Sunday, December 22, 2013

JFT Party Band

--> Volume One calls My Place “The Chippewa Valley's roughest bar,” and that's where I headed Friday night. I get why it has that reputation in Eau Claire, but Volume One wasn't shadowing me when I was younger. The cops didn't cruise through the bar, not even once. There were no fist fights. There were no cat fights. No one grabbed my ass or my breasts. The bathroom was small and clean and no one tried to bust in as I sat on the can. The only come-on I got was a couple of come-hither winks from a sweet, 60-something guy with no teeth who was having a hard time keeping his balance on the barstool. And the only person I saw doing a table dance was John Nielson playing his guitar.

If you're the kind of musician who likes to maintain physical separation from the audience, don't gig at My Place.
If you're the kind of guitar player who looses the rhythm when enthusiastic women try to hug you in the middle of your solo, don't gig at My Place.
If you're the kind of mandolin player who's gonna act all scared about the equipment when drunk women try to grab the microphone, don't gig at My Place.
If you're the kind of bass player who cowers when 6 foot, 3 inch-tall, long-haired 60's throwbacks yell good naturedly-- “How about some fuckin' Whitesnake!” don't gig at My Place.
If you're the kind of drummer who can't keep the beat when gals climb through the maze of equipment and sit on your lap, don't gig at My Place.

All this and more happened Friday night. The JFT Party Band is exactly the kind of band to gig at MyPlace. And, good god, was it fun. I went to write about the band and realized there was no way I could separate the band from the My Place experience. I doubt I'm going to give either of them their fair due, but I'll try. First let me introduce the band.

I remember when JFT was first starting out. It was a Karoke band. They'd pass out lists of their songs and encourage people to get on stage and sing with them. “JFT” stood for John (Nielsen—rhythm acoustic guitar), Frank (Aragona—lead electric guitar) and Tony (Campbell—electric bass). John was a new guitar player and he told me last night that he'd been singing Karoke and someone put a guitar in his hands.

Today Dave Schoenrock is on bass and back up vocals and he also plays with The Pheromones.

Frank Aragona is on lead electric guitar and vocals. I wrote about him way back in 2009 when he was in The Electric Range.

Caleb Horne plays the mandolin (and occasionally acoustic guitar—and just about every other stringed instrument ever made) and also gigs with Eggplant Heroes and TheSand Burgers.

Bill Cooney works the drums in both this band and FM Down.

John Nielsen is the front man and also plays the cordless acoustic 12-string guitar (the cordless part is important). It's John who's responsible for the over-all feel of this band. He lights up when the music starts; this is his juice—his elixir—and he savors every moment.

If someone put a gun to my head and told me to find one word to describe this band it would be: high-spirited, good-natured and energizing. (Yeah, yeah, that's more than one word, but I'm the one writing, so I get to do that. And besides, the gun thing was rhetorical.) These guys are exactly as billed: a party band. And they have so much fun!

They warmed up the audience with a rousing rendition of “Sympathy For The Devil” sung by Frank Aragona. Frank was in a red plaid fedora, red-tinged sunglasses, tight black tee-shirt and black skinny jeans. Ordinarily he seems quiet and diffident, but put him in front of a microphone and he morphs into Rock-N-Roll-Guitar-God. No shit. He wails and postures and riffs and kicks. And he sings to—sometimes acts out—the lyrics. So he's singing and John Nielsen gets the strobes and the smoke machine going and we've got rock-n-roll paradise by the dashboard lights.

The next song was “Copperhead Road” sung by John Nielsen. It was about 9:30 and most of the audience wasn't quite lubricated enough, while others were heading toward over-served. The band was bopping and grinning, all kinetic energy, but it didn't really get rolling until the third song, “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And here's the thing, by the third song this band owned the audience. I've seen more seasoned bands who don't get the audience up and on its feet until the second set.

Dancing is a challenge at My Place. There's really no delineation between the “stage” (Stage? What stage?) and the dance floor, which is also the main thoroughfare through the bar, with music on one side and barstools on the other. There's about 4 feet between the bar stools and the instruments. But this didn't stop anyone, including the musicians, who frequently left their area to join the dancers, instruments in hand. This is music up-close and personal with no boundaries between musicians and fans. This band loves the audience and I believe it was that undisguised appreciation for the audience that kept the ambience safe and fun. I didn't see one flinch, one eye-roll, one superior look, or one knee-jerk recoil.

The crazier the atmosphere, the tighter the band got. Their second set was musically the best as they leaned into the insanity. They played Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here” with a guitar-god solo from Frank. They then launched into “I'm A Believer” and Steve Bateman from The Sand Burgers joined the stage with his harmonica. You can catch Steve at a lot of live local gigs—he's always being called to the stage by other musicians. Other songs included Petty's “Mary Jane's Last Dance,” “Sweet Caroline,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “I Fight Authority,” “Can't You See,” “Too Hard To Handle” and “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.”

They loved the blond gal, all sequins and studded belt who repeatedly hoisted and rearranged her considerable bosom, as she leaned over and sang into Dave's mic. John gave her a tambourine and grinned appreciatively as she sang to “Can't You See.” She didn't even need the mic.

There was a lanky, gamboling Native American kid with long, inky-black hair and celestial smile—all coy grace and peyote-toes. He air-danced his fingers along Frank's shoulder and arm then up the neck of his guitar and Frank turned into the boy, letting those fingers flick the air around him and his instrument.

There was a tall, blond, long-haired hippie-man with holed jeans and a scary-jubilant dance-style. When he got too enthusiastic he, too, got handed the tambourine and was encouraged to enter in, settling him down and letting him do what he really wanted, which was enter into the music.

And then there was the drummer girl. She walked in and immediately started dancing and fan-flirting with the band. Next thing we knew, she wended her way through mic stands and electric cords and speakers and sat on Bill Cooney's lap. He didn't blink. I assumed they knew each other, but found out later he'd never met her before. He put his arm around her, she rested her head on his shoulder, and he played one-handed for a while, then handed her a drumstick. Priceless.

John Nielsen climbed up on a (heavy and very sturdy) table, dancing and singing, then bounded outside and played his guitar on the sidewalk. Frank wandered into audience territory and played his guitar over his head and behind his back, Dave bee-bopped and he too wandered into the audience to meet Caleb and John in a triangular jam. Steve played some dynamic rock-n-roll harmonica and Caleb some rock-n-roll mandolin. Bill laid back on his drums, a small smile on his face, eyes all aware and appreciative.

In the third set they invited others up to the stage, including my friend, John LeBrun, drummer for David Jones and the Jones Tones ( read about The Jones Tones here) and Code Blue, Cayta's 5-piece blues band (read more about Catya here). He's also played with Larry Past, G String Theory and Layne Yost's bands. John is never happier than when behind a drum set but he told me later that he was a little nervous because Bill Cooney is so good. He had no reason to be nervous—he was great. Bill sat next to me as John played a couple of songs including “Honkey Tonk Woman” that John Nielsen totally hammed up on vocals and Steve Bateman nailed on the harmonica. They also played “Cover Of The Rolling Stone,” “You Really Got Me,” “Any Way You Want It” and “Long Haired County Boy.” They invited a gal named Judy onto the stage and she sang “Purple Rain” and “Bad Moon Rising.” She had a great time and the band was engaged and gracious. John said later, “It's so fun to play with such great musicians. I can just kick back and enjoy it.” He claimed he's not a natural musician, but I say he's a natural-born performer. They ended the night with Led Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love.” Perfect.

I've been in My Place before and last night someone told me, “There's always an edge, an underlying promise of violence at that place.” I get it, but it wasn't there Friday night. Music, charms and soothing the savage-ness. That's what The JFT Party Band did on Friday night.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mojo Lemon

--> Monday was Mojo Night. The ChippewaValley Blues Society met at Pizza Plus Monday night for a quarterly meeting and hired one of the Chippewa Valley's most accomplished blues bands to play after the meeting: a Christmas gift from CVBS to the public.

I first caught Mojo Lemon in 2008 at The Snout Saloon in Chippewa Falls. I was still testing the live- music-waters. For many going out to see live music is a social event, a reason to gather with friends, catch up, firm up new social connections and nurse old ones. And I get that.  But it's not why I go to live music events. I go for the music. Period. And because of this I typically go alone.

I don't want to try and hold a conversation—the music's too loud. I don't want to do the whole collectivist, “Are you having a good time? Do you want to leave?” thing. Don't expect me to get into a conversation about work, or kids, or politics, or Neil Degrasse Tyson, or relationships. We can do that while eating, taking a walk, grabbing a cup of coffee or just hanging out. But not during live music.

I don't mind going to live music with like-minded people. We might occasionally look at each other and say, “That was a rocking drum solo!” or “Oh no! He broke a string.” or “Gwad, that brought tears to my eyes!” Or perhaps we can dance. Dancing is good.

So in 2008 I was at The Snout because I'd heard this was a good band.  I was still self-conscious about being a single, sober woman, going out to the bars alone. Have you been to The Snout? It's one of Chippewa Falls' best dive bars. It's got that edge. That vague promise of out-of-control-ness. That interesting mix of citizens and street denizens. My kind of bar. To my knowledge The Snout is perfectly safe, but still. 

So I'm alone, a bit self conscious and then there's Mojo. Some might find it unremarkable to walk into a dive bar and discover superior music, but it was a shock to me. Mojo Lemon consists of three core musicians:

Josh Entzminger plays guitar and sings
Will Chopper works the keys and sings,
Terry Demars jams on bass and vocals

That night at The Snout Big Jay Introwitz was on drums. Jason (Jay) is fun to watch. He floats behind the drumset—all Zen-like—and appears to channel his muse from the collective aether. And he's got a great voice. On Monday night Dave Schrader held the drumsticks. Dave is totally present. He plays in various other local bands including Rada Dada, Dixie And The Dreamers, and The Sue Orfield Band.

My first impression of Mojo Lemon in 2008 was that they were too good. I kid you not. It was obvious that they were superb musicians and it felt like each member was in his own music-bubble. I've written that I believe each band is like a living organism with the individuals interacting to create a bigger whole. And, for me, part of that whole—that synergy—involves offering a glimpse into each member's personality. Way back in 2008 Will Chopper bobbed behind the keyboard, Jason Introwitz floated behind the drums, Terry Demars jammed behind his bass and Josh Entzminger let loose behind his guitar. All skillful, all talented and, except for some playful back-and-forth between Josh and Will, there was little interaction with each other or with the audience. The coolest thing about following bands is watching them grow.

On Monday night at Pizza PlusMojo Lemon owned the stage and the audience. Pizza Plus mounted a backdrop of red covering the windows and added a sparkly-white Christmas tree. Josh's guitar was red. They played a two hour gig and were polished, accomplished, tight, fun and interactive. They rocked—or is it bluzed?

I was having a great time dancing and can't offer a complete set list, but here are some highlights:

They kicked off the night with Luther Allison's “It's A Blues Thing.” The perfect song to get the house warmed up and bouncing in their seats. The second number was a jump blues number, first recorded in 1945 titled “Caldonia” featuring Josh on guitar. They played Muddy Waters and Freddy King's “Woman Across the Water” which features cool, complex tempo-and-beat change-ups. Josh sang a very convincing Elmore James song, “The Sky Is Crying” and Dave started the next song with a rolling drum solo. I'm not sure what that song was (I was dancing) but it morphed into a verse of “Big Boss Man” and out again. Josh sang BB King's “You Upset Me,” Terry sang what I think was Blind Lemon's “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and “Seventh Son.” Will's keyboards offered a perfect bridge between R&B and the blues and he sang one of my favorites, Barbara George's “I Know You Don't Love Me No More.” The final song was an amazing rendition of Jimi Hendrix's “Voodoo Child.” The music was really, really loud (I bring earplugs—a live-music necessity), but the sound was sharp and clear.

In 2008 I couldn't imagine Mojo Lemon getting better, but they have.

Terry Demars' voice is bluesy-rough with a touch of street that gives his songs of loss and masculine sorrow an authentic edge. Today it's stronger and true and has grown into an instrument all of its own. And his stance behind the microphone is bigger. He owns his lyrics. The only way I really know music—good or bad—is intuitively, but it feels like Terry's bass playing is surer, more confident, and Monday night I saw him kicking back and really enjoying his band-mates' performances. Terry now looks and feels like a quintessential blues-man.

Dave Schrader didn't miss a beat and there's no question why he's in demand. I think drummers are the unsung heros of the music-world. They are essential—the musical foundation—and their job is paradoxical: when they play well they fade into the background, allowing the other musicians to shine in the spotlight. When they don't do well, the whole thing is screwed. Dave was excellent.

Will Chopper is a consummate performer. His enjoyment is obvious as his notes intertwine with the other instruments, giving this band a unique sound. He be-bops and grins as he plays and sometimes I think that if he could take his keyboards out into the audience and dance he would. Some of the most fun moments in their show is when he and Josh trade riffs—a lively and boisterous musical conversation.

And there's Josh. His guitar playing is physical. It looks like he is literally pulling the music out with his feet—stealing from some elemental place at the earth's core—pushing it through his body and out through his fingers and into the guitar. He's an amazing talent. 

This band really showed off their skillful versatility in “Voodoo Child.” It was mostly instrumental and Will and Josh took us through a history of great rock and roll styles. Will's organ reminded us of Emerson Lake and Palmer, and the Josh went into a Clapton-like riff. And of course Josh's pristine and muscular guitar totally channeled Mr. Hendrix himself.

Mojo Lemon will be playing at The Snout this Saturday (12/21/13). If your a blues fan—or just enjoy good music—and you haven't caught them, you gotta go. If you have caught them I know you'll want to see them again. You can see their gig schedule here.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra's Swinging Into The Holidays

--> On Friday morning I got a Facebook email from a friend: “CV Jazz Orchestra show tonight at the State. 7:30. Good bunch, tons of talent, enjoyable show. You might get a kick out of it and find an article.” My plans for the evening were still up in the air. Billy Krause was at the Local Store, G-String Theory with Noel Hanson was at the House of Rock, and Two Frets Up were playing in Mondovi. CVJO's gig was on my radar—a dim, vague blip—but I tend toward the more informal venues (that's a highfaluting of saying I like bars) and don't really consider myself a Jazz Girl. But I also like mixing it up. And the realization that I wouldn't typically go to the event if I didn't have this blog propelled me out to The State Theater to see “The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra Presents Swinging Into The Holidays.” I'm so glad I did.

CVJO was conceived in 2009 when a bunch of musicians were hanging out at the Joynt, talking. Geoff Peterson (drums) told me, “We wanted to play the music we love in a venue where people wanted to hear us.” He added that the core group consist of Josh Gallagher (piano), Jeff Reitz (alto sax, clarinet, bass sax and flute), Jayson Collins (alto sax), Sue Orfield (tenor sax), and Jeff Walk (trumpet). Today CVJO is eighteen musicians strong. Its members' ages range from age 18 to 60+. Some are college students, others are teachers and business-owners and they all love their music.

This is their second Christmas season at The State Theater and this year they changed things up and added AdrianKlenz as their Master Of Ceremonies. Barry Hitt (who, by the way, is so goofy he's hip) agreed that they needed a front man so he could concentrate on just being the musical director. I don't know how the show felt without an official Master Of Ceremonies, but having Adrian up there gave Swinging Into The Holidays a variety show-feel. Sort of like the holiday TV specials I used to watch as a child.

There were 13 musicians on stage. Front and center-right was a three-tiered horn section. On the top, back row were 5 trumpets: Jeff Walk; Sean Hanson; Kris Bergh; and Rich Morgan of Morgan Music. 5 trombones graced the middle tier: Tom Carlson; Doug Shoemaker; Bill Halgren; and Eric Olson. The saxophones were on the ground floor: Max Palzewicz; Sue Orfield; Theresa Soules; Jay Collins; and Jeff Reitz, "instrument guy" at Schmitt Music. Back and to the right of the horns was Geoff Peterson on drums and slightly in front of the drums, next to the horns was Emily Watkins on guitar. On the other side of the drum kit was Eric Thompson with his upright bass and bookending the ensemble was Josh Gallagher on the grand piano.

Most of the musicians sported some kind of holiday attire. Some wore Santa hats and others wore “ugly sweaters,” bow ties and Christmas ties. Some of the horns had red or green muters, and one of the trombones (I think it was Doug Shoemaker's) was green and was decorated with a rim of tinsel. Adrian was front and to the left and he also sang, accompanied in some of the songs by Cathy Reitz.

Adrian was handsome in black suit coat and a red tie and he kicked off the show with “Sleigh Ride.” The next song was “Mr Grinch” and in the middle of the song Jeff Reitz put down his horn, grabbed his bag and left the stage, all Grinch-like. After the piano solo he reentered wearing a bright red hunting cap and blowing his bass sax. If you've never seen a bass sax believe me when I tell you that this is one big-ass horn. Jeff was very Grinchy and this song set a happy, playful mood that persisted through the show. And then there was Barry Hitt.

Barry was introduced after “Grinch” and he was filled with the Miles-Davis-Christmas Spirit. He entered in red pants, a Santa hat, a tinsel-boa necklace and a psychedelic green and red dashiki with a big snow-flake-like design on the back. As the director, he had his back to the audience for most of the performance—dashiki snow-flake prominently displayed—and he kept time with a cute little butt-swing. He was a total dork and totally cool.

The next song was “O Holy Night” and Jeff Walk wailed big-time on his trumpet. Adrian was joined on stage by Cathy Rietz (she's married to The Grinch) and they did a fun, hammy version of “Baby It's Cold Outside.” Cathy has a great voice and obviously loves singing. The trombones took the lead on “God Rest Ye Merry Trombones” and Adrian sang “The Christmas Song” followed by Andrew Neesley's version of “Winter Wonderland” which featured a solo by what looked to be the youngest member on trumpet. He nailed it. The first set ended with a lovely rendition of “Adeste Fidelis” and featured some rocking improv solos by Sue Orfield and Jeff Reitz on saxes and Josh Gallagher on piano. All the other musicians seemed to enjoy listening to the solos as much as the audience.

Cathy kicked off the second half of the show, singing a big-band-jazzy-style medley of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Her energy and joy revived us after the intermission. Tom Carlson brought his trombone front and center and led us through “Christmas Time Is Here.” This was followed by Auld Lang Syne, which started out traditionally then bumped up to a swinging song. Cathy returned to the stage and sang “I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and Eric Olson's bass trombone blew us away with a fun, playful version of “Jingle Bells.” The show started its wind-down with Adrian singing a soulful version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

The last song was an instrumental, “Yo! Tannenbaum,” (punctuation added by yours truly) which started slow, all wobbly horns, then snapped into a jazzy, raucous, fun finale. One of the things I liked about this show, these musicians, was the combination of professionalism and comfort. They were laid-back, relaxed, having fun doing the thing they like to do best. I'd never seen a jazz orchestra in action and last night blew up my preconceptions of a removed and stuffy event for cultural snobs. I'm sold.

The State Theater seats 1,098. 152 people showed up for this year's show, down from 160 last year—which is understandable considering the North Pole-like weather we're having. But here's the thing: This was a great show and it deserved a bigger audience. This brings me back to my oft-repeated plaint that we just don't get the hidden wealth of the Chippewa Valley. In an era of “fiscal responsibility” that chips away funding for the arts, we have passionate, talented musicians whose only desire is to be heard and appreciated. The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra's next gig is February 15th at The State Theater and it will feature Luis Bonilla, Charles Mingus' lead trombone player, along with a variety of high school students. How cool is that? If I had a honey, I'd demand he take me to this for Valentine's Day and I'll probably go anyway, honey or not. You should too. 

Show your support and "Like" The Chippewa Valley Orchestra on Facebook.

Again,  Freaks and Geeks' burgeoning Music Wiki was helpful with this blog.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stage Fright 4. The Last Waltz

--> The Last Waltz: Arguably the best rock-concert-film in rock n roll history, directed by Martin Scorsese.

On Thanksgiving, 1976 The Band put on its “farewell concert appearance” at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. It was a free-for-all-musical-jam and a ton of great musicians came to honor The Band's departure from the road. In the past 30 years this concert has been recreated across the United States in California, Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania and Minneapolis. Last Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving, Pizza Plus hosted the Chippewa Valley's very own Last Waltz—or “Stage Fright 4” featuring local musicians. And it was good.

This is Stage Fright's fourth year and the brain-child of The Rhythm Posse, “a funky rhythm and blues band” consisting of Billy Angell on keyboards, Lucas Fischer on lead guitar, Levi Felling on drums and Jeremy Holt on bass guitar. Because the original configuration had a piano and a keyboard, Eric Pierson of Last Open Road joins them yearly for this production. The Posse+Pierson forms the core of the performance—The Band—and each year different musicians are tapped to assume the role of their famous counterparts.

I headed to The Plus early, ate pizza (thanks Jean and Charlie!) and watched as the people trickled in. This was Stage Fright's first year at The Plus. Previous hosts include The House Of Rock and The Stone's Throw. This was, by far, the best venue to date. And, because The Plus is a restaurant, it was the first “all-ages” show. I was delighted to see teenagers in the audience. The show started at 9:00 and by 8:30 it was standing-room only. There was a $5 cover and the proceeds were donated to Feed My People. More about that later.

I had my little black reporters' notebook. When the music began I strategically settled in (read: cross-legged on the floor, right in front of the stage—old hippies don't die, they just fade and tatter like their blue-jeans), to enjoy and take notes. And I took a load of notes. I wrote down each song, each musician and added my personal thoughts and observations. My original intention was to give a blow-by-blow but, as cool as the event was, that would just be tedious for both of us. Instead I'm going to list the musicians and the parts they played and write about some of my personal, subjective highlights from the concert. I'm also going to link to as many as these musicians as possible: They donated their time, asking for no other payment except a lively, appreciative and engaged audience. They brought passion and energy to the event and deserve so much more credit than this little blog could ever offer.

This year began differently from Frights 1-3 and really touched me. When my son, Toby, was younger part of our Thanksgiving tradition was to listen to Arlo Guthrie's “Alice's Restaurant.” Toby is spending Thanksgiving with family in Alaska, but I still got a piece of that family tradition when Nick Foytik kicked off the whole thing with a rousing rendition of the song. Arlo was not part of The Last Waltz, but he's appropriate to include because it's of the era and a Thanksgiving song. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but if you give it a listen you'll better appreciate the idea of covering it live. “Alice's Restaurant” is a story-song that starts with a Thanksgiving dinner “that couldn't be beat” cooked by Alice, leading to the arrest and conviction for littering and creating a public nuisance and then to the Vietnam draft. It goes for 25 minutes and Nick pulled it off beautifully. At the end of the song the whole audience was singing the refrain. Thank you, Nick Foytik.

I would be remiss if I didn't toss in a big shout out to graphic designer, Amy Schmitz, Nick's partner and the owner of Amy's Custom Designs for this year's Stage Fright's poster.

Rhythm Posse and the King Harvest Horns took the stage and the show began.

There's nothing better than a good horn section and The King Harvest Horns rocked. They consist of Sue Orfield on sax, Dave Burki on trumpet, Jayson Collins on baritone sax, and Tom Carlson on trombone. Jayson, Tom and Dave play with TheSue Orfield Band (SOB) and The Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra (CVJO). They didn't play every song but, like Rhythm Posse, were there for the entire event, bopping on and off the stage. Their skill and enthusiasm made the show. I gotta say it again: There's nothing better than a good horn section.

Roger Dinardi played The Last Waltz Theme on a cool synthesizer-thingy. I really liked his set-up; it's all packed away in an old-style travel-trunk with attached fold-up legs. He was accompanied on guitar by a young man (I didn't get his name, but am happy to add it if you know it).

The Posse-Band took it away with “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Shape I'm In,” getting the audience all revved up. There was a pause as the band called to the audience for “Ronny Hawkins.” My heart sank just a little, because I was looking forward to this particular song. Just when it looked like it wasn't going to happen, Peter Phippin strode through the crowd and onto the stage. Dressed all in black, long hair pulled into a pony tail he grabbed the mic and started belting “Who Do You Love,” all big, snarly, charisma-y and rock n roll-ego. And, like Ronny in the original, he left the stage before the last note, and was gone. A one-shot-Hawkins/Phippen injection. Like cocaine, it left me yearning for more.

Will Chopper from Mojo Lemon, all dappered-up in hat and suit coat owned the keyboards as Dr. John on “Such A Night.” Paired with Tom Carlson on Trombone, the song had a raucous, old-timey feel that got me bopping.

Next up was B Squat Woody as Neil Young singing “Helpless” with back-up vocals by Catya as Joni Mitchell. Catya fans know her primarily for her blues singing and might not realize she has a 3-octive-range that lets her voice soar into the hemisphere. The sound was a little spotty, but Catya nailed it, nonetheless. B Squat Woody is a member of The Riverbenders which hosts a local variety show in Alma, Wisconsin called The Big RiverRadio Wave. You can hear them on Wisconsin Public Radio or go to the Big River Theater in Alma and catch them live. Word is they have The Best Christmas Show Ever going on tonight and that it will be aired on WPR later. I think it's very, very cool that he agreed to take time from his Thanksgiving holiday to participate in our show.

Caleb Horne, mandolin-player-extrordinaire joined The Posse-Band and Harvest Horns on “Rag Mama Rag” and Megan Hashbarger, Kateri Farrell and Koryna Flores took the stage for vocals on “The Weight.” They looked nervous at first and seemed to have a hard time hearing themselves on the monitors, but quickly warmed up and did a great job.

Lucas Fischer took the vocals on one of my personal favorites, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Luke's voice is tremendous and he did an amazing job.

After the intermission Billy Krause mounted the stage as Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.” The casting for this song couldn't have been better. Billy is a singer-songwriter, well-known in the area for his poignant lyrics and gentle folk-style. “Dry Your Eyes” could have been one of Billy's and, in my humble opinion, he did it better than Neil Diamond ever did.

Catya took the stage as Joni Mitchell, singing “Coyote.” Again, fabulous casting. Catya's style is perfect for Joni's complex phrasing and chord changes. I got a kick out of watching her: at the beginning of the song she couldn't hear herself in the monitor and made a series of hand gestures to the sound-man, Ben White, asking for correction without missing a strum. A consummate professional.

Another favorite moment was when Gregg Wheeler played Paul Butterfield. Gregg Wheeler is an unassuming, laid back kind of musician whose tastes tend toward old country classics and lonely-sweet harmonica-playing. He was astounding Wednesday night, belting out “Mystery Train” and jamming out on the harmonica. He stayed on stage and accompanied Muddy Waters on “Mannish Boy.” Terry Demars of Mojo Lemon was a fabulous mannish boy and Terry sang his heart out. Mike Schlenker of Speed Of Sound rocked the house with his virtuoso guitar-playing as Eric Clapton on “Further On Up The Road.” Lizzy Diane was all long-hair, blue eye shadow and lusty-70s-style dress as Emmy Lou Harris. Caleb Horne leaped back up on stage with his mandolin and they sang “Evangeline.” Lizzie is a skilled songwriter in her own right with a unique style. Definitely check her out. Brian Bethke, another local singer-songwriter was an excellent Van Morrison and sounded more Van than Van when he sang “Caravan.” There were cool little touches, homages to the original, throughout the show and Brian's was when he reproduced Van Morrison's odd leg-kicks on stage. Fun and funny. One of the things that appealled to me most about this show is that—unlike the original—no one took themselves too seriously and everyone on stage was having fun.

The show signaled the wind-down when local thespian, Nic Sielaff, took the stage for the irreverent “Loud Prayer.” Then Wisconsin's very own Poet Laureate, Max Garland took the stage as the music-world's bard, Bob Dylan. Again, amazing casting. Max played an electric guitar and sang “Forever Young.” Time slowed down. Scanning the audience I saw people of a certain age, swaying and singing along to an anthem of days gone by:

“May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young.”

I found it profoundly moving.

Finally, the whole crew mounted the stage for the final song, Dylan's “I Shall Be Released.”

It was an incredible night. Yes, the sound was a little muddy. Yes it was a bit crowded. Yes, there were some blunders. Yes, there aren't enough women on stage (although Faith Ulwelling from Left Wing Bourbon was Muddy Waters last year and The Rhythm Posse seems more than willing to continue with gender-bending).

And yes, it was fabulous. Here's the thing; these musicians and this event increase our quality of life in the Chippewa Valley throughout the year. They're from all faucets of the musical-spectrum: classically-trained Jazz horns; folk singer-songwriters; blues; country; funk; bluegrass; a grammy nominated flautist. Young and old, seasoned and new, their talent is remarkable, as is their willingness to share that talent. I can't imagine living in a world without live music and I'm so very grateful to all the musicians in the Chippewa Valley for their gift of music.

It was such a pleasure to see Billy Angell behind his keyboard, grinning like a demon at the scene he'd created. He told me later that he's able to back out of a lot of planning in the past couple of years and that Lucas Fischer played a major role in putting 2013 together. And I gotta stress this: all the musicians did it for free. The $5.00 cover charge went to Feed My People and the unofficial word is that they (we!) raised over $900 for that charity. As Billy pointed out, there are a lot of Last Waltz's around the country, many of them demanding a ticket price of $20 or more. And those musicians are paid. I'll bet our musicians have the most fun.

As Eric Pierson said, “This is the single greatest musical cross-pollination of the year.”

Other mentions include:

Mike O'Brien, photographer. For pictures of Stage Fright 4, click >here<

DMI Sound: These guys work their asses off for music in the Chippewa Valley. You'll find them mixing sound for The State Theater, Volume One's Sounds Like Summer ConcertSeries, Blues On The Chippewa and Tuesday Night Blues. They rock.

Eight-Foot Squid has a full recording of Stage Fright 4 >here<

Finally, I'm going to include a link to another Chippewa Valley Music Blog, Freaks and Geeks.  I've used some of his musician bios as links in this blog. We're getting the word out!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Two Frets Up

(n) a woman who emphasizes a life of passion, expressed through personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm and cultivation of life's pleasures.

A friend posted this word and its definition on my Facebook page, saying it describes me. I'm not there yet, but I definitely want to be a quaintrelle when I grow up. Or maybe when I retire, 'cause it might take retirement to make me feel grown up.


My 9-year-old niece, Josie, is visiting from Iowa. She's learning to play the ukelele (just like her favorite aunt) and I'd planned to take her to the Uke Klub at Pizza Plus, but I totally screwed up the dates and planned for her arrival the week after the uke club meets. (See what I mean about not being a grown up?) So, I'm thinking, “What can I do with Josie that will be cool and interesting?” She's from Des Moines, which is a pretty cosmopolitan town. And with our typical 20-degree-late-fall-weather, sampling Wisconsin's outdoor wonders is limited. It didn't take me long to realize the question's a no-brainer. Live music. What else?

I met Josie and her mother at Albert Lea at noon today and snatched her up. We arrived at my little blond-brick, ranch-style home in Chippewa Falls just after 3:00. At 5:30 we picked up my aunt Jean and the Three Js—Jen, Jean, and Josie—headed to Fanny Hill for my two favorite things: Food and music.

Fanny Hill was dressed in its Christmas Finery. As we tooled up the driveway and into the parking lot I told Josie, “Now this is a Wisconsin restaurant.” It was all twinkly lights, apple-red Santas and glittery gold and silver. Perfect for a 9-year-old's sensibilities. Walking into the dining room we were greeted by the sweet sounds of a violin and mellow guitar-picking. We grabbed a table close to the music and moved the chairs around so Josie could see the musicians.

It was a duo, a guy and a gal. They were sitting on stools, he with a guitar, she a violin, just finishing up a Merle Haggard tune. They are an interesting pair: he in ball-cap, work boots and jeans; she in black slacks, white blouse, matching hair and low heels. He holds his guitar like it's a part of him—all casual comfort—she sits strait in her chair, violin tucked under her chin in a classic pose, feet barely touching the lower brace of her stool. His voice is rough and melodic, her voice is higher and sweet. He has a thumb-pick, she a bow. They're opposites and it works.

They call themselves Two Frets Up. His name is Larry Radle and hers is Andrea Christopherson.

As we settled in Larry turned to us and asked Josie if she knew “Wagon Wheel” and if she wanted to get up and sing with them. She did not know “Wagon Wheel” and did not want to get up and sing. But the interaction was interesting and turned out to be typical of his style. After “Wagon Wheel” Andrea sang an old Jim Reeves song, “Welcome To My World.” She told me later that her father was a self-taught fiddle player and her early influences were old country songs. She started playing violin when she was 10-years-old.

They also sang Zach Brown's “Highway 20 Ride,” Garth Brooks “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old,” Buffet's “Margaritaville,” Pure Prairie League's “Amie” (Josie knew that song, but didn't sing it), Merle Haggard's “Silver Wings,” Poco's “Honky Tonk Downstairs” Jerry Jeff Walker's “Mr Bojangles,” Eagles' “Lyin' Eyes,” Bellamy Brothers' “Redneck Girl,” Don Williams' “You're My Best Friend,” The Casinos' “Then You Can Tell Me Good Bye.”

For the most part Andrea harmonized with Larry. He's got interesting phrasing, pulling up lyrics from the next stanza into the current one (there's got to be a word for that, but I can't find it) giving familiar songs a nice, unexpected twist. Andrea did sing lead and did a beautiful job with Tom Paxton's “The Last Thing On My Mind.” And she played “Ashokan Farewell,” a contemporary instrumental tune modeled after a Scottish lament, with such a sense of loss and longing that an audience member asked that she play it again. She did. She also did a great job on Elizabeth Cotton's “Freight Train.”

They eventually took a break and I got a chance to chat with them. Andrea was born and raised in Eau Claire and has been playing in bands for decades. Currently she's in a bluegrass band called River City Ramblers and she used to play with Drywood Creek. She said that while it's better today, there still aren't enough female instrumentalists out there. It's still a guy's game (my words, not hers).

Larry is relatively new to the area. He and his wife of 44 years, Myra, moved here from Illinois when he retired 7 years ago. He has family here and today Myra and Larry have 4 horses, 30 sheep and 12 chickens. He mentioned this in one of his chats between songs. He was a professional musician and opened for the likes of Tommy James but in 1986 he laid his guitar down. He says he got burned out. His wife said the smoky bars and lifestyle was killing him. For over 20 years he played for his dogs (“They always think what you're playing is good”) and that was it. On New Year's Eve, 2011 he and Andrea met and she convinced him to pick up his guitar and venture out into the music world again. They've been playing together for 14 months.

Layne Yost was in the audience and while I chatted with Andrea, Myra and Larry, he agreed to keep the audience engaged and sing a couple of songs. Layne's got a John Denver voice, all sweet, pure and true. He's a delight to listen to.

Josie was tired and we didn't stay for the second set. Driving home I thought about the nature of quaintrelle-ism and I asked Josie if she'd ever seen live music before.

“Yeah, I went to a Justin Bieber concert once.”

I laughed. “Did you like it?”

“I guess so, except he was two hours late. We heard on the news later he was eating pizza and riding bumper cars.”

Jean and I groaned appropriately.

“So, which one did you like better? Justin Bieber? Or Two Frets Up?”

“I liked tonight better.”

“If Justin Beiber had been on time, do you think you would like him better?”

“No. Probably not. Except he flew.”

“He flew?”

“Yeah, he flew on stage when he was singing. That was pretty cool.”

The thing I like about live music is that when it's good it makes me fly. Larry and Andrea did not have wires attached and did not fly around Fanny Hill's dining room. But tonight I did, just a little, and I think Josie's quaintrelle-training is off to a resounding start.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lost Jim and Robbi


The promise of live blues again drew me to the Unitarian Universalist church. Last night Lost Jim Ohlschmidt and his wife Robbi played and it was good.

The couple is from Minnesota and traveled to Eau Claire on a cold Tuesday night at the request of our Blues Society. The stage setting was simple: two chairs; two guitars and four microphones—two for vocals and two for the instruments. Jim brought two guitars. One was a sleek, smooth, big bodied, burnished red affair with fancy sound holes. The other was smaller, with a filigree design, battered and well worn. The varnish and paint was worn away beneath the strings. Lost Jim's fingers must have brushed it thousands—tens of thousands—of times when using his thumb-pick.  It was a pure, acoustic, unplugged show.

Lost Jim came out alone and played two original instrumentals from his new CD, “Old Box New Tunes,” warming the audience up, empty chair beside him. A couple of things were immediately obvious: this was not going to be a stand-up-and-dance kind of night; and this guy was good. I prepared to sit back and let the music soothe me. The first tune was "Maggie And Trouble." The second song titled "Avalon Postcard." Then his wife came onto the stage carrying her violin.

These two are everyday people. You see them shopping at the local grocery store, walking in the park, in the middle row of pews at church, sitting on the bleachers at the little league game. They're quiet and pleasant and polite. Lost Jim struggles with a slight stutter and Robbi's smile is crooked. They got up on stage, picked up their instruments and played them in the same quiet, matter-of-fact way she might bake a pie for dinner or he might jump-start a car during a cold Minnesota winter (or perhaps he bakes and she's the mechanic, but you know what I mean). There is nothing about them that screams “special” or “talented,” nothing particularly extraordinary about the way they look or how they present themselves. But their music is extraordinary. Quiet and unpretentious, they warmed the cold Tuesday night.

Lost Jim likes old blues. Country blues. He likes Mississippi John Hurt. He likes Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. He sang "Payday," a “song older than dirt.” He sang "Salty Dog" a “cultural high-water mark” for the blues and admitted he still doesn't know what a salty dog is. He told a few jokes: What's the difference between a banjo player and a savings bond? The savings bond eventually matures and earns money. He gave us a bit of history explaining that Mississippi John was born in 1892 and his tune "Creole Belle" was adapted from a piano rag and talked about Casey Jones, the famous engineer before singing Hurt's "Casey Jones." He cracked dryly that Blind Lemon Jefferson “asks the question that every blues man wonders: "Will A Matchbox Hold My Clothes?” And that Poppa Charlie Jackson sings about “the essential, fundamental topic of country blues” before launching into "Shake That Thing."

During all this Robbi, his wife, sat on her chair, smiling slightly, tapping her bow against her fiddle, adding quiet percussion. She soloed on it too. She's got a madonna-like smile and pacific demeanor, but I suspect this woman knows how to let loose. This suspicion was partially confirmed when she sang her first song. It was a gorgeous rendition of Patsy Cline's "Never No More." Deep and rich, her voice rang out true and strong. In the second set she sang a Kitty Wells song, "Just One More Time" and again, nailed it. She also plays bluegrass in a Minnesota-based band called "Hey Lonesome," but tonight her violin melded beautifully with her husband's guitar giving these blues just the right feel. 

Lost Jim also sang some originals. "You're The One" is a beautiful love song: “Roll like the river/shine like the sun/go on tell everybody baby/you're the one...pretty as a daisy/wild as a dandelion/like flowers in the meadow baby/you're looking mighty fine.” My favorite original was titled  "Railroad Blues." He explained that he likes train songs, was thinking of how Mississippi John Hurt might sing one and had Bo Diddley's "Hand Jive" buzzing in his head for about a month.  Finally he picked up his guitar, slowed the tune down and wrote a song from the perspective of someone who got left behind at the train station: “Think about a month ago/your bags are packed your ready to go/leave me with a mule to ride/and an empty feeling down deep inside....I got no letter I got no news/all I got's these railroad blues.” And Robbi's violin made sad, quiet train sounds.

These two bring us back to a time when making music was a natural cultural extension of life, when family music-making was a way to communicate and bond and entertain. They bring us back to a time before the radio and TV dragged us from our front porch and into the living room. On Tuesday night, their music dragged me away from my computer and onto a church pew. And it was worth it.

You can buy some of Lost Jim Ohlschmidt's CDs on CDBaby. I've linked to his website and there's contact information there including his email address:

If you share Jim's passion for old-time blues, you'll want his CDs.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lucas Fischer

--> Last night was a busy music night and I didn't go out with thoughts of writing.

My bad.

I started with the Leader Telegram's Warm The Children benefit at Whiskey's, under the radio tower in Eau Claire. “Warm The Children, entering its 20th year...continues through Dec. 24. The newspaper accepts donations to buy warm clothing, then lines up volunteer shoppers to accompany disadvantagedfamilies to shop for children’s clothing. One-hundred percent of donations go for clothing, said Mike Carlson, director of circulation and marketing for the newspaper and Warm the Children coordinator.” The benefit was organized by Dave Shoenrock and Dave Showed-And-Rocked last night. I'm not going to write a lot about it—like I said, my intention was to just enjoy myself—but the cause is worth mentioning and the music was great. I left early but I did see the following bands:

I'll be writing about these bands, but not today. I missed The Big Deeks, FMDown and Phoenix. So much music, so little time. All the musicians donated their time to Warm The Children and a great time was had by all. (A note about Whiskey's:  It's one of the few area bar/restaurants set up to play live music.)

After leaving Warm The Children I headed to the Sheeley House to catch Lucas Fischer's solo act.

I first met Luke when he was teamed with Catya and I've watched him with interest. This guy keeps getting better. He works at Schmitt Music and plays in various bands including Code Blue with Catya, Eggplant Heroes, AcoustiHoo and Rhythm Posse. (Yep, Luke played at Warm The Children, then packed his guitars and zipped to Chippewa.) I'd seen Luke with these bands, but didn't catch him solo until last night. (Read more about Catya and Eggplant Heroes.)

Luke is a major talent. In his mid-20s, he's open and friendly and quick to smile. Luke's parents, Debbie and Mike, are both music enthusiasts and Mike is on the board of the Chippewa Valley Blues Society. I get the impression that Luke was weaned on music. Though he's one of the best guitar players in the area, he's humble and genuinely grateful when complimented. He has sleepy eyes that hint an old soul and his music heightens this notion. His voice is raspy-sophisticated and I disagree with the oft-heard Tom Waits comparison. I get why people say it, but I think it's more the juxtaposition of an old voice coming out of young man than of Luke sounding like Mr Waits. And while I know Luke will wince when he reads this, I love the way his eyes roll-up, almost orgasmic-like, when he sings. He was born for music; it is an essential part of him and I love seeing that displayed on stage.

I came in a little late and was, quite frankly, tired. My plan was to stay for a couple of songs and head for bed. But Luke's music kept me longer than intended. I didn't plan to write him, but I found myself pulling out my little notebook and jotting notes. I love it when someone takes an old song and makes it new, puts their own spin on it--their own interpretation--and Luke is a master. He does a great version of the blues standard, Kansas City, as well as Tom Waits' Make It Rain and Johnny Cash's Folsom Blues.

I'd heard him cover those songs before and I was delighted to hear more of his repertoire. Talk about original. He played an acoustic-percussion version of All Along The Watchtower that—mysteriously and seamlessly—melded into No Woman No Cry. I'm not sure why it worked. The only thing I can figure is that he reggaed-down Watchtower and rocked-up No Woman. And it really did work.

Other songs played last night were Jane Says by Jane's Addiction, Van Morrison's Crazy Love, Tool's Pushit, Marshal Tucker's Can't You See, Hank Williams' Jambalaya, Elvis' Blue Suede Shoes, Dylan's Tangled Up In Blue and finally The Grateful Dead's Jack Straw. I'm an old Deadhead and always perk up when I hear them covered. Mostly I hear Friend Of The Devil and had never heard anyone do Jack Straw. Last night Luke nailed it, putting his unique edge to it. He also did two originals.

Poor Man's Ridge is a fast-paced bluesy song about revisiting a childhood spot and partying like a teenager. 5AM is a slow, floaty—almost jazzy—song about how quickly time flies in new love. (Click the links to hear Luke and his originals in Catya's band, Code Blue.)

When I said Lucas Fischer is a major talent I meant it. I've been watching him now for about four years and each time I see him he gets better. And he's only in his 20s. I can only imagine the music he'll be playing in another 10 years.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Two Rivers

The VFW might seem like an unlikely place to catch live music, but that's where I was yesterday for most of the afternoon. I went because Sue Orfield and Randy Sinz were playing and ended up enjoying myself so much I stayed after the music ended.

Sue and Randy play together with various different bands: AcoustiHoo; Catya's Trio; Code Blue; The Sue Orfield Band; and Rada Dada but when it's the only the two of them booked, they call themselves Two Rivers. To make things just a little more confusing, they rarely play alone as Two Rivers because they frequently have friends sitting in with them. And this was so last night when Gregg Wheeler joined them. Gregg is a tall, slim, cowboy-booted harmonica player. He also plays guitar and sings. But before I get into the music, let me fill you in on the venue and the reason these three were playing.

There was a benefit yesterday for a person with cancer. I'm not personally acquainted with the person and won't put the name in this blog—it's not my place. It's my impression that while there were many family and friends at the benefit, there were also a lot of people like me there, people who like music and were more than happy to donate for a noble cause. I can only imagine how strange it must have been and I know I would have been both overwhelmingly grateful and really uncomfortable had it been me. Enough said.

I will say that it was the most well-organized benefit I've ever been to. There was a huge amount of donated items: a long table-full of baked goods; original art; baskets from a ton of local and East Coast businesses; official Packers memorabilia; handmade jewelry; a handsome cookie jar from Caradori Pottery...there were $2 raffles, $3 raffles and $5 raffles. There were paint stick-raffles and 50/50 raffles. There were chair massages and live music. Ahhh, the music.

Sue, Randy and Gregg volunteered their time for this event and it was oh-so pleasant. Sue's sax playing is diverse and when she's in Two Rivers she also plays the keyboard and even sings an occasional harmony. Randy, for the most part, puts down his bass in favor of the guitar and yesterday he and Gregg took turns singing.

I've already revealed my bias for Sue and Randy in this blog. I love their talent. I love their music. I love Sue's passion and generosity of spirit and Randy's voice and professionalism. I love Sue's originals and Randy's choice of covers. I love Sue's versatility and Randy's stature on stage. And I love the people they share their stage with, like Gregg Wheeler.

Gregg's an unassuming man. I get the impression that he's a kind, hardworking man who loves to play music. The way he plays the harmonica is somehow closer to art than music. I know, I know, music is art, but there's a difference between a really good musician and a musical artist and—in my very subjective opinion—Gregg's playing is artistic. He pulls notes out of the harmonica in a way I've never heard. His tastes tend toward old-style country songs—probably the songs he heard around the house growing up—and he's well-suited for them.

Together they played a variety of songs, opening with an instrumental version of Cupid, followed by Buck Owen's Think of Me When You're Lonely, Allison Kraus's Outside Looking In, Sue's original Atomic A-Go-Go—a lively instrumental and one of my very favorites because I know every note and can clap along—On Broadway, James Taylor's Steamroller, Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, and Gershwin's Summertime, to name a few. Gregg played my favorite of his songs, Marty Robbin's Devil Woman. He presents it with a thin veneer of irony, covering some real emotion. When he sings, “Devil Woman/let go of my arms” I get the impression he's had his own Devil Woman hanging on, refusing to let go somewhere in his past.

And then there's the song The Gold, written by Chippewa Falls native, Greg Gilbertson. This is a beautiful-sad love song: “I am a drunk old man hung over in a midnight bar/ I talk too much about how things were back before the war/ Now I only drink the strongest stuff I find/ Honey, I’m the whisky, You’re the wine.” There's a yearning in this song that touches the heart.  And Randy's voice is perfect for it.  I hope to hear more of Mr. Gilbertson's work in the future.

I'll be writing more about Sue, Randy and the musicians they play with in the future. This Wednesday (11/6/13) they'll be at Fanny Hill as Two Rivers. Their other gigs are listed below.

As you can see, there's plenty of opportunity to catch them, and no excuse not to:

Nov. 6, Two Rivers at Fanny Hill in Eau Claire, WI. 5:30-8:30pm.
Nov. 15, Rada Dada at Sammy's Pub in Eau Claire, WI. 8:30pm-midnight.
Nov. 21, Two Rivers at Foster Cheese Haus in Foster, WI.5:30-8:30pm.
Nov. 27, Stage Fright IV at Pizza Plus in Eau Claire, WI. 8pm.
Nov. 30, Left Wing Bourbon at The Thirsty Catfish (Benefit for The Humane Society) in Durand, WI. 8pm - midnight.

Dec. 4, Two Rivers at Fanny Hill in Eau Claire, WI. 5:30-8:30pm.
Dec. 6, Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra at the State Theater in Eau Claire, WI. 7:30pm.
Dec. 7, The Sue Orfield Band at Gelly's in Stockholm, WI. 8-11pm.
Dec. 14, Soul Tribute at The Heyde Center For The Arts in Chippewa Falls, WI. 7:30pm.
Dec. 19,Two Rivers at Foster Cheese Haus in Foster, WI. 5:30-8:30pm.
Dec. 27, The Butanes at The Minnesota Music Cafe in St. Paul, MN. 9pm.
Dec. 31, Rada Dada at The Masonic Temple in Eau Claire, WI. 8pm.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Eggplant Heroes

--> Last night I ambled over to TheAcoustic Cafe in downtown Eau Claire to get me an Eggplant Heroes fix. If you're into acoustic music with a strong folk influence and are—like me—lyrics-driven, Eggplant Heroes is the band for you. The band was launched by Max Garland, Duffy Duyfhuizen, Joel Pace (pronounced: Patch-A) and Olaf Lind, but has since added other musicians including Dan Zerr on bass, Lucas Fisher on electric guitar and, less frequently of late, Caleb Horne on mandolin.

I'm as much about the personality of the band as the music. It doesn't matter how accomplished the musician, if I'm not able to catch a glimpse of the person behind the instrument I'm not interested. I'm sure music-purists would call me a philistine, but if I'm going out to see live music, it's as much about the musicians as the music. If I want music for music's sake, I'll plug into my iPod. So let me tell you a little about these men.

Duffy Duyfhuizen is the Associate Dean in UW-Eau Claire's College of Arts and Sciences. If you've been reading this blog, you'll also recognize him as the rhythm guitar player for David Jones and The Jones Tones. He sings more with Eggplant, occasionally plays his harmonica and has a seemingly unending repertoire of amazing songs.

Joel Pace was playing a gig with his alternate band, Irie Sol, and so was not present last night, but his voice-as-instrument is breathtaking and he also plays the trumpet and various percussives. Joel is a professor in the literature department at UW-Eau Claire and, I've heard tell, has a Piped Piper-like effect on his students. If you view this brief Youtube clip of him describing one of his classes I think you'll understand why.

Max Garland is, again, a professor at UWEC. And he's Wisconsin's Poet Laureate. No kidding. Max plays lead guitar, writes songs and sings. Max will also, appropriately, play Bob Dylan in this year's Fright Night (I'll be writing about this event).

Olaf Lind is a classically trained Violin player, lived in London as a child and studied at Michigan's prestigious Interlochen Center For The Arts. He's the quiet one, unassuming with eyes downcast, standing in the corner, but when he solos it's easy to picture him as that quintessential orchestral violinist in a black tuxedo letting loose on Mozart, hair flying, bow dancing over the strings, unerringly finding the right note. Sometimes I'm surprised by tears by the sweetness of the notes coaxed out of his instrument. He also plays the electric mandolin.

It's important to know about these men, because it is obvious that their passions influenced both their their music and their careers as illustrated in the songs on their CD titled, After This Time. The fourth track on the CD is Orphan Child and Duffy sings a passage from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, seamlessly transforming Bronte's words into a traditional folk song, all atmospheric and melancholic. In Nick's Postscript, the sixth track, Joel sings from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, full of hope and energy.

While Duffy and Joel's focus in these two songs is to celebrate the work of other great writers, Max uses his word-talent to paint emotion-pictures: “Snow on the rooftop/snow in my soul/snow in my heart about an inch or so/ can't build much of a man out of snow/can't stop a woman/when she's ready to go.”

Other songs on the CD include, Duffy's Sometimes, a sweet love song: “But I know in the morning/ the sun is going to rise/and this old world keeps right on turning/every time I look into your eyes.” And Joel's Via Canzone about his father's homeland, “14 hours a day mending shoes/all across the salty seas/not a life we choose/sewing and polishing memories.”

This CD is packed with beautiful, haunting and sometimes funny music. You can hear After This Time in its entirety on the Eggplant Heroes' website.

Last night The Eggplant Heroes played a mix of originals, standards and covers. Max likes songs gently reminiscent of his childhood faith and The Heroes graced us with I Saw The Light, This Little Light of Mine, Jesus On The Mainline, and I'll Fly Away. Max also recited one of his poems, Memories of Pentecost, about his Uncle John an old time Southern Preacher and followed up with Walking in Jerusalem, (Just Like John).

Dan Zerr plays bass and sang Tom Waits' Jersey Girl, Lyle Lovett's Flyswatter Blues, and Natalie Merchant's Homeland. Dan has a great voice and can sing both a deep bass and a high falsetto (though not at the same time). He's also a songwriter and I was a bit disappointed that I didn't hear his Disappearing Middle-Class Blues.

Halfway through the gig, Luke Fischer showed up with his electric guitar. This is one of the cool things about the band: the make-up of the band changes from gig to gig, depending on the members' availability. Each member adds their own brand of texture and depth, so when a member or two isn't there, the band isn't incomplete, just different.

Luke Fischer is a heck of a guitar player and I once heard Max say he's still looking for a song Luke can't play. Luke and Olaf jammed on Hendrix's Little Wing, all lonely and whimsical and Olaf's mandolin was wonderfully Hendrix-like. When Dan traded his bass for a guitar to play Orlean's Reach A Little Bit Higher Luke played the bass-line on his electric guitar. Duffy sang Pat Donahue's Drowning In You and their music was so full, so soulful that I felt like I was drowning in it. They also played Dylan, The Band, John Prine, Hal David, Old Crow Medicine Show, John Hiatt and, of course, some of their originals.

As they played I looked around the room. I saw college students, retirees and families—some with teens and some with tots—and I was struck by the inclusiveness of this venue and of this band. Like I said, I like bands with personality, bands whose musicians allow us a glimpse of who they are. Bands are like living organisms and each member adds to the dynamic of the whole. It shows not just in the music, but how they interact with each other. The words that best describe this band, this organism are: Talent; Respect; Communication; Relationship.

They play at the Acoustic on the last Saturday of each month. While you never know who will show up, you can be sure the music will be wonderful.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Irie Sol

I first saw this band about seven years ago. I was on a date and the two of us stumbled into The Mousetrap just to see what was up. Man, were we surprised. Tucked behind a long wall opposite the bar were 13 musicians, all singing, jamming and bopping around—mostly vertically—on a handkerchief-sized stage. Four wind instruments (including a tuba!), bass, two guitars, a keyboard, drums, various percussives. 

A veritable smorgasbord of instruments.

And a smorgasbord of men of all shapes, sizes, styles and colors.

And, damn, were they good! Their music is a fusion of reggae, hip-hop, rock, ska, and jazz with sizzling originals and original covers. Believe me when I tell you they blow the roof off the joint. Really.

I gotta admit, I was startled. Totally bemused. I mean, I'd just gotten used to Eau Claire's whitebread, pick-up truck, gun-toting, camouflage-blaze-orange-and-baseball cap-wearing culture. Add to this that downtown Eau Claire was still in its empty, 'Salem's Lot phase, complete with Karen Carpenter muzak blaring onto barren streets from hidden speakers and perhaps you can imagine my befuddlement. And I was still new to the Chippewa Valley's music scene. I didn't comprehend the talent we have here.

Irie Sol is the realization of Chris “Junior” William's dream and, as their website says:

“...out of the Twin Cities with a musical blend that reflects diverse band members–who hail from Kingston, Jamaica; Nova Scotia, Canada; Providence, RI; Detroit, MI; Minneapolis, MN; and the Chippewa Valley of Wisconsin–Irie Sol delivers authentic Jamaican chat/DJing and soaring, soulful melodies backed by blazing bebop horns, wailing guitar, and tight drum and bass.”

Their self-description is accurate, but just doesn't do them justice.

Last Friday I revisited The Mousetrap to catch Irie Sol. The band wasn't as full as in other shows—only 9 musicians onstage—but they did not disappoint. I try to go to all their local gigs and this is how much I like them: I was supposed to head to Iowa Friday night, but decided to leave early Saturday morning instead. Just so I could catch them. I wasn't able to stay for both sets, but I did hear some of my favorites including one of their originals, “Lies.” Their covers are as diverse as their band and include songs from The Stray Cats, Michael Jackson, Lynyrd Skynard (with their own Jamaican flare), and Bill Withers.

The whole band is interesting.  Chris is tall, brown and beautiful with long, waist-length dreads and lilting Jamaican accent. He sings and mostly plays percussion, but I've seen him pick up other instruments as need or whim dictates. And he makes a point of personally touching bases with the audience. A really good guy.

They appear to have a special super-drummers store, because the faces hidden back behind all those other bodies change frequently, but the quality of the drumming is always superb. My favorite Irie Sol drummer story goes like this:

I'd heard word that Mario Dawson—one of their drummers—played in the Obama Whitehouse. About a year later he joined them at what is now EveryBuddy's Bar in downtown Chippewa (I kid you not, they also play at The Snout) and over the break I approached Mario and asked him about the rumor. It was not a rumor. Mario explained that he knows Kanye West (I believe he said he was raised with Kanye in Chicago) and played behind him at the Whitehouse. I was blown away. Here was a guy who'd played for our President now playing for us in downtown Chippewa Falls, population 16-thousand-and-something.

Joel Pace is one of the frontmen. He's stylish, typically in black and red, sporting a fedora and cool retro sideburns. He's a show in himself as he croons so pretty into the microphone, break-dances with the audience,  matches the drummer with his own brand of mouth-percussion (I can't really explain, you just have to see it) plays his trumpet on the bar, always smiling and never still. One of my favorite songs is their original, “Senorita Linda,” sung by Joel in what appears to be flawless Spanish (he also does an astonishing Spanish version of Hendrix's “Little Wing” with another band, but I'll save my praises for another blog). He loves performing and his joy is obvious.

Lars Nelson is a Seattle-grunge-Cobain throwback. Cool, aloof and sexy in flannel with long-ish hair and a powerful voice, he'll leave the stage as he sings to dance with his fans. He's also an awesome songwriter.

These men are Irie Sol's core. Their heart. The keyboard player, Kurt, and guitar player, Gregory, have both been with the group for a while, but part of the band's charm is that you never know who will be on stage, but you always know the show will be good.

I do feel obliged to offer a warning: Because the musicians come from all over, the band usually starts later than advertised, and—unless they're playing at Phoenix Park--they rarely play during “grown-up” hours. And their last set is usually the best. But don't let this stop you. Check out their website, join their fanpage on Facebook and mark your calendar when they announce their next gig. The guy I was dating when I first discovered this band didn't last, but I've become a full-fledged Irie Sol fan and I bet you will too. Just make sure you take a nap before you go so you can stay for the whole show.

You can also take a little bit of Irie home with you.  Here's a link to their CD titled "Solstice." 

They've also just released an album (yes, you read right: an ALBUM) titled "Irie Sol: Live In Nashville". Clicking the link will take you right to their website.  If you're not old-school enough to have a turntable the album comes with a digital download card.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

David Jones and the Jones Tones

Tuesday night found me sitting in a church pew, bopping like crazy and jamming out to the blues. I was, of all places, at the Unitarian Universalist Church to catch David Jones and the Jones Tones play a gig. Here's some background.

The Chippewa Valley is fortunate to have The Chippewa Valley Blues Society (CVBS), a group of volunteers who are dedicated to bringing the blues to our area. They organize the Tuesday Night Blues, a free summer concert series held in Owen Park in Eau Claire from May to August. The music is funded by annual membership dues ($10 for an individual membership, $15 for a family membership), underwriting by local businesses and donations from the audience. Because of their hard work local musicians are paid a fair price for their music, the Chippewa Valley gets excellent music, enhancing the intrinsic value of the Chippewa Valley and our quality of life. For many the beginning of summer is marked by the Tuesday Night Blues concert series. And, because I have a day job, I'm delighted by the grown up hours: 6:30-8:30. But as nice as it is to start the summer with the blues, I sang the blues—for real—during the winter months. Wisconsin winters are hard on me: cold; dark; isolating. And though I lever myself off my red couch on the weekends to get my music fix, the winter weeknights drag on and on and on.

It seems that the board of directors at the CVBS felt the same way, because—for the second year-- they've extended the Tuesday Night Blues into the winter months. And the Unitarian Universalist Society on Farwell Street in downtown Eau Claire have donated their space. It's only once a month but, for me, the second Tuesday of the month is a beacon of light in a cold Wisconsin landscape and I look forward to The Tuesday Night Blues, Unplugged. Last night was the first concert of the winter series and that's why I was bopping in a pew, listening to the blues.

David Jones has been playing the Chippewa Valley since the 1990s and has been playing music, period, for most his life. His band, David Jones and the Jonestones consist of David Jones on lead guitar, Duffy Duffenhausen on rhythm guitar and harmonica, John LeBrun on drums and Cayta on bass. Yes, I know I wrote about Catya last week, but this band is how I met her and was my introduction to the local music scene.

It was sometime in the early 2000's. I was new to Myspace--which should help date things—and I got a friend's request from a guy I didn't know. I was new to the internet and still suspicious of social networking sites. I didn't want to accept but he was local and I didn't want him to see me on the streets and think, “Hey, there's the bitch who rejected my friend's request!” So I clicked the “accept” button and promptly forgot about it. About a week later I got an email from a friend in Louisiana asking who my new Myspace friend was and if I'd read his blog. I hadn't. First thing I discovered was that he was a musician, which explained his friend's request. The second thing I discovered was that he's a great writer. I hadn't seen live music since my last Dead Concert in 1991. I didn't have friends interested in live music and I hadn't been in a bar since 1994. But my curiosity was piqued, so I checked his gig schedule and hauled myself out that very weekend to see David Jones and the Jonestones at the Sheeley House. Over the break I introduced myself to David as his new Myspace friend. He and the band were friendly and welcoming, which helped allay my discomfort about being a sober woman, alone in a bar. And I was hooked. I started hitting their gigs regularly.

Because of the economy, bars aren't as willing to shell-out for a full band. But the Chippewa Valley is now used to live music. The bars now rely on open mics and two-person acts, so the Jonestones aren't playing as a full band as much as they used to but their hiatus did not affect their performance. David plays a mix of genres, from country to reggae to folk. In honor of the first Tuesday Night Unplugged he mostly played the blues, and those songs that weren't strict blues were presented as such, which was A-OK with me—I love genre-switching. And I'd missed The Jones Tones.

A couple of genre-switching examples happened in the first set with Big River (written by Johnny Cash, but as blues as blues can be) and Shame, Shame, Shame by Jimmy Reed. In the middle of the first set David invited Tom Carlson and his trombone up to the stage. Tom was recently spotted playing behind SueOrfield and Ellen Whyte and is a member of the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra. You'll be able to catch him with CVJO Friday night and if I didn't already have plans I'd certainly go because on Tuesday Tom rocked the house. His horn added a raucous, old-timey feel reminiscent to New Orleans-style blues and he came equipped with his Wa-wa plunger. Near the end of the first set he and Catya blew the house away with Bobby Blue Bland's “Trouble” and David closed with one of his originals, “AM Blues,” a song that always gets me moving.

David got serious in the second set, offering up “Easy Wind” by the Dead, “Sitting On Top Of The World” by Doc Watson, “Left Me With A Broken Heart” by Rodney Earl and the Broadcasters and two Howling Wolf songs. My absolute favorite was when Duffy pulled out his harmonica during Hendrix's “Redhouse,” and blew an amazing, goosebumpy solo. It's fun to watch this band, their enjoyment is obvious and seeing John LeBrun on drums just makes me happy (even when he's drumming the blues) because of his joy. And though the bass is not Catya's first instrument of choice, she's really, really good. Tom Carlson was again invited up to the stage in the second set and a great time was had by all.

David sings with a clear, sweet, baritone and John LeBrun said afterwards that David has a knack of pulling the best out of other musicians. He also has a knack of pulling out the best in his audience. I look forward to seeing more of David Jones and the Jones Tones.