Posts Tagged ‘Boston Bluegrass Union’

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From “Buy Local” to “Goodbye, Local”

15 January 2013

I admit that this week’s post is something of a departure, in that it deals largely with a landmark near my home base in Beantown, a subject that might strike some of my far-flung readers as parochial. Bear with me, however, as I believe there are universal lessons to be drawn from this story.

Sandys_Music_Seen_from_SideThis past Saturday morning, I got word through Jeff Boudreau’s informative notloB Music blog that a Cambridge musical institution, Sandy’s Music, was closing. I was saddened by the news and thought I should stop by the shop to spend a few last bucks and say farewell. However, when I got to Sandy’s some hours later, I was shocked to find the store already mostly disassembled.

Members of shop owner Sandy Sheehan’s extended family were busily packing up the remaining merchandise and hauling a ragtag miscellany of cases, stands and instruments up from the basement.

Sandy has been in poor health for some time now and therefore was unable to participate in the process of winding up the business that he started back in 1970. Located on Massachusetts Avenue midway between those famed institutions of higher learning, The Plough and the Stars and The Cantab Lounge— I mean Harvard and MIT— Sandy’s Music has served as a funky, cramped oasis for lovers of traditional American, British and Celtic music for over forty years. It was the kind of place where you could go to buy a ukulele for yer kid or an extra E-string for yer guitar and wind up having a 45-minute discussion about autoharp makers.

Family_help_to_clear_out_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThat’s because presiding over the whole shambolic enterprise was the unassuming, owl-like presence of Sheehan. Were someone to write “The Ballad of Sandy Sheehan,” it could serve as an anthem for the whole Folk Revival generation. Sheehan and his brother were born in Canada but adopted by a couple in the Pioneer Valley, north of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man, Sheehan migrated to Cambridge, no doubt seeking to connect with others who shared his passion for traditional instruments and music. It was the 1960’s and the heyday of “group homes” in Cambridge. In these communal households, residents shared everything from cooking to political philosophies. Sheehan lived for decades in one of the most durable and renowned group homes, an old house known simply as Old Joe Clark.

As the name of his longstanding abode implies, traditional music has permeated Sheehan’s life. He opened his store to pickers, hosting an old-time session that ran for decades on Monday nights. Jon Gersh, a friend who led the session for many years, described Sandy’s as a “space for people to meet, and new people to try out traditional music in a totally safe setting.”

Chair_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThough he is said to play a little banjo, Sheehan’s instrument of choice is the turntable, and it has been through the airwaves as much as anything that he has been able to share his deep knowledge of music with the public. Starting in 1986, Sheehan has hosted a show called “Traditional Folk” on WUMB in Boston. There are few pleasures to compare with driving along the Boston waterfront of an evening to the accompaniment of some chestnut from The Skillet Lickers or The Blue Sky Boys, followed by Sheehan’s succinct commentary in his distinctive burr. During Sheehan’s convalescence, the show has lived on through reruns. Until Sheehan is back on his feet, it will be hosted by Gersh.

When he wasn’t installed behind the microphone or the counter of his store, Sheehan could often be found in the lobby of a concert hall or in the mess hall of a music camp, selling music and instru-ments. His wide-ranging involvement in the New England music scene earned him a Boston Bluegrass Heritage Award in 2009. He once told me that he would have liked to have gotten out to see and sell at more events, but that too often required him to close the shop on weekends. “That’s when we make the big bucks,” he said with a dry laugh.

In truth, of course, Sheehan never realized much money from his passion, yet his store endured, despite decades of tumult in the music business. In closing at this time, Sandy’s Music joins a long list of local record, sheet music and instrument vendors who have recently thrown in the towel, a sad parade that begs us to ask, why now?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s stores like Sandy’s were able to fend off the assault from big box stores like Guitar Center (for instruments) and HMV (for records) by focusing on hard-to-find, local and used merchandise. Of course, they also provided a much more personable shopping experience.

Truck_in_front_of_Sandys_Music_Cambridge

In recent years, however, many of the stores have been done in by the Information Revolution. What’s interesting is that the internet picked these shops clean from two opposing directions. On the one hand, Amazon and Ebay gave customers access to a globalized marketplace that pushed prices down close to wholesale levels. On the other hand, Craigslist and the like provided ways for buyers and sellers of instruments to connect locally without the need of a middleman (unless you consider Craig and his list a middleman). Some of the small shops have managed to maintain a toehold by working their own internet sales very aggressively. Sandy’s Music was doing that a bit, too, but of course it’s very hard to be “heard” in the hurlyburly of the worldwide web.

I don’t see any real way of stopping the march of time, regardless of whether the wheels are turning in the direction of progress or decay, but milestones like Sandy’s Music closing give us an opportunity to reflect on what’s lost amid all the change. Small music stores haven’t just given us a place where you could seek out and talk with people like Sheehan who were knowledgeable about music; they provided day jobs for people who dedicated their lives to art and culture. It has never been easy for people to make a living in music, whether as a promoter, collector, DJ or performer. Stores like Sandy’s provided a way for such folk to devote themselves fully to music they loved. The shuttering of these stores therefore impoverishes the music scene not simply because it leaves us with fewer business outlets, but because it deprives the people who keep that scene alive of a livelihood.

Flyer_to_Benefit_Sandy_Sheehan-Sandys_Music

Although Sandy’s Music is no more, Sandy abides. Unfortunately, he currently abides in a rehab center, and that of course is very costly. That’s why Gerst and a big circle of Sandy’s friends and supporters have organized a benefit show on his behalf. It’s coming up on January 22nd at Johnny D’s in Somerville, so now is the time to lock in yer reservations. A cavalcade of performers will be on hand, including The Dixie Butterhounds, The Hi-Tone Ramblers, Lorraine and Bennett Hammond, Put Your Hoe Down, Laura Smith and a small army of banjo players. On that last note, you are encouraged to bring your “weirdest banjo” and join the “Dreaded Banjo Orchestra.” An event not to be missed! With luck, Sandy himself will be on hand.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Jeff Boudreau and Jon Gerst for much of the info included here.

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Hallway Jams at Joe Val

13 February 2012

The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is upon us once again. For folks who are used to picking around a campfire, the jams at Joe Val require a mental adjustment. Have a look at this video and you’ll see what I mean…

The Joe Val fest takes place in the dead of winter within the confines of a Sheraton Hotel just off the Mass Pike in Framingham, Massachusetts. For three days in February, every available inch of the hotel is given over to bluegrass. The main stage is in the ballroom and the workshops and vendor displays are in the conference rooms. Any leftover space is filled with jams of every level. If you watch the video closely, you’ll catch a glimpse of some industrious teenagers who have repurposed a phone booth to run through some fiddle tunes.

Some aspects of the jams captured in this video are standard issue for bluegrass fests, but that doesn’t make them any less cool. Were a Martian anthropologist to drop by a bluegrass jam, it would note how participants in this earthling activity share the spotlight rather than showcase just a few talents. At the very start of the clip, you can see ­­­­­­Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae and Sten Havumakiof the Professors of Bluegrass and Billy Wylder teaching the changes on “Look Down That Open Road” by Tim O’Brien to veteran banjo picker Rich Stillman of Southern Rail. Stillman proceeds to acquit himself very nicely while apparently playing the tune for the first time.

Finally, the jams at the Joe Val fest, like most bluegrass picking sessions, are a demonstration of radical democracy. Not only do they feature players truly aged eight to eighty, but they also encompass everyone from novices to stars of the bluegrass circuit. No matter how many times I attend the Joe Val fest, I don’t think I’ll ever lose my sense of wonder at having the elevator doors open, revealing a bunch of musicians with national profiles jamming with everybody else in the lobby.

With this video, another new superhero from Team Curly makes her debut. Mistress of Mayhem Megan Lovallo cut this piece together, and she did a fine job of capturing the magic of the moment. Megan and I will be covering the Joe Val fest together this year. We look forward to seeing some of you in the halls…

Yer Pal— Curly

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Connecting Dots: From Tony Trischka to Bill Monroe

21 May 2011

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to hear this from a guy who claims to be yer second cousin, but bluegrass musicians do all seem to be related— if not genetically then at least professionally. The line-ups in string bands can start to seem like an endless game of connect-the-dots. Am I losing you? All right, as an example, let’s take the fine group that recently performed with banjo ace Tony Trischka

The fiddler is Tashina Clarridge, a well-known fiddling contest champion from the West Coast. Tashina is the sister of Tristan Clarridge, cellist for Crooked Still, the band that has been the subject of an ongoing series of profiles on this site. Indeed, I’ve got to finish up these Crooked Still pieces so that I can start sharing another series of profiles I’ve got “in the can,” these with the Vermont-based group Hot Mustard. And what do you suppose Hot Mustard is doing these days? Why, they’re opening shows for…Tony Trischka & Territory!

Which brings us back around to the line-up in the clip above. The fellow who is belting out the vocals is Michael Daves, a musician based in Brooklyn who just released an album with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. The record is called Sleep With One Eye Open and it features a bunch of traditional bluegrass numbers. Here’s a taste of the Thile/Daves collaboration:

In most bluegrass circles, releasing an album with standards like “20/20 Vision” wouldn’t cause much of a stir, but these ain’t yer garden-variety pickers. In recent years, Thile has explored the no-mans-land between traditional music, contemporary pop and classical composition, and Daves— who plays everything from funk to swing— has cited jazz master Yusef Lateef as a major influence. If you root around online a bit, you can find a nice clip of Daves playing Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” It is neither particularly high nor lonesome.

Despite these musical wanderings, both Thile and Daves grew up steeped in bluegrass, and it’s heartwarming to see them taking a moment in the prime of their careers to return to those roots. Daves clearly has a sophisticated musical palette at his disposal, but this southern-bred musician seems to appreciate the corrosive tang of bluegrass. In interviews, he has been known to draw connections between Bill Monroe and, uh, Iggy Pop (talk about connecting dots!). When he uses the verb “destroy” to describe a performance, he means it in a good way. This outlook makes Daves an excellent foil for Thile, his gritty delivery providing ballast for Thile’s boundless musical invention.

The Thile/Daves partnership goes back several years. Indeed, you can hear them harmonizing on a 2007 release by— wait for it— Tony Trischka. Yep, on Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Thile and Daves contribute the vocals for “Run Mountain,” the second tune in the video above. By the way, the fiddle player on the recorded version of “Run Mountain” is Brittany Haas, who currently plays with— you guessed it— Crooked Still.

[We now pause in our delightful connect-the-dots exercise to pose the question, “Hey, isn’t that a phone that Tony Trischka is using as a slide?” We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s address an even more pressing query: “Curly, why does the camerawork in your video suck so very badly?” Well, two reasons, actually. First, I’m hurrying to get this post up because Trischka, Thile and Daves are crisscrossing the Northeast at this very moment and I thought some of you might like to catch their acts. This means that I’m sharing video that had to be rushed out of kitchen with scarcely any seasoning. Second, when I was shooting this footage, there was a guy sitting next to me making peerless observations like, “The banjo player is obviously the most mature player in the band.” Oh yes, listen closely to my recording and you’ll hear that and much more from the Sage of Row G. Now, I challenge any of you to keep your framing steady while you’re trying to hurl your shoe at the head of your neighbor. As for the previous question, yes, I do believe Trischka was using the Banjo Slide app on his iPhone. We now rejoin our connect-the-dots game…]

Daves certainly has his own sound, but there’s no doubt that the bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe have heavily influenced both his guitar technique and singing. This musical kinship has apparently caught the attention of folks in Hollywood, where the actor Peter Sarsgaard is pushing to star in a biopic about Bill Monroe. According to Trischka, Daves is slated to provide Monroe’s vocals for the movie, which will have to be rushed to completion if it is to capitalize on Monroe’s centennial next September. The script is by Callie Khouri, who showed that she knew a thing or two about the byways of American culture in her screenplay for Thelma and Louise. It is no coincidence at all that Khouri is married to T Bone Burnett, the famed record producer, who naturally is supposed to supervise the music for the project. Burnett is connected to everybody in bluegrass, if only because he produced the bestselling bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? thereby launching a resurgence of interest in bluegrass in particular and American roots music in general. Sadly, I can’t neatly wrap up this bagatelle by reporting that Trischka was part of the pantheon of bluegrass greats who played on O Brother. He has definitely gotten around, but he’s not the bluegrass equivalent of Zelig.

[Parting question: What on earth do the lyrics to “Run Mountain” mean? I, for one, am stumped. Anyone? Anyone?]

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— In addition to the Hot Mustard profiles, I’ll have more to offer from Trischka in the not-too-distant future. This five-string superhero plays a key role in a major new documentary about the banjo that is to be released in the fall. Stay tuned for more on this project…

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