Gratitude, Garage Bands and Grandpa

This past Friday night I did something I haven’t done in a long while, and at the same time it was something I thought I’d never do. I went to one of those small bars that focus on having some some live local band playing. It’s the kind of place that serves strong drinks, has a wide selection of tap beers, no waitresses, a $5 cover and a tiny, cramped and loud garage-band kind of performance happening in the side room.

I love seeing live music, it’s just that it’s not something I do very often – and generally only do when the occasion arises, such as when I’m on vacation or it’s a special situation such as this was. It’s not something I typically seek out to assuage my entertainment needs on a Friday night.

This was unique because I was there with my entire in-law family, all of us gathered to hear our nephew’s band. And when say “entire” I mean this includes my septuagenarian mother- and father-in-law. Some folks went early to nab a few seats to make sure they would have a place to sit, while we chauffeured them door-to-door, taking advantage of their handicap parking permit. Outside on the cramped sidewalk was a small sandwich board, advertising the evening’s entertainment, while a couple of long-haired-youngsters stood around smoking. I helped my father in-law out of the back seat and up the curb, and we headed in to the club. The guy checking IDs and taking the cover money at the door didn’t bat an eye as we escorted them in, (but the m-i-l was disappointed that she didn’t get carded.)

As expected the show was starting late, waiting for the crowd to grow, I’m sure. Drinks were ordered, seating was acquired, and we all snuggled in to the dimly lit  and tightly furnished room. The enormous speakers hung a mere 15 feet from us, up on the ceiling, surrounded by what turned out to be two- or three- channel lighting system with about a dozen units, hanging over the small stage.

10423769_10205099305499898_2774630316855563520_nRobo Dojo was performing second, so we had a nice little warm-up to the evening with the first group—a pair of rocker brothers, screaming in to microphones with their electric guitar and drum set, while cracking remarks in between.The crowd was friendly and receptive. I was seated across from my m-i-l, and next to my f-i-l although technically behind him as the stage was beyond. This turned out to be ideal for me: I got to watch the entire evening’s activity while watching them. While the lyrics were sometimes hard to truly catch, words like “fucker” stood out, and I cringed each time as my discomfort spiked due to the presence of the parental figures. (The teenagers we were able to get in to the bar with us were of no concern over such language. They, however, looked bored.)

Robo Dojo’s music was a blast! I understood that there were some band member changes lately, and they’d reworked a number of their songs. I expected a work-in-progress, to some extent, but otherwise I’m not sure exactly what it was I expected. It was by far not a work-in-progress, but the fun remnants of the night included the first unique thing – an electric mandolin. As they were setting up I noticed the nephew pull out a small….guitar? No. Ukulele? (I’ve known him to play one.) No. I turned and asked, “Is that a mandolin??”) Yes. The high pitched, plucky sound, amplified and mixed with a lead- and bass-guitar gave the band a unique, folk sound I hadn’t heard before. The mandolin solo….was a highlight. Of course, I was proud and happy to watch him play it.

Which is really the essence of the other unique experience: Grandpa.

Because I was sitting next to my f-i-l, I could watch him watching the band, and I could watch my m-i-l watch her husband, too. There’s a special bond between this man and his second oldest grandson up there playing music. There always has been. I’m not sure why or how, although I’m certain it’s due in part to the kid’s nature, his easy going attitude, great sense of humor, big heart and respectful ways. They have a beautiful relationship that I’ve enjoyed witnessing. This night was no exception.

My f-i-l is in some respects a bit of an ex-hippy, although I don’t think he really ever was one. He’s open minded, supportive and loving of all his kids, grandkids and anyone else who befriends any of them. A friend of a friend is a friend to this man. I watched him throughout the evening….tapping his toes….bobbing his head to the rhythm….cheering…..shouting…..clapping…..wiping away tears when his pride runneth over.

What came to my mind was the beauty and simplicity of it all.

This was a dive (or perhaps, wanna-be-dive, because it was rather clean even though cheap) and this band is not making a living doing these kinds of gigs a few weekends a month. Do they have big ambitions? I don’t know. I suspect they have realistic ambitions. While the Omaha music scene might be big and busy, it’s not the place the to get famous or rich. They enjoy making music, experimenting with style and combination – seeing what works.

As the nephew explained taking risks the next day, “We even tried to write a rap song. It didn’t work. We can’t rap. But you never know until you try.”

Taking risks….being unafraid to fail. A sign of a true artist.

I love watching people having an experience: watching an audience watch a play, observing a stranger looking at art in a gallery. Seeing my nephew up on stage, doing some thing he enjoys, and watching my f-i-l raising his arms in a cheer at this indiie-garage-band playing in a crowded little bar…..well, it’s a moment that will stay with me for a long time, reminding me of a Thanksgiving weekend gathering that makes me thankful of such beautiful opportunities.


The Mystery of the Fiddle

My great-grandfather was a musician. Not as a professional trade but by practice and reputation. He was an Irish immigrant back around the turn-of-the-century, moving here to escape the ongoing Irish civil war fighting, deciding instead to start anew in America. He settled in Chicago and by day took on the blue collar life of a streetcar conductor, and at night, the amateur fiddler. Family lore includes tales of winning talent shows, both in local entertainment venues and on the big-time radio shows of Chicago in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

My mother still has his violin, still in its delicate case. My Great-Grandfather's FiddleIt sits in a small, cramped closet, in a tiny home in the suburbs. Once every five or ten years someone pulls it out to take a look at it, and talk about how we don’t know anything about it, and how so many of us know little about the man who owned and played it.

Over Thanksgiving my great-grandfather came up in conversation, and thus “the fiddle” and the question of  who should inherit this….some day. (As the only family member working in the arts, I claimed dibs years ago.) I needed to see it again and wanted to show my husband this family heirloom, so I headed to the closet and gently pulled it out.

The instrument itself seems as if someone tried at some point to restore it to its glory. In fact his son did just that, trying to “clean” the exterior of the wood and sadly discolored the face. The bridge and tailpiece are off, the strings are gone, and the bow’s horse hair is frayed and fragile.

But one of the more striking details was how the back of the neck had a patch of the finish being completely worn off from use. Running my hand over that stretch made me wonder how often, how many times, for how long had his hand gripped it.

I’ve an interest in history and genealogy and now I’m on a mission to learn more of the provenance of the instrument itself, Old_Violin_labelwhich gives us few clues. We always wondered if he’d brought it with him from Ireland. That, however, seems unlikely because peering inside the F Holes we can see a label, handwritten with my great-grandfather’s name and Chicago address— an address none of us recognize. Yet. It could be an early address, but it seems to point to being purchased or made in Chicago. The note itself looks almost like a yellow post-it note, and I wonder about how common it was to put such a label inside. And how did they do that?

The only other clue comes from a stamp on the metal base of the chin rest: a large B, surrounded by “Becker Patent Trade Mark” which at first seemed really promising. Becker StampI did a few  searches online and wrote an email or two back and forth with the Carl Becker violin company of Chicago, which has been around since the turn of the century. They told me they’d have to see the violin in person to make any kind of assessment (which makes complete sense) but that from the picture of the stamp they could say that the insignia was absolutely not affiliated with them.

So where does this leave me? Still in the dark but even hungrier to learn about this fragile piece of wood. I want to talk to violin makers, musicians and historians. I want to know more about where and when it was played. I want look more closely, again, at this delicate and amazingly light violin and discover the tales it might be able to tell.

This past summer I took a fabulous trip to Ireland where I visited the old stomping grounds of my great-grandfather. We heard music in many places and fiddle music in a few. At one point I heard a violin playing traditional Irish music and we followed its sound. We discovered this young busker on the main pedestrian street in Galway, who made me wonder about my great-grandfather Felix. And I imagined that had he been born one hundred years later, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to America. Perhaps this is what that streetcar conductor would’ve been doing.

Galway Fiddler

Blues, Jazz and Hurricanes: My Long Weekend in New Orleans

Last weekend I visited the amazing, vibrant and historic city of New Orleans for the first time. It will definitely not be the last . That place is like no other and known for so many things: food, music, history….humidity. Woof! Walking out of the airport the thickness of the air wrapped around me and wasn’t going to let go.

That sort of describes the whole experience.

It was only a few nights, and tropical storm Karen was threatening to ruin it, so we jumped right in right after the slow cab ride through rush hour. We headed out to Frenchman St. (just outside the French Quarter,) had some tasty food (red beans, rice, andouille) and then hit the music club across the street, called the The Spotted Cat. spottedcatIt’s pretty much a storefront bar—a small space with windows in the front and the door inset. The stage sits in one of the windows, so the people on the street can hear easily. The doors are open, the cool(ish) breeze blows through the filled (but not crammed) bar. There’s no cover charge—the only rule, hardly enforced, is you have to buy one drink per set. (Not tough.)

When we arrive a beautiful blues singer named Miss Sophie Lee, with a flower behind her ear, was lulling people in from the street. She had a sultry, Nina Simone or Billy Holiday like vibe. Unfortunately we only caught the very end of her act, and she exited as she passed the bucket for tips and asked the people to let the pizza delivery guy through – she was hungry! Her musicians were quickly packed up and seemingly only minutes later The Jumbo Shrimp were set up and we spent the next beer or so listening to their amazing jazz. I was struck at the authenticity of it all. Small club, pleasant people – and genuine, really talented musicians, making wonderful music all for the enjoyment of the crowd. There was nothing commercial about it. There was nothing amateur about it. It was the real deal.

Music is everywhere around the French Quarter. It pours out of the open doors and windows for blocks. People wander from place to place (drink in hand)BigAlCarlson moving from jazz to blues to funk to zydeco and back again. It’s the blues and jazz music that got me so excited. (In my youth I was a trumpet player, so….there you are.)  Those following nights we hit several clubs in Bourbon St. (Funky Pirate Blues Club, Funky 544, The Bayou Club….) and we came upon Big Al Carson. He’s hard to miss. He heads up The Blues Masters, or as he referred to them: Three Fat Cats and One Skinny Dog. You can guess the dog. He’s got a soulful blues voice that charmed the whole crowd. I could sit and listen to him all night. I want to go back just to hear that man sing.

But earlier on that second day we encountered other music. We stopped in for happy hour at the famous Pat O’Brien’s piano bar for some wholesome (even if tacky) fun. And then, on our way back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we discovered a wedding, or rather crossed paths with it. This was new to me. I’d heard of the famous New Orleans funeral, but hadn’t thought of other ways that the small jazz bands might be used. But there it was: the traditional white outfits playing jazz, leading a group through the streets (with police escort) celebrating! With the entire wedding party and guests dancing behind, many carrying brightly colored umbrellas, along with hundreds of strangers stopping to watch and whoop it up with them.

It seems that this kind of celebration and music epitomizes the place. There’s a sense of energy and excitement with the music which gets people pumped up and moving. There’s a huge sense of community. And most of all, there’s a huge positive sense of warmth, kindness and happiness.

It’s like that humidity that wrapped its arms around you and wasn’t letting go.

This discovery of music and culture, which is so vibrant in this city, is part of the reason why something like the aftermath of Katrina is even more heartbreaking. There’s a resiliency to this city and its people that’s been well documented. In the middle of the French Quarter we walked in to a museum that had two floors and two exhibits: Katrina and Mardi Gras. At first I thought it was a strange mix, but afterwards I realized it was exactly the right combination. The awesome destruction of mother nature and the desolation of lives and families, juxtaposed with the celebration and decadence and deeply historic multi-cultural, rooted celebration that is Mardi Gras—this is the recipe that defines this city.

Fats Domino's piano, post Katrina

In the lobby of the museum is a baby grand piano, lying on its side, with a leg broken off, the top gone, clearly water damaged. That alone was a sad sight. Such a beautiful instrument, and my whole life I’ve wished I could play piano.

But then I noticed the sign that read, “This baby grand piano belonged to Fats Domino. It’s displayed here just as it was found in his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”

Nope. I don’t think that city is letting go at all. I’ll be back.

A Morphing Murmur

I once referred to Scream Blue Murmur as my favorite group of Irish poets. This Northern Ireland collective has expanded, contracted and morphed over the past few years and their work has shifted from spoken word with some music to songs, a melange of funk, soul and jazz. Their core seems to have moved from the power of the word to the power of the sound. I’m still loving this stuff, and it’s clear to me from their latest product that the mind of its driving force, Gordon Hewitt, hasn’t stopped moving and exploring new ways to tell the stories.

The Secret Life of Gam Bambino, is a two-song grouping that’s taken their sound a little further down the path they’ve been going. The title song itself has a heavy bass, rhythm, soul-jazz, mixture. While listening to it, I was sort of reminded of The Stray Cats sound, but this is more clever and complex. Regardless of Setzer’s rep, I mean this as a compliment, as something fun, upbeat and enjoyable.

The B-side of this duo is Sonny Has Sturdy Legs.  Its prominent trumpet and sax lines make this song feel rather jazzy, but then the vocal styles lay on a kind of soul element, more reminiscent of some of their earlier works. Meanwhile the whole thing has a sort of comfortable beat that kept my foot tapping throughout.

Both songs have the feeling of being performed in a tightly packed and dimly-lit bar, and are a clear progression from earlier pieces by the group, particularly from Cassius Marcellus, which shares the layering even if with a different styling and pace.

One thing I found interesting about visiting the site was the collection’s cover image. I don’t know if anyone called Gam Bambino existed, or exactly who Sonny may be (in this case, that is) but I wanted to know more. The lyrics in both pieces, which are slight, keep the tales limited. My mind went to finding the story amongst both songs and the picture.

Which one is Sonny? Which one is Gam? Are they the same person? Or were they enemies?

And, whose head was bashed in?

This has the makings of a longer compilation of songs, and I hope to hear a full album with these pieces as a kind of base.

Art and Music under the City Sky

Opera isn’t really something, as they say these days, in my wheelhouse. While I love the music, I find the singing and performance styles to be too over-the-top for me. Drawing out a moment so extensively loses…I don’t know…perhaps the genuineness of the moment. I’ve written before how my tastes run toward realism and naturalism, and I appreciate expressionism….but that’s not opera.

Back in college in I was in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac (not an opera) and the most memorable piece of direction we were given was delivered in a loud, excited exclamation: “It’s a f***ing opera!”

But I digress.

Along the banks of the Mississippi River, on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, is a partially destroyed flour mill – destroyed from a massive fire. There’s now a roofless courtyard surrounded by partial century-plus old walls.

Turns out it can be beautifully transformed into an open air theater.

And in this case, Pagliacci.

It’s a f***ing opera.

This is where I was the other night, under the setting sun, feeling the breeze. It was a beautiful night and a number of things, some unexpected, made for some surprising magic and art.

The setting sun during the first act – perhaps the longest light cue I’ve seen.

The beauty of the lighting during the second act, illuminating the performance and musicians and crumbling walls, with darkness and twinkling city lights beyond.

The passersby along the river who would stop and look in our direction, hearing the the music and singers. Wondering.

The wind that accompanied the prima donna’s aria, and the way it made her skirt flow in the breeze.

The timing of the bicyclists as they sped down River Road during the orchestra strings’ momento di agitato. Countered by the tug boat going down river accompanying an adagio moment.

The people who peaked in on the performance from the upstage gate, and the two children who sat on the ground there, watching the final pieces.

As soon as curtain call ended, and the houselights rose, a helicopter flew overheard, returning us to the city.

By the end, I found myself quite moved. And inspired.

I want to create a whole site-specific, theatrical piece, where all the elements – the sunlight (via the time of day,) the weather, the smells, sounds and the seemingly random (completely and effectively) planned interjection from people on the streets, cars, overheard planes, perhaps flocks of birds…..

…all those elements come together to create a whole world, a whole experience, to tell a story.

Sounds like film. Or smellovision.

I want it live.

Scream Blue gets Funky

My favorite Irish poets have put out a short album – Belfast Sun.

The titular song immediately puts you in the mood with its opening bars, which you know will reappear and you’ll be singing along with by the end. This number has a kind of late 60s, early 70s funk vibe, with a heavy bass carrying you along. In fact, they all do. Perhaps this should be heard in a dimly lit, smoky little underground joint where crowds lounge around on couches. And I mean this in a good way.

The other numbers are similarly evocative of images of the masses, whether its a kickback to the spoken word over music and a slower, more languid piece contemplating revolution and rising up (“Breaking the Back…”,) or in a soft melodic tone which seems like a love song, and in fact is in a way, if you don’t listen to the words like “you won’t beat me down…” in a sort of tribute to the power and influence (good and bad) of celebrity.(“Cassius”)

Finally, I was excited to hear “Don’t Fuck with Sonny” as it’s the one I picture with an audience up on its feet, beating along with the rhythm using their home made percussive instruments. This too has that heavy bass background, which really ties all these numbers together. It’s exciting to see the experimentation with new styles and forms. Not surprising. The minds that put this stuff together are rarely idle and often hungering towards their next subject.

For this album, as with any SBM work I find my self immediately swaying to the rhythm, and only then do I start to catch some of the words:

“I can’t stand the rain”

“beat that nigger down”

and perhaps a new favorite:

“I hear Smokey say ‘You won’t beat me down and you won’t make me sing: ‘Tears of a Clown’”

And, as with all SBM works – it makes contemplate my world and my neighbor. So if art makes you think, and music brings people together….I’d say this is quite a nice little package.

I want more, please.

Fame and Hot Lunch

Late last night we caught a showing of the classic movie Fame on some cable station. I’m a sucker for this movie because it all feels too real. I can’t recall exactly when I first saw this movie, but it couldn’t have been too much longer after it had come out – maybe I saw it at some second or third run movie house. It came out in 1980, the year I turned 13. I was only beginning to dabble in performing arts, but because the soundtrack to this film became so popular and so well known, by the time I was on stage and eventually studying theatre I couldn’t help but feel invigorated and inspired by the songs, themes and storylines. Virtually all of the 1980s were my high school and college years, so any coming of age movie from that decade has a place in my heart, I guess.

The kids in this movie hardly look like kids, of course, and  in the beginning section of the movie when they’re auditioning for the performing arts high school I was taken back to my auditioning for college acting programs  (something I look back at and wonder how I managed to do it the way I did – it was awful, I think.) But these kids are so naive and wide eyed and hungry, you can’t help but root for them.

Their first day of their freshman year they’re told things like “acting is the hardest profession in the world”.

My first day of freshman year at college, at the beginning of our first acting class, my teacher said, “you’re going in to a profession that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want and from which you’ll never make a living. You’ll likely do more acting in the next four years than you’ll do professionally the rest of your life. So if you’re not sure you want to do this, you should leave now.” Of course, no one moved. (There were a little over a dozen students in that class; two of us graduated.)

Montgomery says to Ralph: “All anyone ever promised you was seven classes a day and a hot lunch. The rest is up to you.

Right there, that’s truth. I was thinking what happened to these kids (in the movie)? Where did they end up? Might be an interesting sequel to find out, but  besides the fact that most sequels are disappointing, the destruction of dreams might be too depressing a topic.