Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Camper Van Beethoven's Russian-Flavored Ska Tunes

Telephone Free Landslide Victory
Camper Van Beethoven’s brilliant 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory contains 9 or 10 sprightly instrumental tunes - purposely faux approximations of ethnic folk music with a ska beat. There’s Tex-Mex/Norteña (Border Ska, the almost instrumental Tina), Islandy Surf (Yanqui Go Home, Opi Rides Again), Eastern European (Balalaika Gap, Skinhead Stomp, Vladivostok, bonus reissue track Atkuda), Middle Eastern (Payed Vacation: Greece) and vaguely Oriental (Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China).

After Telephone Free Landslide Victory CVB became a little more song-oriented and/or the instrumentals were more sprawling and psychedelic. However the Camper tunes L’Aguardiente and RNR Uzbekistan are also in this pseudo-ethnic instrumental category.

The best of these types of tunes might be the minor-key polka Balalaika Gap, which could actually pass for a traditional Balkan or Ukranian melody. On their Facebook page, CVB recently shared an inquiry they received about this tune from a college student.
Message: Hi, my name is xxxxxx. My dad is a huge fan and I grew up listening to your music. I am in a college World Music class and I want to write a paper on your song 'Balalaika Gap'. Which member played the Balalaika, and why were you inspired to write this song? Thank you so much for your time!

(violinist Jonathan Segel replies) Hi. I’m sorry to say, nobody played the balalaika. In fact, what was used in its stead was a mandolin. The song itself came from a period of Camper Van Beethoven writing wherein we were purposely trying to make false representations of foreign musics, “ethnographic forgeries” as Holger Czukay called such things in his band Can. Our inspiration was the basic universality of popular culture, where things were heard and then played back from different perspectives, such as pretty much all music does; people try to make what they have heard with what they have. For example, there are stories of the origins of “Dub” style mixing in rock steady and reggae where they say that they heard the hits on the radio coming over the ocean from America to Jamaica and there were radio drop outs, so they tried to emulate that. In our case, we grew up in the 1960s and 70s and LA television had its own idea of what “ethnic” music sounded like, we took that as much as the real thing into account when we merged the idea of eastern European melody with ska backbeats. Ska, as a back beat, of course, is much the same as polkas and so many other folk musics anyway. Our intention was to hit punk rockers with punk rock, that is to say, not to fit into any sort of dogmatic idea of genre, but go to punk rock shows and play whatever we thought was a punk attitude to play, which included annoying the skinheads. They liked the beat, regardless of the pseudo-ethnic melodies (and I have to say, there was a sort of kick of putting klezmer-ish melodies to back beats that potentially Nazi skinheads would dance to, back in the beginning.) --Jonathan
CVB in 1985 - photo by Jock Hamilton
In a former post to his blog, CVB front man David Lowery explained how these fast Russian-flavored ska tunes were an important part of their live set.
Many of these songs came from two of the earlier post punk collaborations I had with Chris Molla. One was Sitting Duck the other was the Estonian Gauchos. Sitting Duck often played with punk bands at The Ritz - the short lived punk venue in The Inland Empire (an area east of greater Los Angeles). If you unearth tapes of these bands I’m NOT the guy with the fake English accent. These two bands were like Camper, they were not punk rock but needed to be understood in the context of punk rock. In Southern California there two thing the hardcore punks and skinheads would tolerate other than punk rock. Surf (hence Agent Orange) and Ska. In order to get away with playing in front of these audiences we would pepper our set with fast surf like or ska-like instrumentals so the punks and skinheads could commence to skanking.
As the bands evolved into Camper Van Beethoven these songs took on a distinctly Eastern European sound. Especially once Jonathan Segel joined the band in 1984.
Camper Van Beethoven often found themselves in actual physical danger playing in front of sometimes hostile hardcore punk audiences.
Camper Van Beethoven were fake hippies (maybe not Jonathan… he might have been a real hippy, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t any less brave). We grew our hair out long. We wore thrift store ponchos, beads, carried those hippy shoulder bags and wore clogs. Anything punk rockers would not like. Despite this some of the punk bands took a real liking to CVB. (So did Maximum Rock n Roll, the bible of west coast punk). One early vocal supporter was Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys. He invited us to do a few shows with the Dead Kennedys shortly after the release of our first record. One of the shows was at an American Legion or VFW in Chico, California.
In the big cities there were enough irony-enabled punk rockers that the audience would quickly get that we were more or less one of them and at least tolerate our set. Here in Chico that day in front of 800 hardcore punkers and skinheads that did not seem like it was gonna happen. Usually when we launched into one of our country-hippy-folk versions of a classic hardcore song, something like Black Flag’s Wasted, the punkers began to warm to us. This audience did not. When we launched into Wasted the audience stood there motionless and the skinheads right in front of me became very hostile. I watched a little knot of them as their eyes began to fill with white hot hate. This was like the early days of CVB back in the Inland Empire except instead of an audience of 50 it was 800 and we weren’t on our home turf. We had no homeys in the audience to protect us. After the song, the littlest of the knot of skinheads right in front of me points at me and says something like “fucking hippy, we’re gonna fuck you up”. BTW it’s always the little guy who says shit like this AND actually means it. I looked over at Jonathan I think because Jonathan grew up not far from Chico in the Central Valley. Fittingly Jonathan is chewing tobacco and spitting back into a beer bottle. He stares right back at me. He’s got this look on his face that says “Dude, I knew all along there was a 50/50 chance we were gonna get our asses kicked after the gig. Did you really just figure that out?”
We knew we had only one hope. I’m not sure if this is how we ended the show but it’s pretty much how we avoided getting our asses kicked. We played 3 or 4 fast Russian ska songs in a row, then played Take The Skinheads Bowling. Like the scene in the Blues Brothers, when they play Rawhide for the rednecks, somehow this little mini-set of ska and Skinheads Bowling converted a large portion of the crowd to our side. I don’t really remember if they were all skanking happily at the end of the show but we didn’t get the shit kicked out of us with steel toed Doc Martens. That’s as close as it gets to a happy ending.
To this day there is always an little echo of this gig in our sets.--David Lowery

Whatever the reason for their existence these CVB instrumentals are great tunes! Every bit as good as the actual Russian folk melodies like Korobochka and Katyusha that they are reminiscent of. I'm in the process of learning some of these, starting with Balalaika Gap, Opi Rides Again, Mao Reminisces, and RNR Uzbekistan.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lionel Belasco's Song of the Jumbies and Back Down to the Tropics (as recorded by Nick DiSebastian)

BTL Music Notes chart for Song of the Jumbies
In 2013 I hired musician Nick DiSebastian of Built To Last Music Notes to transcribe all 18 tracks from the rare, out-of-print Bonne Humeur album by The Etcetera String Band.  I sent him mp3s from the CD (early string band music of the Caribbean: Creole Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands) and Nick transcribed the music, sending back pdfs containing chords, notation and mandolin tab, per my request.

BTL Music Notes chart for Back Down to the Tropics
The tunes from that CD have become some of my favorite music to play.  One discovery made via this Bonne Humeur CD was orchestra leader and composer Lionel Belasco.  Born around 1882, Belasco grew up in Venezuela and Trinidad. He was classically trained, but composed indigenous pieces such as joropos, paseos and danzas.  I learned from the Bonne Humeur liner notes that a couple collections of his music were published over 70 years ago.

Recently I was able to obtain a copy of one of those volumes: the 1944 booklet Calypso Rhythm Songs: Authentic Tropical Novelty Melodies by Lionel Belasco and Leighla Whipper.  The booklet contains fifteen "authenticated West Indian calypsos".

I like to have audio and sheet music when learning a new song.  In this case I had the sheet music but no audio, so I asked Nick if he could make source recordings of a couple of the pieces from this collection and he said yes.  Sort of a transcription in reverse!  I sent Nick copies of the sheet music and not only did he make professional sounding overdubbed recordings for me (adding some embellishments and arpeggios where it fit), but he also created his own charts with some minor revisions to the chords and melody where it seemed to make sense.

Below are the recordings Nick made for me.  I have his permission to share them here.

I think these sound great!  Now I have clean sounding basic recordings featuring lead melody plus rhythm backup to get the sound of the tune into my head.  Without this I would be relying on my own somewhat unreliable reading skills and sense of timing.  If you have a similar need I encourage you to reach out to Nick to see if he can help.

See below for the original images that Nick had to work with.

Song of the Jumbies page 1 of 2
Song of the Jumbies page 2 of 2
Back Down to the Tropics page 1 of 3
Back Down to the Tropics page 2 of 3
Back Down to the Tropics page 3 of 3
Calypso Rhythm Songs front cover

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Three (of Four) Qualities That Make JRAD Different Than Other Grateful Dead Cover Bands

I haven't gotten to see Joe Russo's Almost Dead (JRAD) yet.  I hope that changes with Lockn', if not before.  Frankly I had never really paid any attention to them until they were included in the initial Lockn' lineup announcement.  Recently I've been listening to JRAD a lot and have been continually impressed.

JRAD is not your average cover band. They are a veritable all-star supergroup bringing new life into this music in a way that even the officially-sanctioned Dead and Company doesn't do.  Here are three - and maybe four - areas that set them apart.
The members of Joe Russo's Almost Dead all come from successful pre-existing musical projects.  Joe Russo and Marco Benevento were The Duo - an instrumental jazz/rock duo with a strong indie following.  Benevento has since gone on to front his own trio while Russo was picked up to drum for Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in Furthur.  Guitarist/Jerry-vocals Tom Hamilton is the creative force behind American Babies, one of the top emerging rock bands.  Guitarist/Bobby-vocals Scott Metzger has been a member of Rana and Particle, and is currently part of the guitar trio WOLF!  Bassist Dave Dreiwitz is of course the bassist for Ween - an American institution in its own right.

Being songwriters, composers and contributing members to these other creative outlets ensures that each member brings a unique perspective to the tribute band format.  Ultimately, JRAD is just a fun, mortgage-paying outlet for these guys, and the fact that it is not an end-all be-all musical occupation affords them a looseness that is one of the band's most appealing characteristics.  JRAD would be a great band no matter what music they were playing.

Led By Drums and Keyboards
Arguably the two most musically talented individuals in The Grateful Dead were lead-guitarist Jerry Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh.  With apologies to Bob Weir - the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time - Jerry and Phil's boundless creativity and sense of adventure were the driving force behind the Grateful Dead's musical superiority.  There were times when drummer Bill Kreutzmann played a bigger than expected role (check out the Grateful Dead Movie bonus footage) but being paired with 2nd drummer Mickey Hart for most of their run inhibited his fluidity.

In JRAD the foundation stems from the deep connection between keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo.  The confidence and musical palette that these two draw from has a greater impact than guitar and bass in this interpretation of the music.  That said, JRAD is a true democracy where all members contribute to the creativity.

Improvisation and Risk Taking
Joe Russo's Almost Dead might primarily play the music of The Grateful Dead, but in between the lyrics and written parts JRAD improvises like a completely original ensemble and isn't afraid to take it waaaaaaaay out there.  Their jams almost always retain a semblance of "Deadness" even while venturing into waters that The Dead never swam.

Years ago Phish fans came up with a term called Type II jamming to describe moments when their beloved band leaves behind the structure of the song in favor of completely improvised music making.  JRAD often goes Type II multiple times each set.  In these moments of psychedelic sorcery JRAD can sound like some heretofore unheard of combination of '74 Dead, '97 Phish and Pangea/Agharta Miles - an osmosis of collective influences that also relies on sharp listening skills and a willingness to believe that magic can happen if you let it.

BONUS:  Song Delivery
Besides being the best guitarist of all time, Jerry Garcia is without a doubt one of the best vocalists of all time. Granted my standards are much different than an American Idol point of view but as far as I'm concerned Jerry was a great interpreter of songs, whether these were his own pieces co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter, or a Dylan song, or even something from the Great American songbook such as Irving Berlin's Russian Lullaby.  Anyway, the way Tom Hamilton pours himself into these Jerry Garcia numbers is starting to take on a broken quality of its own.  It's the same familiar songs coming from a comforting voice -- sung with a different perspective.  No other Dead tribute band does it so well and so singular.

It's not all Tommy Hamilton on vocals though.  Having a force like Scott Metzger at the ready for the Bob Weir songs gives JRAD sets the back-and-forth of a classic Jerry/Bob duel.  Metzger can really sound like Bobby when he wants to, while Hamilton "sounds like Jerry" by not sounding like Jerry.  It's more of an attitude in his case.

There you go.  It might be stupid to write this much text about a tribute band, but in a time when cover bands are a dime a dozen, JRAD is light-years ahead of most tribute bands.  If JRAD did a whole album of original material and started working these songs into their shows, and/or bringing in content from their other projects, I doubt anyone would complain so long as these arrangements retained the JRAD thumbprint.