Saturday, August 31, 2013

Bonne Humeur by The Etcetera String Band - A Rare Musical Discovery

I love discovering a new band, album or style of music that I know is going to become one of my favorites for a long time to come.  Nowadays, I especially also love it if that discovery is something that is going to influence how and what I play on tenor banjo.  A few weeks ago I came across a previously unheard of recording that is one of the best discoveries I've made in years. That recording is Bonne Humeur by The Etcetera String Band.

The Etcetera String Band (Kevin Sanders and Dennis Pash, with Bob Ault and Pat Ireland) was a string ragtime ensemble from Kansas City active in the 1970's, 80's and 90's. At some point their banjo-mandolin player Dennis Pash began researching early Caribbean music to see if there would be any similarities between ragtime and the music of other places where there were African slaves.  Meanwhile, guitarist Kevin Sanders had taken an interest in the similarities between ragtime and some types of Cuban and Brazilian music.

This pursuit led them to the string band music of Creole Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique and the Virgin Islands.  Early Caribbean dance music blended European structure and melody with African rhythm and syncopation.  Bonne Humeur is their attempt to provide a sampling of instrumental string band music from various "New World Afro-French traditions": the meringue, beguine, paseo, coonjaille and more.  It is the only recording they made like this and I don't know of any others by anyone else quite like it.

On about half the tracks they had only written sources to work from - such as a basic melody-line from old books and folios like Slave Songs of the United States and Bayou Ballads, adding accompaniment and rhythm based on what they could surmise from recordings of related music. In other cases they worked from compositions by composers in the style such as Arthur Duroseau, Lionel Belasco and Ludovic Lamonthe.  Look those guys up.  Many books and recordings are referenced in Bonne Humeur's extensive liner notes and bibliography, so I have a lot more to learn about this subject.

The album features just Kevin Sanders and Dennis Pash, but they each play a wide variety of instruments to reconstruct the sound they envisioned these early string bands as having: Sanders on guitar, banjo-uke, trumpet and percussion, and Pash on mandolins, 4 and 5 string banjos, banjo-uke, accordion, pennywhistles, mbira, drums and percussion.  What I love about Bonne Humeur is it takes the "island" sound I became fond of through Jamaican Mento and puts it in the format of instrumental AA/BB tunes, which is the kind of music I like to play.

I'm currently working with a music transcriber named Nick DiSebastian to document the Etcetera String Band's arrangements in notation and mandolin tab, so as to more accurately begin playing them on tenor banjo (unfortunately I don't quite have the ear to do this on my own, but thankfully there are folks like Nick who can do this for a reasonable rate).  So far, Nick has transcribed 6 of the tunes and I'm impressed at the accuracy of his transcriptions and at how well these tunes sit on GDAE tuned tenor banjo.  That's probably a result of Dennis Pash being a banjo-mandolinist.  The melodies are no more complex than the Irish and Appalachian music I'm used to, and require less embellishment.

Finding more music of this sort would be great, but I haven't had much luck so far.  Kevin Sanders' new band The Rhythmia does a few of these kinds of tunes on each of their two albums, and I highly recommend those.  To hear more of Dennis Pash, check out his new band The Ragtime Skedaddlers, in which he presents ragtime banjo-mandolin about as good as it can possibly be done.  The videos I've included in this post are tunes from the Bonne Humeur album featuring Etcetera String Band alumni.  I think Bonne Humeur originally came out in 1990, although, sadly, it is now out print. However, you may be able to get a copy of it by contacting Kevin Sanders directly, as I did.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Old-Time Fiddle Tune PDFs - Rich Crew's Tune Book

There are a lot of places online where you can find the sheet music notation for fiddle tunes, but one I'd like to point out is Rich Crew's Tune Book.  Rich's list represents what gets played in North Georgia, but it overlaps quite a bit with the tunes I hear people play in Central Virginia.  Each link points to a PDF file for the tune.

Dr. Richard Crew
These include:
Bull at the Wagon

As Rich says, "the written sources are only a rough indication of what actually gets played. I have made only the most minimal indications of double-stops, and have omitted the unisons, slides, and other noises that are an essential part of the Southern fiddle tradition." 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hammer No More the Fingers Returns to the Annual Daniel

Hammer No More the Fingers - photo by Allison Springer
It's Hammer time!  Hammer No More the Fingers returns to the Annual Daniel this Saturday, August 24 - site of some of their most inspired performances and receptive audiences.  This time it might be a little different, because lately it seems like the Hammer thing has been put on the backburner while the band members pursue solo musical endeavors.

HMNtF bassist Duncan Webster has been turning his attention to acoustic guitar in a stripped down, plaintive duo with cellist Leah Gibson called Prypyat.  Guitarist Joe Hall has just released an excellent album Blanko Basnet and has been playing shows under that name with a band consisting of Brad Cook (Megafaun), Matt Peterson (Canine Heart Sounds) and Hammer bandmate Jeff Stickley on drums.  Meanwhile, Jeff Stickley has returned to his first love - Americana music - by flatpicking guitar in an all star pick-up bluegrass band called Mason's Apron.

Exploring these other styles of music and formats has got to be a healthy diversion for these guys, allowing them to bring in new skills and understanding when they re-convene as Hammer No More the Fingers. I'm looking forward to seeing how this expanded know-how might be fulfilled when Hammer plays this Saturday on familiar turf.

However, one thing that's so great about the Annual Daniel is the line between performer and spectator, between entertainer and the entertained, is so blurred that there's no pressure to "perform" in the traditional sense.  It's this freedom that allows artists to flourish in that environment.  Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie and Supatight are also scheduled to be at the A.D.

Hammer No More the Fingers - "Vodka Grasshopper" and "The Visitor" - Shakori Hills 10/9/11


Why Tenor Banjo?

Ten reasons why you might want to consider playing the tenor banjo.

#1 - Banjo sound
It is a banjo after all!  It exudes that banjo sound that we all love.

#2 - Versatility
The tenor banjo is most prominently used in Irish traditional music and early jazz, but is also found in Klezmer music, Jamaican Mento, Scandinavian music, pre-WWII American stringbands, jugbands and more.

#3 - One octave lower than a mandolin/fiddle.
The way I tune it is, at least - GDAE.  This means that mandolin music and/or fiddle tunes fit well under the fingers.

#4 - Tuned in 5ths
The tuning in intervals of 5ths is a very intuitive, symmetrical tuning.  Patterns are easily recognizable and repeatable.  None of those pesky 4th, 3rd and back to 4th intervals like on a ukulele.

#5 - You use a pick
 You get to use a guitar pick to pluck the strings, not something as unnatural as a bow or as blistering as your own skin, or picks on the ends of your fingers like a bluegrass banjo player.

#6 - It's got 4 strings
Yeah, a guitar has six strings. But you've only got 4 fingers.  Something doesn't add up there.  4-strings equals one finger per string.  Makes sense.

#7 - Scale Length
The shorter scale banjo mandolin is too shrill and unplayable.  The longer scale plectrum banjo is too much of a stretch.  The tenor banjo is just right!

#8 - You don't have to re-tune for each key
Wanna play a tune in D while we're in the key of A?  You won't hear any complaints from a tenor banjo player.  He/she is ready for any key, even Bb!

#9 - Melody  maker
The tenor banjo makes playing melodies a breeze.  Are you able to hum or whistle a nursery rhyme?  Then you can easily pick out the melody on tenor banjo.  It's got rhythm too, just ask any Dixieland banjo player.

#10 - Obscurity
You won't be just another guitar player or fiddler.  You're free to play whatever you want, however you want.  And when people assume that your banjo has five strings and tell you that they love bluegrass, or say that they understand that banjo is one of the hardest instruments, you can confuse or regale them by saying that your banjo only has 4 strings and it's actually more like playing mandolin than the banjo they are thinking of.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Joe Hall is Blanko Basnet

Musician Joe Hall
Joe Hall, the guitarist for the Durham, NC based rock band Hammer No More the Fingers, has released an album under the name Blanko Basnet.  Hall wrote and composed all of the lyrics and music for the album and acts as bandleader.  My initial response to Blanko Basnet was a positive one.  It is more atmospheric than his work with HNMTF, somewhat reminiscent of the band Porcupine Tree if anyone remembers them.  It would go well with a cup of mushroom tea.

The album consists of 11 different tracks, but sounds more like one complete whole – a psychedelic symphony – with the different songs serving as sections or movements within the full piece. Hall uses his vocals to great effect – not just to sing or express the lyrics, but as a musical instrument on equal footing with the rhythm, melody and percussion instruments that it intersects with.  The music shifts and fluctuates throughout, but the timbre of Hall’s voice remains a constant, creating a dichotomy between change and permanence. 
Blakno Basnet album cover

One of my favorite moments on the album comes on track five Father, where it feels like Hall has temporarily passed on the baton to a band of robots that takes everything over for a few moments, before relinquishing their grasp on the music.  

I’m pleased to see Joe Hall’s artistic vision take front and center with Blanko Basnet, and hope that it will allow him to pursue a more prominent role in Hammer, and/or inspire him to continue down this creative path in his solo career.  Below is a video for the song Layabout.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: Cracker Acoustic Duo at Ashland Coffee and Tea

So, I saw the Cracker acoustic duo again the other night at Ashland Coffee and Tea – AKA David Lowery and Johnny Hickman of the band Cracker.  I saw them there 2 or 3 years ago as well.  Both shows were great, although I think I liked the first time better simply because of the novelty of it.
Cracker (Johnny Hickman and David Lowery L to R) on 8/16/13
I’m not really even a Cracker fan.  I was barely aware of their radio hits in the 90’s (Low, Teen Angst [What the World Needs Now], Get Off This and Euro-Trash Girl).  I was a Leftover Salmon fan, so when Leftover collaborated with Cracker on what was sort of like a Cracker’s greatest hits album (Oh Cracker Where Art Thou), I got that CD and it remains one of my all-time favorites.  But that’s pretty much the extent of my Cracker listening.  I have listened to some Camper Van Beethoven though!

I don’t really have any association or history with the versions of the songs that Cracker recorded on their actual albums; if it wasn’t on that Leftover Salmon album I am probably not familiar with the song at all.  Basically, my main impression of Cracker and their songs is from what I’ve been exposed to in these two live performances in a very small room, which I suspect is different than the experience of most Cracker fans who owned their early albums like Cracker and Kerosene Hat and/or who have been there for multiple decades. 

Because of this, it seems sort of weird that I would have liked the two shows so much.  Stripped down to just the two of them on stage, without any apparent baggage of their past rock n’ roll life or fame, my experience was just of a couple dudes ready to deliver some really great songs.  David Lowery’s cynical lyrics are deceptively wise - I like where he's coming from, and Johnny Hickman’s guitar playing is remarkably good, even if it is a little show-offish for my typical taste.
David Lowery and Johnny Hickman of Cracker
I guess the point I’m trying to make is these could have been any two guys up there on stage, giving their songs a shot.  The fact that these guys happen to be relatively famous rock stars who were playing in front of sell out crowds both times, doesn’t really change the fact that they still had to prove their worth on the spot to me, a guy unfamiliar with their work, same as two unknowns playing for a few bucks at the bar across the street would have had to do. 

From the instant I first saw them I could tell these guys were pros, which made me want to go back the next time they played this local venue, even though I never got around to listening to any Cracker albums in between.  I can't remember if they did Loser last time - the Garcia/Hunter song that Jerry performed in the Grateful Dead - but they did it this time as the 3rd song out and it was awesome!

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Annual Daniel is this weekend!

The Annual Daniel
Some friends of mine have a nice little spot in Draper,VA along where the New River turns into Claytor Lake, and each year they host a party/unofficial music festival called The Annual Daniel.  This year’s celebration has been pushed back to late August due to all the rain and flooding they’ve been having.

Three bands will play on Saturday, August 24, 2013.  One hundred percent of your cash donation of $10, $20 or more will go toward these artists:
Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie - blending folk, bluegrass and Americana.
Supatight - funk with elements of reggae, soul, jazz, and comedic country.
Hammer No More the Fingers - an insanely good, unique rock trio with a dynamic live show.  HNMTF has played the A.D. multiple times.
Hammer No More the Fingers
The Annual Daniel is like a house concert gone wild!  Friends, family and friends-to-be bring food and drink to share, set up camp on the property, and hang out for a night or two.  The more the merrier, however if you plan on attending please carpool since parking space is limited.  1751 Shulls Lane (AKA River Rat Drive), Draper, VA 24324.  Good luck finding your way there!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Oral Tradition in Appalachian Old-Time Instrumental Music

I found the following text on an Appalachian State University page for Special Collections at Belk Library:
Before the advent of electrical recording mediums, instrumental music in Appalachia was transmitted directly from person to person. Most musicians were also unable to read or write notated music, and therefore relied on personal instruction and memory to acquire new tunes. Due to the reliance on memory, variations were unavoidable (similar to the children's game "telephone"). This process, known formally as "oral transmission" or "oral tradition," and informally as the "folk process," is responsible for the dissemination and preservation of the large body of music now referred to as "old-time." Although this process continues today, the majority of modern old-time musicians depend on recordings for the acquisition of new repertoire.

I find the sentence about modern old-time musicians' dependence on recordings to be particularly interesting.  A lot of hardcore old-time musicians love to reference the one and only source for certain tunes, regarding anything else as an inferior derivation.
I agree that one should at least seek out the earliest recorded and/or most prominent source for a tune, especially since these recordings are usually findable through online digital archives, but part of me wonders if strict emulation to the source recording is contrary to the tradition as it existed before recordings were available?

It almost seems more organic to get your tunes locally from the people you play with, regardless of where that person might have gotten their version from, and then take it from there based on personal taste, abilities, influences, et cetera.  There's more than one way to skin a cat, or play a tune.  So long as you balance personal expression with a respect for the purity of the music, I don't see any harm in doing it whichever way you see fit.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New album "Something In the Water" by Richmond, VA band Scattered Smothered and Covered now available

Scattered Smothered and Covered is the kind of band you want to be in.  Chris Hale – mandolin and vocals, Brett Edwards – acoustic lead guitar, Kendall Harlan – acoustic rhythm guitar, harmonica and vocals, and Ryan Davis – upright bass and vocals.  Four long-time friends with like-minded, good musical tastes, who get together on occasion to play their well-written originals and favorite cover songs at cool local venues like The Camel, Center of the Universe Brewing Company, James River Cellars Winery and O’Bank’s Cafe and Grill. 
Scattered, Smothered and Covered 
The first time I saw Scattered Smothered and Covered play it was like my iPod was on shuffle:  Grateful Dead, Old and in the Way and Bob Marley songs, traditional tunes such as Red Haired Boy and Drowsy Maggie, maybe even a Django jazz number, with originals mixed in so well to the repertoire that at first – before I knew that they also did their own material – I mistook these songs for covers that I wasn’t familiar with.  On stage, Scattered Smothered and Covered conjures up something akin to a small-scale Grateful Dead vibe; a trait that I find to be uniquely appealing about this band.

I recently received a copy of Scattered’s new album Something In the Water, which contains 10 feel-good songs – 7 band originals and 3 covers including Let Me Fall, Dire Wolf and Rivers of Babylon (East Virginia is based on the traditional song).  Like their previous 2 albums, Something In the Water is a good representation of their songwriting skills and instrumental abilities.  For a band that probably plays at least 2 covers to every 1 original in their live shows, the self-penned songs here are really quite strong (as always), both lyrically and melodically. 
Influences of bluegrass, old-time, trad jazz and the Caribbean add flavor to their songs, and SSC is able to cultivate quite a diverse sound using basically the same mix of acoustic instruments on each track.  I could list standout numbers, but I’d soon be naming all the cuts.  It’s really just an easy to listen to album that is the perfect music to accompany a trip to the beach, the mountains, the river, or wherever the road might take you.  Ideally, I’d rather be seeing these guys perform these songs live, but listening to them on CD is a pleasant compromise.

Scattered Smothered and Covered will be playing on Friday, August 23rd 6:30-9:30PM at James River Cellars, where you can see them in-person and pick up a copy of the new CD while you’re at it!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Clifftop 2013 YouTube Videos - Appalachian Stringband Festival

A YouTuber named moonshineV has uploaded a bunch of videos from Clifftop 2013.  One of my favorites is this video of Dan Gellert playing Plowboy Hop.  What key is this in?  C?  Bb???

And this one of Rachel Eddy fiddling Johnny, Johnny Don't Get Drunk.

Oh, and this one of a Schipperke and a pig.  Why not?  I remember seeing that Schipperke.  They've always been one of my favorite types of dogs.

There's lots more videos where these came from!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ragtime Tenor Banjo

There’s a lot of discussion and misinformation on the web regarding what constitutes Irish tenor banjo.  Is it 17 frets or 19 frets?  Is it open back or resonator?  Is it GDAE tuning, CGDA tuning, or something else?  Is it all single-note melody or can there be some chordal playing?  Frankly, I don’t care.  I tune my tenor banjos in 5ths and like to play both Irish Celtic jigs and reels and Appalachian Old-Time fiddle tunes on them.  One thing for certain is that this is different than the chordal jazz banjo style.

I don’t know if it should be considered a subgenre of Old-Time or if it’s a category unto itself, but there’s a subset of mandolin-friendly tunes that
I would call “string ragtime” numbers.  These are tunes like L and N Rag, Stone’s Rag, Hawkins Rag, Pig Ankle Rag, Chinese Breakdown, At a Georgia Camp Meeting, Walking Uptown Foxtrot, Plowboy Hop, Eli Green’s Cakewalk, Alabama Jubilee, Ragtime Annie, and so on.  Even though there’s a jazzy tinge to this music, it would probably still fall more under the “Irish” way of playing:  single notes within a group situation.

This early 1900’s string band ragtime music is represented on the recordings of Adam Tanner, the Ragtime Skedaddlers, The Old 78’s, Leroy Larson, Kenny Hall, The Hot Seats and The Skirtlifters, to name a few somewhat recent examples.  In written form, many of these rags, cake walks, stomps and marches are featured in Steve Parker's Ragtime for Fiddle and Mandolin book.  In Irish music, the type of tune called a barn dance can also have some ragtime elements.

I do feel like these string ragtime numbers are distinct from the kind of music played by Eddy Davis, Cynthia Sayer, Elmer Snowden, Don Vappie, Tim Allan, Narvin Kimball, Buddy Wachter, Tyler Jackson, Carl LeBlanc and other jazz tenor banjo players.  Nonetheless, some knowledge of the chordal Dixieland jazz banjo style of playing cannot hurt when learning these ragtime tunes.  It is the quest and use of other ideas that round you out as a musician, and I’m not too strict with regard to one style or another.  Adding some of these ragtime tunes to my repertoire would be a nice challenge and complement to the Irish and Old-Time tunes I already play and they would be great for tenor banjo.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tunes from Doolin, County Clare

Doolin is where I first heard and fell in love with Irish traditional music almost a decade ago.  Some of the musicians that I got to hear on my visits there, including Yvonne Casey, Eoin O'Neill, Quentin Cooper, Kevin Griffin and James Cullinan, are still my favorites to this day.
Doolin Ireland
So, I was pleased to discover that a concertina player named Charles, originally from Switzerland but now living in Doolin, has created a site to share the tunes he is learning in County Clare. The site is called Irish Traditional Music from Doolin and you can find it here.
On his site Charles has posted the music and some recordings for the reels, jigs, hornpipes and other tunes common to this musically rich region of Ireland.  He's constantly adding to the list so check back often.  Heck, I even saw Shove the Pig's Foot a Little Further Into the Fire on there!  It's nice that one of our tunes has infiltrated this part of the world.  Tunes from Doolin is also on Facebook.  "Like" the page and you'll stay apprised of updates.

Charles and his wife Kate run a bed and breakfast in Doolin called Kate's Place, which would probably be a good place to stay while you're there.  The above mentioned fiddler James Cullinan also runs a seafood restaurant and guest house in the village, with his wife and piano player Carol.  However, Laura and I stayed in Toomullin House both times we were there.
McGann's Pub - Doolin
If you'd like to read about the recent musical history of Doolin - a little village with 3 or 4 pubs that was arguably the hub of Irish traditional music from the 1980's to the 2000's - I encourage you to read the academic but thorough book called Turning the Tune by Adam R. Kaul; now available in paperback.