Donate to the Grapevine

Express your thanks by leaving the pirate a tip!

June 5, 2013

The Great Cascadian Jug Band Revival

Hi Folks,
It's been a year since my last post. I'm not dead, just busy in the real world. Busy making music!

As you may know, I love the shit out of jug band music. I was born and bred on the stuff. And there have been so many bad jug bands because folks see a washboard or a washtub bass and think to themselves "hey, I could do that", that it's sometimes hard to find the good ones, or believe that it didn't die off decades ago. But dear listeners, let me make you aware of one thing:

Jug band music is not dead.

Jug band music is not only alive and well, it is stomping along mightily and has numerous glorious bastard children. If you are not aware of this, it may be because you are not living in Cascadia, also known as the pacific northwest, the new epicenter of this music, after New Orleans. You also may not know about it because true to their street-performing ancestors, most of these bands have a scarce presence on the internet. They're too busy rattlin' the dimes out of people's pockets and shakin' the geebies out of people's pants to bother with streamlined websites and self-indulgent twitterisms.

But in the span of two weeks there have been 3 great gatherings of kitchenophonic music.
The first and oldest of these is Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival. While it embraces all manner of folk music, including world music of many varieties, on every corner of sidewalk you can find folks busking, and it seems to be a beacon for street performers from all over the country. They gather to busk at the nation's biggest free music festival, and make sure that any high-falutin' folk snobs are brought back down home with some toe-tappin tunes.
This year also featured the first annual Cascadia Ragtime Rendezvous Jug Band Jubilee in Portland, OR. Boasting 26 bands, it was surely one of the best gatherings of its kind. I wish I could have gone, but instead I went to the preview event, a gathering of six bands in an old speak-easy and naughty-film-screening-secret-theater. Most of these bands are described below:

Baby Gramps

The old king of hokum and amalgamation of all things "old weird america" is Baby Gramps. He is Harry Smith's anthology of American Folk Music compressed into a single person. He has been at times the single champion of the bizarre, with his wild ragtime-rockabilly, throat-singing, mad-talking-foot-stomping, hokum falokum idiosyncratic palindromatic amusing musical musings. He was old before it was cool. And will be old after it's cool too. He has inspired countless others to cast off their chains of sex-appeal and charm and invite the demons of strangeness and syncopation to become their new spirit guides. Check out his website.

The Crow Quill Night Owls

Among those who was taken aback and then taken aforwards by Gramps was a young Kit "Stymee" Stovepipe. He has since locked himself in numerous metaphorical and probably literal closets with nothing but a gramophone, some old jug band records, and an instrument. By so-doing, he's mastered the resonator guitar, washboard, harmonica, and blows a mean jug besides. Syncopation pervades his entire being. Upon emergence from his musical cocoon, he started two fantastically good jug bands. The first, The Inkwell Rhythm Makers, in Eugene, OR, was probably the best thing to come along in jug band world since the Cheap Suit Serenaders. The second, The Crow Quill Night Owls, is the best thing since the Inkwell Rhythm Makers. They're probably the best jug band in the world, at once fully classic and traditional-sounding, and also unique and fresh. In the Crow Quill Night Owls, Kit Stovepipe is joined by Windy City Alex on tenor banjo and kazoo, and Baylin Adaheer on washtub bass and kazoo. When Maria Muldaur wanted to make a jug band album a couple years ago, she thought it would be impossible because no one is playing that music anymore. Then she discovered the Crow Quill Night Owls, and took 'em on board to record the only Jug Band album ever nominated for a grammy. Check out their Facebook and Bandcamp sites. They just came out with a new album, a week ago. I bought it the first night it was on sale.

The Gallus Brothers

Joining Maria Muldaur on her album (and tour, and subsequent kids album), are The Gallus Brothers, who also fill out the Crow Quill Night Owls quite often (making the band an unstoppable 5-piece to be reckoned with). The Gallus Brothers have two things that turn heads immediately when they start playing: suspenders and circus tricks! Well, that may have been what first drew folks to the band 10 years ago, but it's the impeccably great fingerpicking guitar of Devin Champlin and the ohmygodwhatthehellisthatthing irresistably infectious suitcase percussion kit of Lucas Hicks that keep folks comin back to boogie until they fall over and get the boogie cramps. Trust me, once you hear the combination of suitcase, low-hat, bones, spoons, washboard, and things that rattle and ding, you will understand why I don't hesitate to call Lucas the most inventive percussionist this side of Moondog. And somehow, though he's the only one doing what he does, it sounds as if all these old good time country blues songs were written with his playing implicit in their rhythm. And whatever the style of the song, Devin plays it perfectly, with just the right bit of bounce to keep your toes attentive.
Check out their bandcamp and website.

Sour Mash Hug Band

And there are a few contemporary bands for whom jug band music is just one of many influences. These are some of the best indefinable bands out there, fully of roots and original vigor too. Jug band music takes a turn to the east with the Sour Mash Hug Band and their beguiling combination of vaudeville, klezmer, gypsy swing, and some good olefashioned trombone, accordion, and banjolele downhome new orleans shakers. They're like the 1934 world's fair condensed into a band. Curtains, please! They're running a Kickstarter campaign right now to raise the funds to press their next album. Really. RIGHT NOW. They've got about 24 hours left to meet their goal. Go check it out!

Hot Damn Scandal

And lastly, there is the band that's been primarily responsible for my absence from the blogging world.
While I can't pretend to be unbiased about Hot Damn Scandal, I can say that even if I weren't personally involved in the band, I would still drink up the music like hot chili whiskey and dance my earballs off at all their shows. Imagine a post-apocalyptic jug band with Tom Waits on lead vocals, Django Reinhardt on slide guitar, and Mississippi John Hurt standing behind the musicians on-stage, beaming his sly, self-contented smile at those young folks who took his way of pickin' and brought it so many different places. If those three legendary musicians had a child together, and it dropped out of school, thumbed a ride across the country and ended up in New Orleans, it might sound something like Hot Damn Scandal. The repertoire of songs consists of everything from outlaw ballads to dirty jazz, gypsy blues, circus freakouts, ragtime sea shanties, string band funk, lonesome heart breakers, and the occasional tender love song. The singing sounds like a street singer who took one lesson from Paul Robeson, another from Tom Waits, and a third from the bottom of the bottle of life. The music sticks in your head like dirty bubble gum on your soul, and shakes the hips of even the devout seatbound folks, but there are just enough moments of unexpected tuneful dissonance and dueling syncopated solos to keep even the most diehard avant-jazz-head coming back for more.
As Scott Casey put it,
“Hot Damn scandal performs music that seems to be carved out of the broken heart of the American dream… you feel like you have heard these songs all your life. These are your favorite boots, your lucky hat, your Saturday night shirt, Your old dog that disappeared after the rain”
Hot Damn Scandal is doing a Kickstarter campaign right now to raise the funds to press their upcoming album. If they make it to their ultimate goal, they'll release it on vinyl. How cool would that be, guys & gals? Check it out. Really! There's only one week left to make the goal.
And if you happen to live in or want to visit Northwest Washington in August, you can catch most of these folks and more at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree, one of my favorite little festivals.