Yesterday morning was wild—a savage northwest wind sent rain rattling against the tin roof & the windows, & hurtling thru the willows. By the time I headed out to the car to begin the drive to Donnelly, the rain had turned to other things—ice, sleet, hail, snow—& highway 95 was transmogrified to a long narrow skating rink. By the time I started climbing to the higher elevations northeast of Council, the snow started to accumulate & conditions generally looked somewhat more somber & wintry than the freakish storm back in Indian Valley. It was a slow & nervy drive, but I reached Donnelly intact, & only a few minutes late for my 9:00 appointment.
Given the conditions, it’s perhaps best that I took a sharp turn in my playlist from the intensity of Son House & Buell Kazee—this week was just about fun music. In keeping with that, the sun was shining brilliantly for most of the drive home in the early afternoon.
Leon Redbone: From Branch to Branch (Atco)
1. (Mama’s Got a Baby Named) Tee-Na-Na
2. Hot Time (In The Old Town Tonight)
3. Sweet Mama Papa's Getting Mad
4. Step It Up And Go
5. Your Cheatin' Heart
8. My Blue Heaven
9. Extra Blues
10. When You Wish Upon A Star
11. Prairie Lullaby
All three cds I’ll talk about today have some similarities—they’re all (more or less) contemporary interpreters of old time material ranging from traditional blues & ragtime to tin pan alley & beyond. They all also have a knack for arranging this material in a way that makes it their own; & most importantly, none of them take the music too seriously—they all give the impression of having lots of fun.
Leon Redbone is probably the best known of the three artists/groups under consideration (certainly better known than the Heftones, & I believe Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, tho popular in the 60s & early 70s, have fallen below the radar now). I’ve always admired Redbone on a few levels: his repertoire is enviable: the song list on From Branch to Branch is simply fantastic. The arrangements on his recordings are invariably interesting, & he gets some great sidemen—on this recording, I’d particularly point out the four different clarinet players (Jim Rothermel, Bobby Gordon, Victor Morosco & Jack Maheu), & tuba players Jonathon Dorn & Jim Self. I was actually surprised that two different producers worked on this album—seven tracks by Joel Dorn, four tracks by Beryl Handler (with Redbone’s assistance)—simply because the tracks all seem of a piece. They have a distinct & memorable sound.
Of course a big part of that sound is the one constant: Redbone’s quirky & oddly satisfying singing voice. It seems to me that Leon Redbone is one singer who has figured out very well what he does best & then proceeded to play to that strength consistently. The quality is hard to define: there’s a relaxed quality to his voice, & a playfulness—verging on wackiness at times. He also picks material that he can make his own, even tho “on paper” it might seem quirky: the old ragtime blues “Step It Up & Go,” the Hank Williams’ chestnut, “Your Cheating Heart” (with piano & tuba!) & the more contemporary “Seduced” running back-to-back? It works, as does the transition from “When You Wish Upon a Star” to Jimmie Rodgers’ “Prairie Lullaby.”
In fact, to my ear there aren’t any weak cuts on this album. If you don’t know Leon Redbone’s work, this is a great introductory album (as is also Warner Brothers’ On the Track).
The Fabulous Heftones: Moon June Spoon (Heftone Records)
1. When You Wore a Tulip
2. By the Light of the Silvery Moon
3. A Little Birch Canoe & You
4. Shine on Harvest Moon
5. Come Josephine in My Flying Machine
6. In the Moonlight
7. Ida Sweet as Apple Cider
8. When You Steal a Kiss or Two
9. In the Valley of the Moon
10. In the Starlight
11. When I Looked in Your Wonderful Eyes
12. Three O’Clock in the Morning
13. For Me & My Gal
14. Aba Daba Honeymoon
15. The Love Nest
For obvious reasons, Eberle & I have a fascination with duos—we love combos like the Darkwood Consort & the Great Auk for instance. But I suppose there’s an even deeper fascination with musical duos who are also a couple in the usual sense of the word, as is the case with Brian & Lynn Hefferan of the Fabulous Heftones.
The Fabulous Heftones are well known in the ukulele community, & sadly not too much anywhere else. You won’t find this cd in your run-of-the-mill cd emporium, & you won’t find it on some of the well-known online outlets. You can purchase it from the best music store I know of (for instruments & gear & a good cd selection, too) Elderly Instruments.
The Hefferans, like Redbone, know their strengths & play to them. Brian Hefferan is a talented uke picker (also a very good banjoist), while Lynn drives the songs using a unique instrument known as a Heftone—it’s a BIG bass banjo (see the video below). Both the Hefferans sing, & they bring a lot of enthusiasm & joy to performances of these lovely old tunes. I get a kick out of the album title, because it’s strikes me as playfully subversive—there was a time when “Moon June Spoon” was shorthand for all that was wrong with Tin Pan Alley music. We’ve moved thru a number of musical forms since, & now the Hefferans are back to capture all that’s right with this music: its verve, its humor & its tenderness. Their song selection is very good: they range from the most well-known of these old tunes (e.g., “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”) to some fairly obscure cuts. One thing that's fun even in the best known songs: the Heftones always sing the verse as well as the chorus; in the case of all these songs the verses have long since passed from popular memory, so that adds to the freshness of their presentation.
If you like uke playing or just really high-spirited & fun old time songs, this cd should be for you.
Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band: Jug Band Music (Vanguard)
1. Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me
2. Jug Band Music
3. I'm A Woman
4. Morning Blues
5. Vamp Of New Orleans (Sadie Green)
7. Don't You Leave Me Here
8. Somebody Stole My Gal
9. K. C. Moan
10. Good Time Charlie
11. Jug Band Waltz
12. Whoa Mule Get Up In The Alley
14. Ukulele Lady
15. Rag Mama
Speaking of good times & fresh takes on old tunes, you can’t get much better than Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band. This group came out of the Boston Area in the mid 60s & included banjoist Bill Keith, & both Geoff & Maria Muldaur (née Maria D’Amato). There’s just so much to like about this band: as with Redbone & the Heftones, the repertoire is fantastic, & there’s some marvelous playing—Keith on banjo, of course, Mel Lyman on harmonica, & Fritz Richmond blowing the jug (in Lyman’s words, “& I mean he can really blow a jug”) & plucking the washtub bass, & other folks blowing any number of kazoos. At their best, the arrangements are amazing—a tight mixture of voices & guitars & banjos & kazoos & percussion with the jug laying down a stomping beat—check out “Vamp of New Orleans” or “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me” (just two examples). There are a few quibbles one could make: primarily—if I were in a band with Maria Muldaur, I’d want her as lead vocalist on more than one song on a recording; but she does tear up the Leiber & Stoller number, “I’m A Woman” (ably assisted by Lyman’s harmonica). & there’s one song on the album I just never quite bought, which is Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”: interesting to do it as a jug band tune, & it’s true that in some sense Berry came out of a tradition that dated back to the jug bands, but to my ear at least it doesn’t quite come off. Otherwise there’s so much fun to be had here: the delightfully over-the-top “Ukulele Lady,” the beautiful “Jug Band Waltz,” the foot-stomping glee of “Somebody Stole My Gal,” & a personal favorite, “Whoa Mule Get Up in the Alley.”
If you’ve missed Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band over the years, do yourself a favor & give them a listen.