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. 

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