sets for the old-time music connoisseur.

To the best of my knowledge, Ray appeared twice with me on The Moonshine Show, once when the Field Recorders' Collective issued their first batch of material and then once with his band the Southern Schoolhouse Rascals. I wish that we had created more opportunities over the years where we could have shared Ray's immense knowledge with the New York City listening public.

A brief remembrance written by Dan Peck can be found here; I'm sure more will come.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

This Week at the Farmers Market

I didn't catch the name of this band, but they were playing some solid violin-driven gypsy jazz. And there was some nice double double-bass interplay. (In the photo here, the second bassist is turned away tuning. My bad.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Washington Square Park Reunion

For several years now, there has been a wonderful reunion each September in Washington Square Park of musicians who used to play bluegrass and stringband music there in the late 1950s and 1960s. It has always been a terrific gathering of old friends with some introductions to some of the new members of the scene -- myself included, I suppose, although without an instrument in hand. And the weather, I think, has always been fairly nice as well.

Being in Urbana, I wasn't able to go this past Sunday, but Frank Beacham put together a nice write-up with some very cool photographs, such as the one below of Steve Mandell and Eric Weissberg.

As Frank's photos show, this year attracted some new A-list celebrities to the reunion: David Bromberg, John Goodman and Suze Rotolo were all in attendance, hanging out in the park.

(HT: Brian Frizzell.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Utah Still Riding the Rails

A friend of Red House Records sent us this photo from a Minneapolis train yard. Spotted by West Bank blues legend and local activist Papa John Kolstad, it pays fitting homage to the late great Bruce "Utah" Phillips, who was among many things, a hobo and lover of the rails.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jim Malcom at the Heartland Gallery

There has been a terrific Celtic music series running here in Urbana-Champaign for the past several years. As Dean Karres, who runs the series, told me on Sunday night, they have been extremely fortunate in being able to bring top Celtic talent into town. Tommy Peoples, David Munnelly, Paddy Keenan and Ged Foley? Yeah, I would say so!

On Sunday night, the featured act was Jim Malcom, the former lead singer for the Old Blind Dogs, one of the two or three best Scottish bands out there (and a group that I, sadly, have yet to see live). The performance was at the Heartland Gallery on Main Street in Urbana, a convenient two-block walk from my house.

Jim came out ready to play and ready to engage: a lament about Scotland's having been knocked out of World Competition concluded with, "And you made it in, isn't that right? And you don't even care!" He spoke of his hometown of Dundee, noting that the jute produced in Dundee had been used to make the blankets for both the North and the South in the U.S. Civil War and also both the French and Germany armies in World War I. Keeping us up-to-date on the implications of current immigration laws, he said, "To work in the U.S. I have to get a cultural visa -- a P-3 -- and so I have to 'faithfully and accurately represent the culture of Scotland'... So it's doom and gloom from here on out!"

His voice was in fine form from the opening "Lochanside" to his version of Andy M. Stewart's beautiful "The Valley of Strathmore," the melancholy "An Hour in the Gloaming" and the historical "Battle of Waterloo," the playing of which once earned him boos -- his only ever -- in France. The original "From the Clyde to the Susquehanna" was a terrific song about a Scottish miner coming to the United States to be a farmer and ending up back in the mines -- in Pennsylvania -- instead.

The set ended with Robert Burns' "A Man's a Man for A' That" (which Jim used to sing with the Old Blind Dogs) and the strange claim that Jim was going to disappear because of an important teleconference but had found Robert Burns himself -- still alive in this the 250th anniversary year of his birth -- to fill in.

When the second set started, lo and behold, there was Robert Burns, offering to sing a few songs and wondering if he would be able to figure out how to play Jim's guitar and harmonica. Starting with the uptempo "Rantin Rovin Robin," on which we sang a chorus or two, and then the famous "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose," the rest of the set was all Robert Burns.

"Deil's Awa wi the Exciseman," "The Shepherd's Wife" and the beautiful "Now Westlin Winds" were all highlights. After a little limberjack interlude, the show closed with "Auld Lang Syne" -- not with the common melody used on New Year's Eve but instead with a melancholy little tune that provided perfect closure to the evening.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lucinda Williams To Get Married During Minneapolis Concert

As part of Lucinda Williams' 30th Anniversary Tour, she'll be playing at Minneapolis' legendary club First Avenue (yes, the club Prince made famous in Purple Rain). She's played the venue many times during her three decade career, but this one will stand out--not just because she's digging out some of the classics and playing from her whole musical catalog but because she plans to get married on stage to Minneapolis native Tom Overby. For more, check out Chris Riemenschneider's article in the Star Tribune.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Report from Ellnora: Erin McKeown and Natalia Zukerman

Well in the end, I was only able to catch one -- yes, only one -- of the Ellnora shows this weekend at the Krannert. But it was a good one.

Erin McKeown and Natalia Zukerman shared the stage together for just over an hour, trading songs and playing on each other's. Erin played her rockin' big-bodied Gretsch guitar throughout, and Natalia mostly played her acoustic guitar but picked up a lap steel sometimes when accompanying Erin -- a notably good instrument on "The Little Cowboy."

It was a positive and fun vibe, and the space was pretty packed. (They were playing on Stage Five, the Krannert's open mezzanine stage, set among its other stages.) While they played on the stage, a spraypaint artist off to the side worked on creating likenesses of the weekend's performers. (Natalia said that the sound reminded her of her home in Brooklyn.)

Erin talked about her Cabin Fever house concert series, where she broadcast a number of concerts from her cabin on her website -- inverted house concerts, if you will. She and Natalia played a set together for that series where they were sitting on stools in the river behind Erin's house. One of the songs that they played that day was "We Are More," and they worked up a particularly good groove on it at the Krannert.

The setlist looked like this:
  • NZ: "Indiana" -- I don't have the title right, I fear, but a great opening song

  • EMcK: "The Foxes"

  • NZ: "Over All the Noise in Brooklyn"

  • EMcK: "We Are More"

  • NZ: "Brand New Frame"

  • EMcK: "Rhode Island is Famous for You" - awesome swing song that Erin has rejuvenated

  • NZ: "Bill" - 'This is a song that started out about a first date and ended up being about Bill Clinton.'

  • EMcK: "The Little Cowboy"

  • NZ: "Come Undone"

  • EMcK: "The Taste of You"

  • Together: Johnny Cash's "Big River"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Music Galore at the Krannert Center This Friday and Saturday

Where are Ani DiFranco, Jerry Douglas, Erin McKeown, Natalia Zukerman, Richard Julian, Jim Campilongo, Leni Stern and The National all playing this weekend?

The Krannert Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign! It's the Ellnora Guitar Festival.

Not sure where I'm going to find the time. There are lectures and papers to be written after all. And it's also our home football opener on Saturday. This town is going to be crazy.

(Ani DiFranco, Erin McKeown, Richard Julian and Leni Stern are all Postcrypt veterans of one era or another, for the record. And maybe Jim Campilongo and Natalia Zukerman, too? I'm not sure.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Road Trip Music Video

They say:
Our camera takes 1 exposure every 10 seconds, as we drive from San Francisco to Washington D.C.

Music is by Michael Nyman.

(HT: Jeff Lax, who found it on Andrew Sullivan's blog.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Laughing Waters Bluegrass Festival

The Laughing Waters Bluegrass Festival is my favorite Labor Day tradition in Minneapolis...a free bluegrass festival in Minnehaha (Dakota for "waterfalls," although often mistranslated to mean "laughing waters") Park, a short walk from my house. As always, it was a lovely people-watching event of hippies, bikers and families. After my sister and I got loaded up with seafood tacos and calamari from Sea Salt Eatery, we settled down to enjoy the end of the set from the Sawtooth Bluegrass Band --a group of very young boys in matching blue shirts who did some nice traditional bluegrass tunes. Two of the members just won third place at MBOTMA's Duet Championships at this year's Minnesota State Fair; they did a nice rendition of Gillian Welch's "By the Mark." Then came my favorite local bluegrass band--The High 48's. Here's what they played:

Never Been So Lonesome
Leaving Me Tomorrow
Jeanne Marie
Ain't Gonna Be Your Fool
Who Needs Love
Square Fingers
I've Endured
Mill City Stomp
Joe Hill's Will

Encore: Orange Blossom Special

Derek Johnson's voice sounded particularly fine today, and the band really kicked it with a high-energy tight set. Following them, we heard a bit of Hello Stranger before we walked back home.

Another fine Labor Day, full of good bluegrass and good times.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Weekend of Music in Champaign-Urbana

A quick report from this weekend here in Champaign-Urbana.

On Friday night, I was back at the Research Park at the University of Illinois to see an evening of bluegrass music. Because it had rained throughout the day, the crowd was a lot thinner than it had been for the Kathy Mattea show two weeks ago.

My new political science colleague Tiberiu and I had stopped off for a beer on the way to the show, so we arrived at the end of High Cotton's set. A traditionally-oriented bluegrass band based here in Central Illinois, we caught "No Hiding Place," "Man at the Mill" and "Orange Blossom Special." I wish that we had made it there to see their full show, and I look forward to catching them next time around.

The headliner for the evening was Hot Buttered Rum, the West Coast acoustic string band. My first exposure to these guys was my first day in Indonesia. I met a couple from Berkeley that was staying at the same homestay in Jakarta as me; mentioning bluegrass, they asked me if I knew Hot Buttered Rum and hooked me up with a disc. Friday was my first time seeing them live.

Their set started off fairly slow, I thought. I wasn't feeling the groove all that much. We were seated off to the side, so the sound was a little more muffled than if we had been in the direct line of the speakers, so that might have been it. We also struck up a conversation with Jim from John Deere who is running the John Deere research center at the Research Park, so maybe it was learning about dry-land farming in Montana that kept me out of the groove.

But then -- after a while and toward the end of their set -- things started to pick up. "Blackberry Pie" brought me in, and then they laid down some serious groove on "Up on Cripple Creek." There was a funkified version of "Walls of Time" and then some solid flute-playing on the final song, which -- I'm serious about this -- made the dance pit come alive. In fact, I think I would have had a much different concert-going experience if I had been down in that dance pit. A lesson for next time.

The most interesting thing, I thought, about Hot Buttered Rum was the quality of the drumming, which propelled even the songs where I wasn't feeling the groove. The rhythm was steady and only fancy when it needed to be. I also was surprised that the solos were not a bit more aggressive; the band played in a pretty chill fashion, not letting the individual members shine as much as they might. Maybe that's a West Coast thing.

On Saturday, at the Urbana farmers' market (Market at the Square, if you like), there was good and/or interesting music at every corner. The guys who really caught my ears were Tom and Matt Turino, a father and son playing accordion and guitar respectively. They had a great sound together and played a couple of really nice tunes while I was picking out some handmade soap and considering the merits of a second loaf of bread.

Matt and Tom will be having a CD release party this Saturday at the Iron Post -- just a few blocks from my apartment. Unfortunately, I will be in Toronto, attending to professional duties.

Tom is a member of the music department at UIUC; he studies Andean and Latin American music and has written a book on the music of Zimbabwe.

Little did I know that I would be seeing more of Tom later in the day. While I was at home working on my lecture notes, the Urbana Sweet Corn Festival was going on two blocks away. When some seriously good Zydeco music started floating in the window, I decided to make my way over to see it in person. The group was Big Grove, featuring Tom Turino on accordion and vocals (and fiddle on a tune or two), Ben Smith on fiddle, Ben Hay on guitar, J.B. Faires on bass and Gordon Kay on the drums. (Matt Turino plays with the band, too, I guess, but he wasn't on stage with them on Saturday.) They had plenty of two-step swing and played some lovely waltzes. There was lots of room for dancing, although only a limited number of people doing it, but I saw some lovely waltzing and some smooth two-stepping.

They'll be playing at the Alto Vineyards tasting room in Champaign on September 12th.