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.

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.

Breathe in…

Last night I spent an hour with some of my favorite performers, a group of people who I jokingly refer to as “my favorite Irish poet group.” I mean, they’re the only group of performing poets I know of, Irish or otherwise, and frankly they’re all I need.

I’m a bit of a fan-boy. That’s how someone described it anyway, and I’d have to say it’s fairly accurate. I am enamored of Scream Blue Murmur.

I first became aware of them several years ago when they were performing in the Fringe at Red Eye, where there was another show which I had worked on. A friend from that told me about them and said they were really good: “You should see them.” I trust her judgement so I went, even though my first thought had been “Irish Poets?….Spoken word kind of stuff?…Stand there and read poetry?….hmm. Ok.”

I expected perhaps, an enjoyable, pleasant, literary event.

What I got were powerful words and beautiful images that flowed out of them, filled with anger, regret, hope and, somehow, peace. I was enthralled, and I wanted more.

Since then I’ve seen them a few more times, whenever they’ve come to town. (I mean, they live in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after all. Google maps tells me…well, actually it refuses to calculate it.) If you haven’t seen them it’s unfortunate because their work is rather hard to describe, but I’ll try.

Their current show, Something’s Gone Wrong in the Dreamhouse is essentially about how life in America had been good and then suddenly the economy tanks, unemployment sky rockets, people lose their homes, and there’s anger and resentment everywhere, some pointed at those whose skin color is darker than many.

No, this is the 1930s.

I know, right?

It’s poetry, at the heart. Modern, lyrical, sweeping poetry, typically with a kick or a twist or an edge. There are no rhyming pretty pieces about flowers and puppies. There are, instead, flowing words like “persistent reliving of traumatic experience” and“southern trees bear strange fruit” on topics like the ravages of war, racism, violence, hunger, poverty, class struggles, human rights.

It’s political. If nothing else, it’s about politics. Like all their shows. They’re kind of modern day hippies, screaming at the establishment. But quietly, with a lilt.“if you see them massing in the distance/Mobilise – don’t let them rise.”

It’s music. This show is more music than any of their past shows, it seems, although there’s always been music. This time there was lots of music – not only by Aisling, Chelley, Gordon and Brian (I’m wondering where is PhatBob??) but also by the members of the audience, who were given plastic water bottles with a bit of pebbles inside to act as percussive shakers, taking part in the music. The place became a party, with lights up and people singing along and shaking their bottles and tapping their feet. “Sing to me, Billy Sunday…”

It’s visual. In many parts of the show there are videos or pictures flashed on the wall behind, relating the topic at hand. Old black and white newsreels of bustling cities, print ads that you’d never see today (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand!”) and pictures of things that are ugly from our history like black men hanging from trees.“Scent of Magnolias, sweet and fresh, / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” No, that’s not comfortable to hear, see or witness. It shouldn’t be. So we think about our fellow man and remember, and re-think our modern world.

It’s communal. Their words are about all of us or at least about all of our lives. At one point in the show they invited members of the audience up on stage with them to sing and shake their makeshift rattles. It was one of the motliest groups I’ve seen, with a wide swath of diversity. The 350 lb man, and the tiny, dread-locked, gay black man, and the girl with pink hair, and the 6′ transgendered woman in heels. A picture of all walks of life, each with their own struggles, or perhaps the same.

I was struck last night on my way home about all the stuff I’ve seen them do. Here you have a group of folks who live in Belfast, and for all I know are born and raised in Northern Ireland. A place with a violent, tumultuous recent history over sovereignty and religion. Where bombings and killing were often too commonplace. Yet the work I’ve seen from them has often been about our own country, our own struggles, and our own shameful past. They know from whence they speak.

No, this doesn’t do it justice. I can’t describe their work. The name belies the fact that there is no screaming. And the most striking thing is the underlying element of commonality, of charity and goodness, of love and understanding. There’s something about them and their words and their utterances. There’s something about the playful glint in their eyes, the sincerity of their smiles, the singing crowd…the sexy accents. I want to sit with them, listen to them, discuss the days’ news with them and buy them another round, in some loud, crowded pub. They make me think, make me feel, make me wonder – about myself, my neighbor, my world.

“Breathe in Scream Blue Murmur / Breathe out humanity.” It’s a breath I hope to take again, even if I have to travel to the UK for it.

The last words I heard were: “We may have saved millions.” Indeed. I hope so.

See them yet this weekend at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.


all italicized quotes, © Scream Blue Murmur.