(by Bob Tarte, The Beat magazine, Volume 17, Number 6, 1998)
The last thing I expected to plague us in Missouri was a hurricane. As the rain pounded down I felt awash in the minutiae of Samuel Clemens' life. The remnants of tropical storm Frances not only doused the lights at the Mark Twain Cafe in Hannibal, but they also locked out the cash registers at Mark Twain's boyhood home, Laura "Becky Thatcher" Hawkins' house, Jim Clemens' law office, a trio of Mark Twain museums, Tom Sawyer's Cave, and a Mark Twain theme park on State Road 79 overlooking the Big River.
The wet weather was playing havoc with Linda's lower back. As Linda dialed one chiropractor after another from the restaurant pay phone, a fortysomething woman who overheard her directed us to Dr. Neff. "Tell him Grandma sent you," she suggested. Dr. Neff had earned his chiropractic degree way back in 1950 and told us with a perplexed shake of his head, "She gave herself that name." Grandma was much younger than him, childless and never married. While Doctor cracked Linda's back using a non-handwriting technique he called the Palmer Method, I perused his collection of toy cars, little realizing we were soon fated to visit the Remember When toy museum in nearby Canton.
Remember When owner Bob Wyatt's enthusiasm for the antique extends through a display of over 15,000 Marx brand toys and into a backyard 19th century village featuring root cellar-size fully working reconstructions of an old fashioned country store, blacksmith shop, feed store, post office and--his crowning achievement--the one-room Cedar Falls School. According to the May 18, 1998 issue of People--one of only three magazines I located days later in another chiropractor's office serving the twin towns of Festus and Crystal City--Wyatt started up his own classes when the Lewis County school board closed the local elementary school. Three girls from the 20-strong student body showed us around. In between giggling behind our backs, they told us they loved their teacher and loved their school. So would I, since all the model railroading a lad can handle is part of the $100 per month tuition. When I poked my head inside the school, Teacher was collecting papers from his young students, the Egyptian Book of the Dead on a table next to him.
"Are you from a magazine?" one of our three guides inexplicably asked us. I had no idea how to answer that one, and we left in the rain.
My lodging philosophy is spend as little as possible, but pelted silly by precipitation we decided to indulge ourselves with such amenities as a flush toilet. We sought out the Holiday Inn Express, whose owners express concern that our stay be comfortable and enjoyable. Their home is my home, and they feel fortunate we have chosen to stay with them, inviting me to include them in my future plans when I visit the area again. Sure, the rooms cost $70 as opposed to the $25 I like to pay, but Linda's AAA discount knocks off a few bucks, and the sweet roll, juice and coffee "continental breakfast" is a bargain if we make it our only meal until evening. There's frequently a front desk cookie or brownie evening snack which I urge Linda to consider as a light dinner essential to healthy travel. All this plus the therapeutical use of the pool as an alternative to a chiropractic stop brings the effective price of a room down to $5. Who says you have to count every dime on a trip!
I must note with regret that our itinerary did not include the country music Mecca of Branson, because I knew that once I'd seen Boxcar Willie in concert I could never face ordinary life again. For tourist trash minus the stars, we hopefully circumnavigated Lake of the Ozarks. Apart from the general congestion scant desecration was in view. Osage Beach did boast a water park, wacky golf plus a few family attractions, but lags far behind Gatlinburg, TN or the Wisconsin Dells as a glittering jewel of garbage, lacking a single robot show, duck boat ride, Bible theme park, gem panning arcade, fudge factory, chair-lift, herpetarium, go-kart track, laser tag court, haunted house, theme chapel, exotic cat safari, raptor exhibition, Mother Goose house, Ninja Turtle rodeo, or Smurf sanitorium.
At nearby St. Patrick's Church we toured the very pagan Shrine to Mothers with its modern, sans-wimple statue of the Virgin Mary presiding over a lively array of water fountains. After our stroll down the Prayer Path and a visit to the gift shop, Father Barnett told us, "It's taken ten years to get anywhere with this," and lamented the general lack of interest in his dazzling celebration of motherhood. When Linda suggested that this setting in the rolling hills would be lovely for outdoor weddings, he told her, "We get requests all the time, but I'm not going to turn this into another Las Vegas."
East of East St. Louis at the Cahokia site built by the Adena culture a millennium ago, we climbed Monk's Mound which measures a full 16 acres at its base--but the heart of the average Missourian is far more expansive. At Ste. Genevieve, the oldest French settlement west of the Mississippi, we gasped at the ingenuity of an antique broom whittled, bristles and all, from a single birch branch--but it was the generosity of the Missourians that swept us away. Though rain dogged our steps at the Powell Gardens outside of Kansas City, the Osage Beach Butterfly House, the historic town of Arrow Rock on the old Santa Fe Trail, the St. Louis Zoo and the Hat Rack Cafe in Canton, the easy smiles of Missourians provided all the sunshine we needed.
A meander through the Huzzah Valley area fated a meeting with Russell and Betty Lohman via a homemade mailbox sign advertising "Indoor Birds" along with the fancy ducks and show chickens that pecked and strutted around the washing machine, tipi poles, old tires, cinder blocks, and pick-up truck in the yard. Inside a small cabin that seemed to be in a permanent state of construction, a back room held about 60 tightly packed cages housing around 100 different breeds of finches, canaries, and doves, including three varieties of big-beaked Java rice finches I had never seen before in any pet shop, zoo or aviary. While Russell showed me the bedroom furniture he had fashioned from sassafras wood, Betty told Linda that she and Russell were from two different Indian tribes that wouldn't have had anything to do with one another a hundred years ago. "I wouldn't let anyone lay a hand on him now," she said. She also showed us injured birds most other breeders would have tossed out of home and gene pool, and she doted on these especially.
Before we left, she shocked us by pulling out a homemade carrying cage and demanding, "Pick you out a dove," and it saddened us to have to refuse her kind offer. But we still had three days of traveling to go, and the Holiday Inn Express would never understand.
The concept behind Jews Harp (NorthSide Record) must have sounded like strong brew when Finnish multi-instrumentalist Tapani Varis batted it around with his mates after a few too many mugs of Tuborg: why not do an entire album of traditional Scandinavian violin pieces adapted for lead jaw harp. Now, there's little I hold in higher esteem than whimsy, but the continual comic boinging of Varis' twanger turns from tickle to Chinese water torture after the third or fourth song. That it holds up this long is no small feat, given that the jaw harp is an instrument so ill-suited to complex undertakings of melody or percussion that the digeridu is a chamber wind ensemble in comparison. Varis gamely augments his mouth-spring with judicious fiddle, guitar and flute accompaniment that borders on the appealing in any single song. Whether his stab at granting legitimacy to this ancient instrument constitutes bravery or foolhardiness must be answered by the ages. But I do know that whenever I begin to sink below the surface, I'm jolted back by the vague memory of an unknown cowboy film where events of particular idiocy are appropriately signified by jaw harp interludes. And isn't it about time we retired the insulting "jew's harp" tag? [530 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis, MN 55401 or www.noside.com]
Blindfolded, I would have taken Nord Sud for a Scandinavian band based on the evidence of Fragments de Routes (BUDA Musique). That they play mix-and-match world beat ain't the thing. It's the nonchalance with which Jean-Pierre Yvert and Jacques Mayoud add mbira, rattles and water drums to their quiver of harmonic flutes. Sort of a wind equivalent to Tuvan vocalists, the harmonic flute generates spooky overtones with every exhalation. It has no fingering holes, only the opening at the end of the tube. Stopping and unstopping this hole and blowing at different intensity create an unfamilar scale full of sharps and flats which Yvert and Mayoud somehow coax into performing a half-dozen Scandinavian pieces, a few traditional French ditties plus songs flavored by African, Latin and Asian genres. The mood is jaunty yet subdued, and the arrangements tasty.
Where Fragments de Routes fluffs up the holistic planet pillow, White Arrow (NorthSide) tosses a few shards of glass in with the duck down, adding dissonance to Hege Rimestad jazz-savvy violin playing and supplying enough voltage to char anything near an ambient mien. Collaborating with Mari Boine's band, Norway's Rimestad sails north-south-east-west territory as faultlessly as Yvert and Mayoud. Those with multi-disc CD machines might try shuffling White Arrow and Nord Sud together to amaze your friends how well they integrate. The presence of Boine adding joiking vocals here and there along with phantasmagorical arrangements hints that the oh-so-talented Rimestad reassembles the world jigsaw together her own way, positing a pagan boreal homeland at the zero meridian. I'm tempting to call her strategy psychedelic, but the lovely romanticism is too archaic for that. Even when spearing a stubborn riff through strata of gloam on "A Woman with a Mission," she throws enough passion and variation into every potentially annoying repetition of the theme to inspire wonder.
Chateau Neuf loads its big band cannon with marshmallows on Stolen Goods (NorthSide), bringing modern but middle-of-the-road arrangements to traditional Norwegian songs. The horn and vocal sections play nicely with textures and timbres on "Gutn Min/Fille-Vern" (My Boy/Rag Vern), and "Fjellmannjenta" (The Mountain Girl) uses panting vocals and hot-to-trot electric guitar to carry the gossipy tale of a local lass' scandalous behavior. But for all the instrumental firepower, this 18-plus member ensemble is stingy with the spine tingles, opting for restraint over explosions of brass and reeds, never generating real heat or pushing the arrangements. Worse, the la-la, yump-di-di and doodle-da-di-day scat singing dragged me back to the 1960s when an airwaves ambush by the Swingle Singers nearly took my life.
On their eponymous NorthSide Records debut, I thought Triakel would hone the edge that Chateau Neuf lacked. After all, fiddler Kjell-Erik Eriksson and harmonium-meister Janne Stromstedt hail from Sweden's hard-driven Hoven Droven. The collaboration with Emma Hardelin, lead vocalist for the same country's sanguinary Garmarna, promised a wild ride through medieval excess. The back cover even promises a disc glutted with "uncensored violent, sudden death," though you wouldn't know it without your nose pressed against the song translations. Arrangements may be a tad stark, Hardelin's voice eerily pristine and the over all tone just this side of glum, but the music is just plain pretty--and why settle for that when droves of gorgeous Scandinavian stuff by Vasen, Troka, Maria Kalaniemi and others is out there?
I barely made it through the first two cuts of The New Voice of North (Finlandia/Warner Bros.) by Girls of Angeli (also known as Angel Tyott), and I'm glad I stuck it out. This compilation from their 1992-95 releases consists of about half pop material. The other half is songs based on traditional joiking, which is the song chant style of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia. "Gidda Beaivvas" (Spring Sun) and "Muohtacalmmit" (Snowflakes) take this style and set it to the beat of a drum machine with predicatably disastrous results. Mari Boine and Wimme do the modern-primitivist thing far better without falling back on bottled rhythm patterns. Fortunately, this is merely an aberration in an otherwise enjoyable release that from then on only strays as far as Varttina territory ("Meahci Jienat"-Sound of the Woods) in striving for a contemporary approach. The unadorned joiks of Ursula and Tuuni Lansman with their beautiful circular quality is enough to carry the day, whether presented unaccompanied or with layered voices. You go, Angeli girls, but go with your strengths.
On their last couple of cds, Värttinä broadened its harmonies, sweetening its Finno-Urgic sound. But the more aggressive Vihma (Wicklow/BMG) finds the four-headed Valkyrie flinging itself at new material, arms waving, legs kicking, tongues wagging, urged on by a band playing dervish-intensity strings, winds, accordion, and percussion. Singing phonemes seldom heard in western countries, the women sink deep into a pagan past that lingered in Scandinavia longer than anywhere else in continental Europe. Except for the fast attack your average dancehall ragamuffin would die for, the minor-key, near mirror-image harmonies might as well be Balkan. Richard Horowitz's production and occasional ney soloing strengthens the odd connection to eastern music, as does the benign employment of a team of Tuvan throat singers on three songs. Even the slower pieces are less dreamy than dream-like, adding a flinty brightness to the alienation we've come to expect from the Finns. While not as radio friendly or knock-down beautiful as some of Värttinä's previous releases, Vihma still stands head and shoulders above most Scandinavian folk-pop, and it grows on you like a crisp winter day.
Turbulent instrumental passages earmark my favorite portions of any Klezmatics release, but, surprise, these are few and far between on The Well (Xenophile/Green Linnet). Instead, the New York-based klezmer ensemble shifts the emphasis away from Alicia Svigals' sawtooth electric violin and the blur of brass and reeds to the softer contours of a lyric-heavy repertoire. The old crash and oomph I love delays its entry until selection 12, "Di Elter" (Old Age). Guest vocalist Chava Alberstein forms a wonderful counterpart to Klezmatic Lorin Sklamberg, especially on the close-voiced duet "Kh'vel Oyston Di Shikh," one of many works by leading 20th century Yiddish poets set to music here. While the last thing you could accuse the Klezsters of is kowtowing to tradition, the low-key arrangements push the pieces closer to the listenable mainstream than they have previously trodden. Melodically rich and emotionally involving, The Well is the first band's first release where, libretto aside, my failure to understand Yiddish puts me at a true loss.
"What fresh hell is here?" I groused in my best Dorothy Parker mode when the postman flung Accordion Tribe (Intuition Music) against my front door. The seriousness of accordion notables Bratko Bibic, Lars Hollmer, Maria Kalaniemi, Guy Klucevsek and Otto Lechner in overturning the bad rap of their instrument is evident from the pair of droning soundscapes that open the disc, "Altered Landscapes: Part One" and "Wave Hill," clocking in at over 11-minutes between them. There are pleasures here, but they are so meticulously concocted that even the eggheaded Steve Urkel would slip this cd to the bottom of his must-listen pile. The Tribe perks up when it pokes it collective nose into Maria Kalaniemi's "Sofias Flykt." Oddly enough, those, these masters of intonation wreck the sensitivity of the composition by scrambling through it in double time if only to demonstrate how fast they can render a song much better served on Kalaniemi's Iho. I'll try this release again in the dead of winter. It delivers the kind of performance you treat with reverent silence rather than glee and with appreciation of artistic accomplishment rather than the stomping of feet. Lovers of classical music may well fall over it, but I am not so refined.
"Whale music" sure doesn't resemble anything else I've heard. You can't dance to it. You can't hum it. You can't use it to attract wild birds. It's got orchestral complexity, more unexpected shifts than a bad transmission, and it's got saxophones, saxophones, saxophones. The Nuclear Whales are an all-sax, both-sex ensemble making '40s movie music for an alternate universe populated by cartoon-loving physicists who bought up the entire pressing of Istopia (Whaleco Music) the first nanosecond of its release. The Santa Cruz-based Whales reference ethnic music in their kaleidoscopic compositions, and sure enough there's a castenet rattle in "Hang a Left at Spain" and an African lilt to "Across the Serengeti." More program music than pop, this stuff paints mental pictures with oils that never dry rather than striving to move the butt, earning the gratitude of chiropractors everywhere. While one-instrument ensembles often stretch philosophy at the expense of listenability, not so this lot. Try getting through the contrabass sax sections of "When Night's Shadows Fall" without giggling. [P.O. Box 5241, Santa Cruz, CA 95063 or www.nuclearwhales.com]
The flowering of soca, rap and reggae all but withered traditional calypso on the vine. The classic, acoustical format may have receded from earshot in Trinidad, but the producers of Calypso Costa Rica (Musique du Monde/BUDA Records) rooted out the roots music on the English-speaking Caribbean coast of Central America. It's all here--Panamanian singer Tin Tan's mento-flavored "Zancudo," Cahuita Calypso's vivid call-and-response interpretation of New Revelation's "Fire" (also included here), Junio Emilio Alvares' "Confianza" with a Cuban lilt, and Charro De Limon singing circles around his songs with his banjo. The retreat of string-band calypso to the tradition-keepers means we get calypso as folk music rather than folk music transformed into incandescent pop by giants such as Growling Tiger, Lord Kitchener, and Roaring Lion. Also missing is calypso as bush telegraph conducting a dialogue with current events in the voice of average joe and joan. While there's only one well worn standard on the disc, Raynaldo Kenton's version of "Jamaica Farewell," other songs like New Revelation's "Violence" sound like standards. But make no mistake, these keepers of the flame know how to light a fire.
When Dock Boggs began his second recording career in 1963--34 years after the first abruptly ended--it was as if he had come back from the dead. The Virginian singer/banjo player was a legend and cult figure. More significantly, his music came direct from a time when the boundaries between folk and country weren't defined as they are today. The two-cd His Folkway Years 1963-1968 (Smithsonian Folkways) contains the three lps Boggs made after Mike Seeger "found" him and brought him back into the folkie limelight. Even in his sixth decade his strangeness was scarcely diminished as he rethinks classics ("Country Blues," "Sugar Baby") and takes up pieces from this '20s repertoire that never made it to record before, like the creepy "Oh Death." A prime example of what Boggs brings to a song both in terms of history and idiosyncratic approach is a reading which shoots mystery into "Turkey in the Straw" by reaching back to its African-American roots.
The banjo isn't an instrument generally associated with Irish music, but that's how Margaret Barry accompanies herself on I Sang Through the Fairs (Rounder). Not the gentle, pastoral ripple of highlands stream is her playing style, though, but a slow, sharp plucking as if she's attacking the strings with the tip of an iron nail. Nor are the songs peppy, nor does her repertoire contain much in the way of an uptempo jig or reel. Barry, the grande olde dame of Irish art music, was born in Cork City in 1917 and, armed with an unwavering voice awash with stern beauty, was a repository of the folk tradition in the early 1950s when Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy made these recordings in the field. There's no obvious romanticism here, but a matter-of-fact directness which makes the songs seem like life instead of history, especially her stark and chilling delivery of the traditional ghost tale that Barry made her own, the magnificent "She Moved Through the Fair." Augmenting the collection is a handful of conversations with Lomax on which Barry talks about the growth of her art on a very fine disc indeed.
Lucinda Williams' transformation from smarty sweetheart to run-down siren is completed on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), a country, roots rock, folk and blues amalgam by turns infuriating and stunning. Pouty posturing coupled with stuck-note melodies nearly hobble the first handful of cuts save for catchy choruses and incredible drive. Then comes a trio of heartstopping songs. "Can't Let Go" has the lived-in grit of an 80-year-old blues holler and the obsessiveness of a stalker, "I Lost It" recasts her song from 1980's Happy Woman Blues by trading its gentle resignation for another pounding migraine, while "Metal Firecracker" worries a Neil Young kind of verse with a climbing Lennonesque chorus circa 1966. Four years in the waiting, this is the kind of multi-direction mess only a real artist could make. I still can't decide if her new-found off-key earthiness is a truthtelling dialect or another language altogether.
Two discs ago when Jimmy Stuur's big polka orchestra blew onto the Rounder label, country crooner Willie Nelson hitched a ride. This time special guests the Oak Ridge Boys add their voices to the good-time barrel rolling, and the results are predictably delirious. Hokey to the max, cornier than a weekend in Iowa, Dance With Me lives up to the giddy, mindless joy of tunes that include "My Polka Dot" and "Watch Your Step." When the Oak Ridge crew aren't contributing their pipes, Stuur's band steps up with tootling clarinet, splashes of brass, and all the oompah rhythms a healthy human can handle, plus a tasty accordion solo by conjunto legend Flaco Jimenez on "Borracho #1." Stuur's a legend himself, on tour 160 dates a year, and ticking off Dance With Me as his 100th recording. Collect 'em all, but start with this happy blast of mainstream American ethnic music mayhem.
[Copyright 1998 Bob Tarte]