Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Boudreau’

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Dispatch from the Slippery Slopes

22 January 2013

Emy Phelps’ “Bluegrass Tune”

Emy Phelps set out to write “Dancin’ Round Your Door” as her “offering to the world of bluegrass,” but the song apparently had other ideas. Have a listen:

Phelps is accompanied here by partner Darol Anger (who on this tune has traded his fiddle for an octave mandolin) and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. The song— which is featured on Phelps’ latest album— was recorded at a notloB Music concert in Jamaica Plain, Massachustetts last Spring.

Phelps doesn’t claim that her song is bluegrass, nor would I, but I’m also not going to spill any ink trying to demarcate the territory that is or isn’t defined by the bluegrass genre. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t pass the Justice Stewart definition of bluegrass: “I know it when I hear it.”

Hearing a straight-ahead bluegrass tune performed with salt and feeling is revelatory: it’s like having your head dunked in cold, clear water. That’s not an experience that can be compromised or adulterated. But in my view, the folks who experiment at the margins of bluegrass help us to keep reexamining the music. In doing so, they also keep us alert to new ideas. As Phelps says in her introduction to “Dancin’ Round Your Door,” “Stretch your imagination!”

Beatle or Catfish?

It’s not everyday that you see a message like this in yer inbox: “Ringo Starr has commented on your video.” Such was the news I received from the busy scribes at YouTube last week. First thought: “Ringo Starr? The Ringo Starr?!” Second thought: “Which video?”

Faithful readers of this site will know that my primary goal has been to add to the library of online media pertaining to music with bluegrassish tendencies. The challenge of providing a regular flow of content (sometimes described as “feeding the beast”) is both stressful and fun, but as with any test, success is never assured. Sometimes I just have to get stuff out there and hope for the best. This ain’t Pee Wee soccer, so I recognize that not every post can be a winner. Rather than try to go back and airbrush the past, I tend accept that I must live with my missteps, figuring that “he that lives by YouTube shall die by YouTube.”

There is, however, one post that I have on more than one occasion considered quietly deleting. It’s an early video in which I just talk. And then I talk some more. Oh, and then I demonstrate the “bluegrass chop.” If you feel compelled to watch, here it is…

In my estimation, these aren’t my finest three minutes. For starters, there’s the substance of my rant. For the record, I still believe there are good reasons why most bluegrass bands, from the Clinch Mountain Boys to the Punch Brothers, don’t employ percussion. Be that as it may, I have come to understand that anytime you try to proscribe something, you sound like you’re prescribe another thing. In that old post, my point was not that I wanted to define a specific “bluegrass sound.” If anything, I was staking out more or less the opposite position: that by leaving percussion out of the mix, bluegrass bands could more deftly control and alter their sound. I tried to argue that they could do this with ease and without sacrificing drive because of the uniquely percussive nature of bluegrass instruments. That’s the case I was making, but some viewers clearly believed that I was defending some canonical notion of what bluegrass was supposed to be. Some viewers said “right on!” to this blinkered perspective, while others allowed as how it was narrow-minded anti-percussionists like me who were responsible for the fact that all bluegrass bands sounded exactly alike. To all this I reply…oh, never mind.

Anyway, setting aside whatever validity my argument might have, I’m not convinced that having some pasty guy (more Creepy Uncle than Second Cousin) gas on without even playing a dern tune is really what the public longs for. However, every time my finger inched toward the “delete” button, I noted that a few more people had written lively responses in the comments section. Figuring that fostering one of the few civil debates on YouTube was the least that I could do, I held off.

Which brings us up to last week, when none other than Ringo Starr appeared to have commented on the video— quite a detailed and thoughtful response, in fact. I suppose hearing from a Beatle would be a big deal for anyone of my vintage, but perhaps I should explain the particular association I have with that seminal group. The first feature film I recall seeing in a movie theatre was The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” I was mesmerized by the experience, and I honestly think that initial, intense enchantment contributed to my choice of becoming a filmmaker.

Given that history, you can appreciate the frisson of excitement I experienced when I visited my correspondent’s elegant YouTube Channel and found it loaded with tasty hi-def clips of the Fab Four in their heyday. You can also imagine how transported I was to find this in my personal message inbox:

Message_from_Ringo

Once I recovered from my swoon, I alerted all my friends on Facebook, my followers on Twitter and all the ships at sea. Dear God, it’s me, Curly. Ringo Starr commented on my video! As for the lame clip that had attracted Ringo’s attention, well, as I noted in my reply to Mr. Starr, now that a Beatle had chimed in, I could never erase it!

So things stood for a day or two. Then, as the novelty of having Ringo as my new BFF wore off, I did a little research. Apart from having his snazzy YouTube channel, the Ringo Starr who contacted me has this Google Plus account. So far, so good, but what are we then to make of this Ringo? “My” Ringo, though knowledgeable about percussion

  1. seems a tad attached to the Beatles’ golden years,
  2. uses some rather raw diction in comments on his channel
  3. has the YouTube username (a rimshot, please) “monkeychunger.”

Fishy, no? Speaking of suspect aquatic life, in 2010, brothers Yaniv and Ariel Schulman released a provocative documentary called Catfish. The film chronicles the brothers’ attempts to attach flesh and bone to a dubious online relationship. For those of you who have yet to see the film, I won’t spoil the ride. Suffice it to say that the experience of watching Catfish is like entering a hall of mirrors, where you quickly lose track of whether what you’re looking at is a reflection or the thing itself. The moral is as obvious as the “truth” is obscure: In this day and age, don’t believe everything you see.

Catfish the movie has subsequently spawned Catfish the reality TV series on MTV. On the show, the Brothers Schulman help other people investigate personal connections made via the internet. With episodes of Catfish rolling off the assembly line every week or two and stories like that of football star Manti Te’o making headlines, it’s hard not to look at “my Ringo” with anything other than a very jaundiced eye.

Yup, I suspect that “my Ringo” is really just “my Catfish.” If I’m right about that, then perhaps he/she/it is doing me a backhanded favor by reminding me that, when it comes to relationships forged online, there really is no “there” there. Even so, to quote the title of a well-known fiddle tune, I can’t help feeling that I’d like to “Nail That Catfish to a Tree.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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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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Evening Prayer Blues

31 August 2012

Anger, Phelps & Gilchrist Up Close

Fiddler Darol Anger and singer-songwriter Emy Phelps have been playing a bunch of shows on both coasts over the past six months. These performances have featured an assortment of talented friends, but one of Anger and Phelps’ more constant fellow-travelers has been the mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. Anger, Gilchrist and Phelps played an entirely acoustic house concert in Boston last April— no amplification whatsoever. As the sun set on a gentle spring day, the trio offered up this rendition of the haunting instrumental, “Evening Prayer Blues:”

As Anger noted in introducing this piece, “Evening Prayer Blues” started out life as a signature tune of harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey. Bailey, who has the distinction of being the first African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry, has resurfaced in the vast, bubbling cauldron of folk culture of late. Some months back, we shared a clip of Tony Trischka, another string innovator in the Anger vein, playing a “foxchase” that he had penned after listening to a recording of Bailey playing a similar tune.

But Bailey’s influence on folks in bluegrass and traditional string music is by no means a recent phenomenon. At some point Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass and fellow Opry member, picked up “Evening Prayer Blues,” and he recorded it late in his career. Bailey’s original sounded rather like a field holler translated to the harmonica. In Monroe’s hands, however, the piece was refashioned into one of those spooky fiddle tunes that marked his last years. Anger mentioned learning a variant of Monroe’s version from guitar ace David Grier. If you want to create a neat chain of influence from Bailey to Anger, it’s worth remembering that Grier’s dad was a Bluegrass Boy, touring with Monroe back in the 1960’s.

In their version, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist let the fiddle and mandolin engage in a dialogue. Anger is of course one of the guiding lights in contemporary fiddling, while Gilchrist has built an impressive resumé in recent years by playing with bluegrass greats like Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. As they navigate their way through this tune, both Anger and Gilchrist acknowledge its antecedents while also bringing to it a deft and stylish touch that is their own.

notloB Music

Obviously, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist deserve most of the credit for the spell cast by their version of “Evening Prayer Blues,” but the location doesn’t hurt. This concert took place in the intimate confines of the colonial-era Loring-Greenough House in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. It was part of notloB Music, an ongoing series organized by Jeff Boudreau. I love house concerts, and the Loring-Greenough House is a particularly inviting space. Sitting in such proximity to great musicians as they perform always gives me a profound case of the Warm and Fuzzies. As I offer up my own evening prayer of thanks for being allowed to commune so closely with the muses, I’m also reminded that, for tens of thousands of years, this was the only way that music was consumed. No wonder it feels so right. Boudreau recently announced the line-up for the fall notloB series. If you are in the Boston area, you should check it out.

Look Up, Look Down

Phelp and Anger’s tour coincides with the release of their new CD project, Look Up, Look Down. The album is a collection of Phelps’ compositions that Anger produced. We’ll be exploring a lot more stuff from the Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist show in the coming weeks. Along the way, we’ll be able dig into some of that new material. Stay tuned…

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. Big thanks to Paul Villanova (camera) and Lauren Scully (camera) for their help with this series of videos.

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Joe Val Workshops: Down Home Schoolin’

6 February 2011

A sizable chunk of the nation may be preoccupied with ice dams and rock salt, but that doesn’t mean that the Bluegrass Faithful have stowed their banjos and basses in the garage. It might be counterintuitive, but the biggest bluegrass festival in frosty Boston takes place annually in the dead of winter. Yes sir, like a freightliner that’s blown out its air brakes, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is bearing down on us. February 18th, 19th and 20th, few shall sleep in the mock Tudor splendor of the Framingham Sheraton. Get on board or jump out of the way!

I’ve already held forth here on the weird and wonderful mix of performances and jams that define the Joe Val Fest.  As, uh, exhaustive as my previous portrait was, I don’t think I gave enough emphasis to the Joe Val Fest’s major asset, which are its workshops.

Of course, many bluegrass festivals host workshops. Often there’s a tent devoted to such sessions where you can mingle with your heroes. What makes Joe Val’s workshops special? Simple: they’re indoors. It will probably always feel a bit odd to play “Foggy Mountain Top” while standing in a carpeted corridor, and the words, “the banjo licks workshop is about to begin in Conference Room C” may never sound quite right, but staging the festival in a large hotel has its consolations. Chief among these is the fact that, when you go to a workshop you can hear and be heard with a clarity that’s just not possible outdoors.

Check out this performance by Skip Gorman and Richard Starkey (a duo that sometimes performs under the name Rabbit in a Log) from a workshop at last year’s Joe Val Fest. The tune is Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin.”

Nice, no? You can hear every note of those brushed chords that Gorman plays towards the end. That’s how it is a Joe Val: you can sit inches away from legends like Bobby Osborne or Frank Wakefield as they tell tales from their early years, or you can discuss the arcana of microphone and plectrums with hotshots like Mike Guggino or Jesse Brock (can you tell I play mandolin?). In these sessions, more than just about anywhere on the circuit, you feel the intimate bond between performer and audience that’s such a key part of bluegrass culture.

“Kentucky Mandolin” has become a standard (at least among mando players) even though in human terms it’s still only middle-aged. According to the discography compiled by Neil Rosenberg, inveterate chronicler of Monrovia, this instrumental was written by Bill Monroe for a recording date on November 9th, 1967. To my ears, the minor key makes it of a piece with a number of plaintive tunes from the latter part of Monroe’s career, such as “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “My Last Days on Earth.”

To hear more from Gorman and Starkey’s workshop, click here. To check out a couple more Joe Val workshop sessions (these featuring Joe Walsh and friends), click here and here.

Finally, to learn more about the 2011 festival line-up, check out Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass Blog or tune into Jeff Boudreau’s radio show, “In the Tradition,” on WCUW in Worcester, MA on the next two Tuesdays (February  8th and 15th) from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. Jeff will be interviewing a number of the performers who will be playing at this year’s festival. The line-up is a strong one, featuring representatives of the old guard like J.D. Crowe, Robin & Linda Williams and The Whites, newer acts like Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and interesting New England groups like Hot Mustard and Della Mae. Cool, you say? Are you kidding? Freezing!

Thanks to Gerry Katz and Evan Reilly for their guidance on this post.

Yer Pal— Curly

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