Monday, February 16, 2009

The Electric Range

It's been over a month since I posted, but that doesn't mean I haven't been out and about, seeing live music, and with each band I see, I feel more guilty about not writing about them. I like doing this, I like approaching band members with my little yellow pad and pen, asking questions, finding out more about them. Unfortunately, I know I can't continue to do this if I don't follow through with what I say I'm doing, which is writing this blog, and my discomfort has reached a tipping point. It's time to come clean.

I've been trying to analyze why I'm having a hard time keeping this blog up and have settled on two explanations:

1)I've backed myself into a corner and posting felt like a class paper; I'm notorious for procrastination with classwork, and will often write blogs instead. In this instance, I'm SUPPOSED to be writing blogs so I've resorted to reading copious amounts of fiction.

2)The original concept was that I would be as unbiased as possible, writing about each band from a remove, finding the best in them, reporting on that, even if they really didn't trip my trigger.

Then I saw The Electric Range and all thoughts of unbiased writing went out the window. You see, I'm not a musician, can't read music, am totally unschooled and don't know a flat from a whole note. What interests me is personality, the band's presence on stage and how they interact with the audience: I dig the entertainment factor. I work as a counselor. I'm a people-watcher. I'm attuned to the way people meet the world. It's utterly fascinating to me. And The Electric Range offers just about everything I could want in a band.

The first time I saw them was at the Sheeley House on New Year's Eve. I came with Dwight Dario, a man I'd met several years ago, and whom I'd been casually dating. He's a professional musician—a drummer—and produces events in The Cities. Dwight hit the music scene in the early '70s, making a name for himself playing with Greg Brown, Patrick Hazel and Bo Ramsey. He didn't crash and burn behind drugs and sex and rock 'n' roll, understanding how valuable consistency and reliability are in his field and has since produced events for big names like The Stones, Lyle Lovett and Big N Rich (to name a few), and travels internationally as a drummer with Big George Jackson's blues band.

I was a bit nervous about bringing him: I'd never seen these guys and had only Gary Schmaltz's assurance that Jeff White, the band's front man, was “good.” Gary, a DJ at WHYS radio, hadn't yet steered me wrong, but still, this was lil ol' Chippewa Falls...

I needn't have worried; The Electric Range rocked and Dwight thoroughly enjoyed himself and was even asked to sit in on the drums for James Ignacio while James blew his sax. Dwight's left-handed and James right-handed, but the song went off without a hitch.

So I was pretty excited when, on January 16th, I headed for Jensen's Bar in Chippewa to catch them again, and they didn't disappoint.

Here's the thing: this band is FUN! Jeff plays acoustic guitar, is tall and slender, sports a kind-of ratty cowboy hat and greets the audience with adorable dimples and smile full of mischief. He's energetic, rocking and bouncing on stage; he likes what he's doing and is not ashamed to let you know it.

In direct contrast is Frank Aragona, the electric guitar player. Frank is slender, preferring more formal attire, with a craggy, stone-like face and a black, round-brimmed hat. And oh-my-god can he play. His stage presence is riveting; he reminds me of a wind-up doll, playing the guitar with his whole body: a guitar player's version of the moon-walk. He's totally influenced by the great jam bands of the '70s and can play a solo with the best. He plays behind his back, with his teeth, and—at one point—ran the neck of his axe, strings down, against a speaker...and it was good!

James Ignacio plays the drums, adding a raucous, almost-out-of-control feel, grinning with delight.

And Tony Campbell, laid back and pony-tailed, stays in the background, playing his bass, grinning at the other's antics.

And there were antics. James, as mentioned earlier, plays the sax, and at one point he put down the sticks, grabbed his horn and wandered the bar, flirting, putting his head against an older woman's breast as he blew his solo. James is irrepressible and his good-natured delight adds to the dynamic. Frank also stepped off the stage, solo-ing on Sympathy for the Devil, a song he introduced as “One of the best rock pieces ever written.”

They played The Hollies, The Wallflowers, Tom Petty, The Beatle, Ricky Skaggs, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Goodman, The Cure, The Police, Johnny Cash and Dylan, and while their covers rock, their originals are just as good. Jeff's innate mischievousness shows itself most on his original songs, like “All I've Been Thinking of Lately is You,” and he makes the covers his own, adding unusual instruments: on SOS he played the slide whistle, and at one point blew his harmonica into an old telephone receiver rigged up as a microphone. He also played the Thereman, a black box, about the size of three stacked paperback books, with antennae sticking out. He didn't touch the Theremin, just held his hands close the antennae, producing a weird, atmospheric sound during Helter Skelter and Whole Lot of Love. Very, very cool.

But, as I mentioned earlier, it wasn't just about the music, it was also their interaction with the audience and their personalities. One thing I really like about these guys is how much the like the women in their lives. Frank's stone-face lit up when his girlfriend walked in, giving her a big kiss without missing a note and his music got even better in her presence. His face shone with pride when she got up and started dancing. James and Jeff obviously adore their wives (Jeff just got married, like two days ago, in Costa Rica), shamelessly singing love songs to them, cuddling and kissing between sets. I just think that's sooooo cool. Over all they emanate a contagious enthusiasm and love-of-life that's reflected in their music.

This was like, the fourth time, they'd all played as The Electric Range. Jeff and James play together regularly as The Sidekicks, and Jeff just cut a CD. They can usually be found at The Sheeley House's open mic on Tuesday nights. James has a blog titled Weekly Doses in which he posts a new song every week; a labor of love, illustrating his dedication to his craft.

Tony plays with blues Captain Walleye and the Nightcrawlers and a new band called Quadrant 4 whose first gig is at Sheri's Chippewa Club in Durand on February 27th.

Frank also plays with Convicted, The Blues Incident with Gary Dupree and The Danger Band.

The Electric Range attracts some cool people, adding to the good time. I met a woman named Kitty who is also trying to promote local music on her blog. John Nielson introduced himself and as we talked I found that not only is he a guitar player, but is himself a patron of local musicians and he and his wife throw a Summer Strummers party every July that sounds like one big jam. I was pleased to be invited. He can also be found at The Sheeley House's open mic and plays more formal gigs there, at Glenloch in Chippewa and at other area pubs.

Finally, Jensen's Bar and Grill was a pleasant surprise. Located in downtown Chippewa, it has changed hands at least three times since I've been in the area, and I hope this time the place is a success. The bartenders are open, friendly and welcoming and after paying for my first club soda and lime I got the rest of my non-alcoholic drinks for free. There is a coffee pot at the end of the bar open for anyone who wants got grab a cup, the clientele was fun, and the space was great for live music. I couldn't help but giggle at the poster on the wall advertising “Buckets of Bacon” from 6:00 to 9:00 AM. Only in Wisconsin.

In short, these guys rock; they're at the top of my favorite local music list. Catch them: you won't be disappointed.