Posts Tagged ‘cello’

h1

More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

Advertisements
h1

Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

h1

Crooked Still: Main Stage Presence

14 November 2010

Whether by design or accident, New England’s shrine to folk music, Club Passim, is hosting a weeklong showcase of cutting edge string bands with Boston roots. Crooked Still kicks things off on November 17th and 18th. Not surprisingly, their four shows in this tiny venue are already sold out. Next up, on the 19th, is Joy Kills Sorrow, who return to Passim after a summer and fall touring the U.S. and Canada. Wrapping things up on the 22nd is the newcomer of the bunch, the bluegrass outfit Della Mae.

I caught Crooked Still’s shows at this year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The band has often performed at Grey Fox, but as the sun sank on the first official day of the festival and the quintet set up, vocalist Aoife O’Donovan wryly noted that this time they had almost achieved their goal of playing on the main stage after dark. They then kicked things off with a number from their latest CD, Some Strange Country, “Calvary.” I’ve been waiting for the right moment to share this chestnut, and I believe the time has come…

One of the most appealing aspects of Crooked Still’s performance style is that it creates an atmosphere of spontaneity on stage. Never mind that this may largely be pure showmanship (I’ve heard rumors that banjo wiz Liszt writes out his manic solos in detail). Watch how giddy O’Donovan appears at the end of “Calvary.” She has the look of someone in a jam session who has just stumbled upon a moment of perfect harmony. I’ve seen her react like this at the end of songs over and over, yet I buy it every time. Imitators take note: if you want to hold the audience in your hand, try bottling a little joy like this band does.

Listening to that tune and the set that followed, I couldn’t imagine who else might need to be convinced that Crooked Still is ready to be a headliner, but while the band clearly has legions of fans, it remains somewhere on the periphery of the bluegrass scene. That tenuous relationship may have something to do with two complaints that I sometimes hear muttered when Crooked Still comes up in certain circles, to wit—

1. It Ain’t Bluegrass

No one would make the case that Crooked Still goes after the vaunted “high and lonesome” sound that defines so much of bluegrass, and yes, it’s true that they’ve dispensed with a couple of the iconic instrumental elements of the traditional bluegrass outfit in favor of a…er, cello. That said, if somebody’s keeping a checklist of the attributes of bluegrass, surely Crooked Still’s repertoire fulfills several of the key items: they’re steadfastly acoustic, their rhythms are driven by a propulsive chop, and most importantly their songs are largely drawn from the canon of traditional ballads, hymns and fiddle tunes (“Calvary” is a good illustration of this— a 19th century hymn that came to the band by way of a recording from banjo legend Dock Boggs).

Some folks seem to think that this last attribute aligns the band more with old time music than bluegrass. In truth, the whole old-time-versus-bluegrass debate always depresses me. The style of playing shaped by Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the other founders of bluegrass was suffused with the ancient musical traditions of the mountains and the British Isles. That being the case, why is a bluegrass band that plays songs by the likes of Merle Haggard somehow more authentic than an outfit like Crooked Still with its contemporary renditions of sea shanties and Appalachian melodies?

I suspect the band itself wouldn’t lose much sleep over this argument. Many of the younger string bands today seem to be taking pains not to affiliate themselves too closely with bluegrass. Perhaps they fear that the label will summon up associations among younger audiences with cornpone sentimentality and weird uncles. If this is in fact the case, it’s a shame. Bluegrass is too young a genre and too marginal a cultural phenomenon to be defined so narrowly. Whether it’s through conservative impulses within the community or stereotypes imposed by ill-informed outsiders, bluegrass can’t afford to get painted into a corner. That’s why I’m saying that Crooked Still and the other ensembles that are redefining string band music are still playing bluegrass, whether they mean to or not.

2. Their Songs All Sound the Same

Okay, don’t shoot the messenger, but this is probably the most common knock against Crooked Still. It’s certainly true that their sound is absolutely distinctive. Whether it’s by a funky groove, a soaring chromatic run on the banjo or a snippet of breathy vocals, it takes all of five seconds to identify a Crooked Still song. It’s also the case that, while the latest album might follow a more programmatic structure than past efforts, all the band’s recorded output has hewed closely to a formula based on catchy modal hooks and elegantly spare arrangements.

But, come on! How many bands ever attain a truly distinctive sound? Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we tend to remember performers for just one or two traits that were their own (think of Jimmie Rogers’ yodel or Johnny Cash’s flat and haggard tone). I’m sure many a musician looks upon arriving at such a defined sound as having attained the holy grail of performance technique. Once you’ve got your hands on such a rare commodity, why let go?

Perhaps the chief liability to having a unique sound is simply that pickers don’t cover your material. In bluegrass, imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the way that music gets disseminated and integrated into the genre. Because of their groundbreaking technique and unorthodox instrumentation, even the band’s most ardent admirers don’t seem tempted to copy its style or substance. But who knows? I’ve seen a lot of young cellists in bluegrass jams of late. Perhaps the musicians who will carry Crooked Still’s mantel are still growing up.

Whatever its drawbacks, the obvious advantage to sticking with a particular sound is that you can keep refining and developing it. Through some key personnel changes over the years, Crooked Still has continued to hone their particular style. That single-mindedness has yielded dividends, both on Some Strange Country and especially in their recent live performances. The best way I can put it is that “they sound like Crooked Still, only more so.” True to their name, they have distilled their sound to its essence and they have achieved that odd mix of tightness and grace that only comes from working on material for a very long time.

All that said, I’d love to hear the band take on new repertoire. Such as…? Well, how about some Merle Haggard? Actually, you don’t have to tax your imagination to get a sense of what Crooked Still might sound like if it expanded its songbook. Several members of the band are involved in side projects. Banjo ace Greg Liszt has fronted a group called The Deadly Gentlemen for the past couple of years. The band is about to release a new album entitled Carry Me To Home. It’s a fascinating, challenging and altogether worthwhile effort that sounds a bit like Crooked Still might if O’Donovan turned the mic over to Eminem. Don’t take my word for it: if you hurry, you can get a free download of the album here.

Yer Pal— Curly

%d bloggers like this: