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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Jennifer. I've never been tempted to drink at My Place, but it sounds like an experience not to be missed.