What’s Up Fall 2015
As many of you know, I’ve been up to my ears for the last few years on my Amsterdam Project and haven’t given much time to “What’s Up.” More on the project a bit later.
This year’s been a busy one. In February, Jim Kweskin and I flew to Austin to hook up with Cindy Cashdollar and Suzy Thompson - both key players in the Texas Sheiks band. Jim and I are whittling away at a duo album and it should be finished by the end of this year. For what we’re doing, we couldn’t have chosen two more complimentary musicians in Cindy and Suzy… and Cindy turned us on to bassist Kevin Smith from Willie Nelson’s band so we really had it going on. We also played the Mucky Duck in Houston and The Rollins Studio Theatre in Austin. Nothing but fun with these folks… really.
In March I flew to Holland to continue work on my classical album – The Amsterdam Project. This has been going on for quite some time – we’re in our sixth year! – and we wonder if there’ll still be CDs by the time we finish! In any case, on this trip we rehearsed and recorded works for mezzo soprano and chamber ensemble. I’ve been fortunate to work with a very talented and intuitive opera singer named Claron McFadden. She’s originally from Rochester - a graduate of the Eastman School - but she’s lived in Amsterdam for so long I do believe Claron’s more Dutch than American. Claron travels the world performing so it’s difficult to find a time when she’s available, but we’ve managed.
My old partner, Joe Boyd, came over from London for these recordings. Reassuring to have Joe’s interest. The longer one digs into a project the better the chances of losing one’s perspective. Someone might say, “This is good!” And I might say, “Really? I can’t tell anymore.”
After my trip to A’dam I headed back to LA for 10 days, then headed to the East Cost for some duo gigs with Kweskin; always fun to play with Jimmy. After that I flew to London to start a comfortable little tour of the U.K. This was due to the good efforts of a fellow named Johnny Fewings. Johnny had been asking me to play his club in Whitstable for quite some time, and in order to make things work out, he graciously put a few other dates together to make things worth my while… and they were all a pleasure.
I started out in Newcastle, then headed to West Yorkshire where I stayed with singer / songwriter / author Steve Tilston. A talented man, he, and a hell of a picker. Steve and his wife, Margaret, put me up for three nights in their cozy home. During that time I played gigs in Saltair and Wigan. Old friends showed up in both places… sweet.
After Wigan I headed to London for a gig at The Nest Collective in Islington. The club looked like something out of the early-sixties… a loft in The Village… full of folk geezers… including Tom Paley of the New Lost City Ramblers. Oh, and Bonnie Dobson showed up. Now there’s a blast from the past. Joe Boyd was MC.
The next gig was Whitstable… the original reason for the tour. Johnny and his wife, Anna, put me up in their cottage on the beach. Like home. Good food and chit chat… and a little pickin’ on the side (Johnny can play). The gig was packed, mainly because Johnny ordered everyone in town to go to the show. The venue was perched atop an oyster house on the shore of the Thames. As it was April - a month with an “r” in it - the oysters were perfect. And Anna cooked a local leg of lamb on our last night there… an embarrassment of riches.
I played one more date on the tour in Brighton at the smallest pub imaginable… called The Grays. I’d played there before but not for a long time so I went back for sentimental reasons. Unbelievably, a couple came over from Holland to see the show. After Brighton I went back up to London to do the Bob Harris Show on BBC Radio, then flew to Amsterdam the next day for more rehearsing, recording and mixing.
After Amsterdam, I went home for five days, then headed up to the San Francisco Bay Area for a few gigs. Sadly, I also played at a memorial for Earl Crabb, an old friend and beloved fixture of the Berkeley folk scene. I think Earl must have been at every gig I ever played up there since the Jug Band hit the place in 1964. Earl was always there with his fancy camera and a big smile. Quite a history to Earl. While in college he presented a concert of the Reverend Gary Davis with Bob Dylan as the opening act. The audience wasn’t too thrilled with Dylan that night (what did they know) so Dylan offered to do the show for nothing. But Earl was having none of that and paid the young fellow his due. Adios to Earl Crabb… a welcoming man and friend to so many.
In early July, I flew to Vancouver Island to play the Musicfest in Comox with one of my old Better Days mates, Amos Garrett. Amos is a hell of a baritone singer, and he gets a sound out of a guitar that is uniquely sublime. It was his solo on Maria’s “Midnight at the Oasis” that had everyone, including Stevie Wonder, scratching their heads wondering how he did it… all those harmonically sophisticated two and three note bends. Magnificent. We’ve collaborated on many an album and toured the USA, Canada and Japan. It’s always a special musical treat for me to play with this brilliant musician.
After Vancouver Island I hopped home for a few days, then headed to the East Coast for a tour with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Yes, it’s true. Jim, Maria and I were the “originals” and Martin Keith (bass, and Bill Keith’s son), Jason Anick (fiddle) and Bennett Sullivan (banjo) were the fresh new backup boys… and they were wonderful!
All gigs went well, but they got better and better as we went along… the band getting tighter and tighter. Of note was the appearance of John Oates (he of Hall & Oates) at our gig in Cambridge, MA. John told me he used to come to see the Jug Band as a young kid in Philadelphia. He knew all our songs!! Will wonders ever cease! The NYC gig at The City Winery brought out lots of old fans and fellow musicians as well. John Sebastian sat in with us as did Bob Gurland (mouth trumpeter), both from the Even Dozen Jug Band. David Nichtern – the writer of “Midnight at the Oasis” – came backstage to say hello as well as old buddy, John Hammond. Who else… there were others… can’t conjure them right now… suffice to say it was crazy with old friends.
This may well have been the last Jim Kweskin Jug Band appearance. I may never sing “Sweet Sue” on helium ever again (yes, please say it is so), but who knows… I’ve thought this before.
I headed home to LA after the Jug Band dates, but only for a few days. Next… Canada again. Amos and I played three more festivals… first, The Calgary Blues Festival, where I heard Curtis Salgado for the first time. I loved this guy… straight from the heart. Later that evening, Curtis and I traded stories in the hotel bar. He couldn’t have been more knowledgeable about blues, and respectful of his many influences.
Next was The Edmonton Folk Festival, always a treat. I guess the high point there was a workshop with Amos, Richard Thompson, The Milk Carton Kids and yours truly. I sang “The Tennessee Blues” with Amos and Richard backing me up… this at the suggestion of a fan who emailed me ahead of time with the request. He noted that Amos played guitar on the Bobby Charles version and that Richard had played on mine when he was a mere, willowy tadpole. So we did it up proper.
The next stop was the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival in the middle of British Columbia. The drive over the Rockies was spectacular to say the least. And old friend, Peter North, hosts this event… and it was yet another easy-going comfortable Canadian festival. As it turned out, John Oates was at this festival as well so we had a little more time to chat. The shocking favorite for me was a Chinese group called, “Hanggai.” They also played The Edmonton Festival but I didn’t get to hear them due to scheduling conflicts. The group is based in Beijing but they play traditional Mongolian music in their own rockin’ style… throat singing and all. Check ‘em out… the drummer is a killer!
After Salmon Arm I headed home to LA for a few local gigs and some recording with Jim Kweskin. Then in Mid-September I headed east again for solo dates and a little socializing. This included a short visit to Martha’s Vineyard - my old stomping grounds - to visit my daughter, Dardy, her husband Si and the two boys, Quinlan and Corrick. Quinlan will be nine by next Spring. Next April, he and his mother will be coming over to Amsterdam to visit Grandpa. I can’t wait to see his eyes pop out when we go to see some windmills, and the canals of course, and Nemo, the science museum… where the kids put on lab coats and conduct experiments!
I also visited Bill Keith on this trip to The Vineyard. Bill played banjo and pedal steel with the Kweskin Jug Band after having left an indelible mark on the bluegrass world during his time with Bill Monroe. He had an exquisite musical mind. Unfortunately, this September visit was my last time with Bill. He passed away about a month later. Bill had been surviving terminal cancer for a couple of years and doing a damn good – and dignified - job of it. But he could only stretch it out for so long. Just three weeks prior to his passing, Bill, his wife, Claire, and Bill’s old pickin’ pal, Jim Rooney, went down to North Carolina where Bill was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. It was about time!! Happy Traum tells me that the standing ovation just went on and on and on. There isn’t a banjo player today who doesn’t owe something to the innovations of Bill Keith.
I got home again in early October… so here I am, working on the charts for my next trip to Amsterdam… I leave in a week. No gigs planned for a while in order to give me a chance to write music.
Next year… the Mid-West, Amsterdam, Iceland, Sweden, Cyprus, Germany… and who knows what else.
All for now.
Best to you all,