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.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Catya's Trio

It's been years since I've visited this blog.
It's not that I haven't been supporting local live music.
It's not that I haven't felt the urge to write these past 4 years.
And it's not that I haven't seen musicians worthy of writing.
I stopped because I wanted only to write about music that inspires me. And this became difficult because I've become friendly with some of those musicians and was afraid that, somehow, writing a blog-review would muddy the friendship-waters. And I was worried that my personal relationship would color my objectivity. Years have gone by, friendships have solidified and, with time and perspective, I now feel that I can honestly and without prejudice write about friends. Today I cruised to Foster's Cheese Haus in Foster, Wisconsin to listen to Catya's Trio play an increasingly rare gig. I was as captivated today as I was when I first saw them 5 years ago.

I met Catya as The Jones Tones' bass player. We were at the Sheeley House in Chippewa Falls when David Jones and his band played that venue regularly. David gave Catya the stage at the end of the second set and she blew the house away with her song of forbidden love, “Kiss Me Like You Mean It.” Her voice soared over the crowd and stilled beer-loosened tongues: she had a story to tell and we listened. I found myself holding my breath as her voice sailed up and up and exhaling as it plummeted, all low and sultry. I was electrified. She sang my lonely heart. She sang secret love-dreams that I—a stable, middle-aged woman—was loath to acknowledge. Though I'd never heard the song before, I knew it. And it ended with a wonderful little twist, like some of my favorite novels. This is one of Catya's talents: her original songs are emotionally familiar. They are complex and accessible, smart and simple. They echo unspoken desires and feelings. They are courageous in their honesty and—again like a great novel—they let the listener fill in the spaces: “...Kiss me like you mean it/show me the hunger in your eyes/and when it's late/late at night/won't you think of me sometimes.”

“Kiss Me Like You Mean It” is the title track of Catya's new CD and while it's a great song, it's not the only great song on the disc. All the tracks are gripping; Catya tips her hat to the classic blues form but brings her own brand of originality with intricate lyrics and unexpected musical turns. Her music stands alone. It needs no decoration to prop it up, nothing else to reinforce it. And so it is the richest icing on an incredible cake when she is joined—both live and on some of the tracks on the CD—by Sue Orfield and Randy Sinz.

Anyone familiar with our local music scene knows Sue Orfield and her partner Randy Sinz. These two musicians are prolific and Sue's original music is awesome. One of my dirty little secrets is that I'm a lyrics gal; I just didn't “get” purely instrumental music. Sue changed that. She first captured me with her generosity of spirit--clearly displayed on stage, then her energy and obvious joy, then her skill and talent on the saxophone and finally for her songwriting. I know, I know, I got it backwards, but we all learn in our own ways. She has three original CDs: “Boink,” “Nobody's Looking” and her newest CD's title track “Fight The Good Fight” written in honor of a friend who died of cancer. I recommend all of them. My favorite songs are “Sway,” “After The Fall” “Two Cats Named Bob” “Brass Monkey” “Slide Over Baby” and “Deja Blue.”

Randy is a music veteran and has been playing locally for more years than I've been in the Midwest. He's in a bunch of bands, including Rada-Dada (accompanied by Sue), Ranger Rudy and Swinging Wingtips, and most recently (though they've been playing together for decades) with Gregg Wheeler and John Lynch as a yet-unnamed trio. Randy's voice is pure, strong and true, and he is skilled on both the upright and electric bass. Both Sue and Randy host a monthly, unofficial open mic for local musicians at Foster's Cheese Haus as Two Rivers.

This afternoon I waltzed into Foster's Cheese Haus, a venue that might seat 60 people, and settled into a chair not 10 feet from where these three musicians, Catya, Sue and Randy, worked their spell.

I gratefully succumbed to their magic as Catya sang two originals: “Good Coffee Or Good Beer” a generous and bittersweet ode to her past marriage (“You left me a fool/but that don't change my mind/that time I spent with you/was something so fine”) and “Just Can't Stop,” a song of unrequited love (“Ain't it a wonder/isn't it strange/lightening and thunder/it never rains”) as well as various covers by the likes of Theresa James and Billie Holliday.

I wasn't raised in the Midwest. I'm not really from anywhere. But I came to the heartland from the East Coast which is where I caught my live-music jones. And I know that if this trio were based in New York or Washington DC or Maryland they'd be demanding $50 a ticket. And they'd pack the house. It is my observation that we in the Chippewa Valley take good live music for granted. We don't know—really know—the talent we have here. My only regret for this afternoon is that I didn't get there in time to catch the first set. Go see Catya's Trio. And don't make the same mistake I did: see the whole show.
You can buy Catya's CD at