Monday, April 30, 2012

Any Womans Blues #21 – Debbie Davies

A happy Monday, friends! It’s time for this month’s edition of Any Woman’s Blues.

Today’s featured artist, Debbie Davies, has an impressive resume & the chops to back it up. Davies grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s & 60s, & was introduced to music at the earliest age by her two professional musician parents. On her website, Davies notes that she found herself attracted to the blues sound when still quite young, being drawn to Ray Charles’ music. Later, she came under the spell of the electric blues thru the music of the British Invasion, & specifically thru Clapton’s work with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Drawn to the sound of the electric blues, Davies settled on electric guitar as her instrument early on, despite the fact that in those days, the electric guitar was seen as very much a “male instrument.” After some time playing in the San Francisco blues scene, Davies headed back to Los Angeles in the early 80s & played with Maggie Mayall & the Cadillacs, the all-woman band fronted by John Mayall’s wife. Then a big break came in 1988, when she began touring & recording with Albert Collins. Davies says,

“I stepped through a door into the real blues world when I joined Albert’s band. It’s one thing to listen to the records and pull off the licks, or sit in the audience watching these artists play. But actually going out and touring with one, turned the blues into something completely three-dimensional for me.”

Davies also had a stint with Fingers Taylor & the Ladyfinger Revue, but also began a solo career in the 1990s, signing a contract with the great blues label, Blind Pig.  She has released a dozen albums, starting with Picture This in 1993, with the most recent being Holdin’ Court from Little Dipper in 2009.

Davies won the coveted W. C. Handy Award for Best Contemporary Female Artist in 1997, & followed that up with the 2010 Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Female Artist. Her guitar playing has won kudos from critics & her fellow musicians alike, & she plays a fierce, hard-edged style on a Fender Stratocaster.

We have two videos as usual to enjoy Davies’ playing; the second is an instrumental number that’s a tribute to the great Otis Rush! 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Photo of the Week 4/29/12

Vintage Gibsons, Regal & Knutsen
Marylhurst University
West Linn, OR
Saturday 4/28/12

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Eastbank Esplanade

Welcome to a belated Rose City Wednesday, friends!

Last weekend was truly glorious in Portland: blue & sunny skies, warm, with the fluffy Kwanzan cherries spangling the streets in the north end & the rhododendrons blazing elsewhere. In celebration of this fact, I betook myself for a walk along the Eastbank Esplanade on a brilliant Sunday afternoon..  

The walkway on the lower level of the Steel Bridge, looking east

The Esplanade goes from the lower deck of the Steel Bridge to the Hawthorne Bridge in a north-south direction. At that point it connects with another bike & pedestrian trail, the Springwood Corridor that ultimately leads to the southern suburb of Boring. The Esplanade was built as a replacement for a bicycle bypass that was washed out in a flood in 1996; construction took three years, beginning in 1998 & being completed in 2001. The Esplanade’s full & official name is the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade, in honor of the mayor who was in office at the time. It’s a lovely walk, easily accessible from Rose Quarter Transit Center on the east or from Waterfront Park on the west.

Here are some things I saw along the way!

Fishermen on the Kevin J Duckworth Memorial Dock-also part of the esplanade structure
A typical stretch of the Esplanade with the Burnside Bridge in the background
This Canada Goose was also enjoying the sunshine!
At some points the Esplanade is made up of these small girder bridges
View of downtown Portland with paddle wheel steamboat
Sculpture near the Oak St sign-although the only exits off the Esplanade are at four the bridges Steel, Burnside, Morrison, Hawthorne), streets are marked along the way
The Echo Gate below Morrison Bridge
At the southern end of the Esplanade, we leave the floating docks & bridges behind-that's the Hawthorne Bridge in the background
Statue of Mayor Vera Katz

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

"Ode to Shel Silverstein"

[Today's post is a Barbie Angell triple-header! Not only do we have her wonderful poem & illustration for same, but we also have a video of Barbie performing it! & you can read in Barbie's own words why Shel Silverstein is her favorite poet right here on her site; finally, check below for even more Barbie Angell news!]

Ode to Shel Silverstein

Who are you when you’re with me?
Are you the you you’d like to be?
I’d like to be with you, you see
and be the me I’d like to be.

And if we two, that’s me and you,
were the “we” we wanted to,
would we be happy instead of blue,
if I were me and you were you?

But if I were you and you were me
oh what chaos that would be.
So you be you and I’ll be me
and all will wish
that they were we.

Barbie Angell
2009-the present

NOTE: I should mention that the new photo of Barbie on the blog’s sidebar is by North Carolina artist Jude Lally; indeed, Jude also designed the hat Barbie’s wearing in that photo. You can find out more about this talented artist here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Song for Saturday 4/21/12

Given that my online presence, or perhaps we should say persona, is so involved with poetry & music, it may come as a surprise to you, dear readers, to learn that most of my life I’ve been a nut for baseball. As a kid growing up in New England, I came under the spell of the 1967 Red Sox, & not counting a few periods here & there during which my attention wavered slightly, I’ve loved the game ever since.

I’m a bit of a prodigal, at that: someone who grew up a Red Sox fan who began pretty early on to gravitate toward the National League teams—my favorite ballplayer of all-time is without question Roberto Clemente of the Pirates, & I doubt another will come along to supplant him. & since I lived in San Francisco I’ve rooted for the Giants (actually, since a bit before I moved there, because I recall being quite disappointed when they lost to St Louis in the ’87 playoffs.)

When I was younger, I followed all the major sports to some degree. As time has gone by, my interest in all the others has flagged, & I rarely pay any of them more than the most cursory attention. But baseball is different. It is of course the most “writerly” of sports, fostering the careers of Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn & other notables; its best radio announcers are also word artists of a high order: Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, Vince Scully, Ned Martin, & the Giants Hank Greenwald & current broadcaster Jon Miller just to name a select few—& to my mind, if you can’t be at the park, radio is still the best way to enjoy a ball game.

So it’s not surprising that one of our most literate songwriters, Dave Frishberg is not only an ardent baseball fan, but an artist who has incorporated his fanhood into his songwriting. Frishberg has composed a number of baseball related tunes, but his most famous is unquestionably “Van Lingle Mungo.”

Indeed Frishberg’s song is one of the great tributes to old-time baseball. Lyrically, it consists simply of a list of baseball players' names—but what names! You can find the whole list here at the Baseball Almanac; the only word in the lyrics besides the names is ‘and.”

For those of you who are interested, Van Lingle Mungo was a right-handed pitcher who plied his trade with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1931 thru 1941, & then played for the New York Giants in 1942-43, finishing his career after the war, again the the Giants, in 1945. Mungo was a journeyman pitcher (folks who are baseball stats nuts can find his career figures here), with his best campaign probably coming in 1936 (tho one could make an argument for ’34 as well), when he won 18 games (but also lost 19!), pitching 311 innings (common then, unheard of now), with 238 strikeouts & a 3.35 earned run average.

The music Frishberg composed for the song is a perfect backing—his considerable songwriting talent extends to the music as well (& he's also an accomplished jazz pianist.) But the lyrics are the stuff of legend.

Photo of Van Lingle Mungo (in his final years with the Giants, naturally!) links to its source.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Frailing Fun 4/20/12

Happy Banjo Friday, friends! Another quick post today: but one that will give you the chance to hear some remarkable banjo music.

If you’ve been a long-time follower of Robert Frost’s Banjo, you may recall that I hold banjoist Cathy Moore in very high esteem—I think she’s an extremely gifted musician based on a series of videos she posted on her blog & her YouTube channel, both dubbed Banjo Meets World. Ms Moore is proof that one can have a true musical gift & not follow music as a profession, however—as I understand it she is a successful business person. But sadly it means that there are only a limited number of videos to enjoy her playing; & to the best of my knowledge, she has never released a recording. Moore’s website & YouTube endeavors were slanted toward teaching, & in addition to her performance videos, there are also some wonderful lessons, both in the form of videos & blog posts. Highly recommended!

While I’d considered sharing two videos today, I finally decided only to embed one—after all, playing this good should be savored! Today’s selection is a medley of Durang’s Hornpipe, an old-time American tune, & the Old Bush, which is an Irish Reel. However, in typical Cathy Moore fashion, she re-casts Durang’s from the 2/4 meter of a hornpipe to the 11/8 meter of a Bulgarian Gankino. Now as someone who has sometimes played in odd meters—& 11/8 is not something you hear a lot of in the US!—I can assure you that they’re tricky under almost any circumstances—but to think of playing 11/8 on a banjo in clawhammer style is really quite mind-boggling. The clawhammer style—however it may have been employed in African origin— is in its contemporary manifestation most at home in 2/4 or “cut time,” in which there is a 1-2 count to the measure. It’s even a bit tricky to play common times like 3/4 (or waltz time) in the clawhammer style. To listen to Moore play in 11/8 (& then switch back to 2/4 for the reel) is impressive indeed. However, I’d also point out that Moore’s playing—as much as it incorporates odd meters—is never simply a “tour de force,” or as we might say nowadays, merely for the “oh wow” factor. She always brings a great musicality to the pieces she performs.

I know you’ll enjoy this!

Note: This is the fifth post on Robert Frost's Banjo to feature Cathy Moore's playing. If you enjoy her playing as much as I do, you might consider visiting one or more of the four earlier ones:

“Trâgnala Rumjana” (9/18/10)
 "Rush in the Pepper" (11/24/10, as part of the "Banjo Feast Thanksgiving series)
"Star of Munster & Greasy Coat" (7/15/11-also a medley)
"Betsy Likens"  (9/16/11-in 5/4 on a cello banjo!)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Portland Sign

If it’s Wednesday, this must be Portland, right?

Actually, this week just hasn’t been ideal for a Rose City Wednesday post—the last few days have been a bit soggy for outings, & while the weekend was splendid, it found me much occupied with various errands—& I suspect that most people aren’t all that interested in reading about shopping trips to Interstate Fred Meyer or Hollywood Trader Joe’s—as absorbing as such expeditions can be for me. Since I do everything by public transit & foot, shopping trips can indeed be adventures. 

But I’m saved by the plethora of photos I took during my recent walk on the Burnside Bridge, & by my reflection that all cities have a defining structure: my hometown during the late 80s-late 90s, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge; Chicago has the Sears Tower (or Wrigley Field, if you wish!); Seattle has the Space Needle; New York has the Empire State Building—& Portland has “the Portland Sign.”

Now that fits Portland’s self-image as a quirky place indeed! But it must be admitted that the Portland skyline, while certainly decidedly urban & including some interesting high-rise structures, is not itself iconic. An argument could be made for the bridges—the majority of the bridges are indeed interesting structures, but perhaps because there are so many of them, it’s hard to choose just one. 
Now the Portland Sign, which is best viewed along the Burnside corridor right at the very center of town, didn’t actually start out as an advertisement for the city itself.  It began life in 1940 as a sign advertising White Satin Sugar (see pic above); according to Wikipedia (whence the historical info in this post derives), in 1950 this sign was “animated to show the state filling with sugar.”

However, the sign was re-lettered in 1959 as an advertisement for White Stag sportwear (as illustratedbelow.) This—along with the current “Portland sign”—is the sign’s best-known incarnation, as it remained in existence as such for almost 40 years, & continued to be lit even after the White Stag Sportswear Company moved out of Oregon entirely in the 1980s. One of the very popular features of the White Stag sign was the “Rudolph nose”—every Christmas season the stag transmogrified to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with the addition of red lighting.

In 1997, the sign was again re-lettered to read “Made in Oregon/Old Town,” & that’s how it looked the first time I saw it on a visit to Portland in 1999. In 2010, the sign was again re-designed to read “Portland, Oregon.” This followed a year of the sign going dark, with the possibility of it being dismantled looming not far in the background. The University of Oregon, which is located in Eugene, not Portland, had acquired the sign & had negotiated with the city an agreement to change the lettering to “University of Oregon,” & also proposed adding the school’s distinctive “O” logo to the almost equally iconic “Old Town” water tower that stands beside the sign. Eventually, negotiations between the city & the University fell apart, resulting in the "blacked-out" year; but after the school decided to drop its lease, the City took steps to acquire the sign, with the result that the lettering is now as you see in the lead-off photo. & yes, the stag’s nose still glows in the Yuletide—in fact, the sign was re-lit first on November 26, 2010 just in time for the holiday season.

The lead-off & final photos are by yours truly. All other photos link back to their source. The White Satin Sugar photo links back to, while the White Stag & Made in Oregon photos link back to Wiki Commons. The White Stag sign is by Steve Morgan, & is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; the Made in Oregon sign is by Wiki User Cacophony & is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"A Blueberry Visit"

[Our Chicken Farmer Poet in Residence, L.E. Leone, will be taking a bit of a hiatus to work on other projects. But we’re happy to welcome a new write to the circle of Tuesday poets; & it turns out that this is none other than L.E.’s dad, Carmen Leone! Welcome aboard!]

A Blueberry Visit

She was leaving the house in distress,
not even locking the door,
when I stopped by to visit.
When she was gone, instead of leaving myself,
I entered the house,
found an empty container in her dish rack
and filled it with blueberries
from the bushes that lined her driveway.
These I left for her and departed,
as if we’d had a long talk after all.

Carmen Leone
© 2011-present

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Stratocaster: Fender, Fender, Fender!

Wangin' and a twangin, sounding so tough
Fender Stratocaster
And the kids in my corner, they can't get enough
Fender Fender Fender
Like the wind in your hair when the top is down
Like taillights headed for another town
Fender Stratocaster, well there's something about that sound.

Jonathan Richman

Welcome to the Monday Morning Blues—& as you probably have guessed, today’s post is a tribute to a great & iconic guitar, the Fender Stratocaster.

Of course, while I’m posting this in the series on great blues guitars, the fact is that the Stratocaster’s impact isn’t confined to any one genre—it’s also one of the classic rock guitars, & can be heard in practically all genres of popular music. Still, the list of blues & blues-oriented Stratocaster players is impressive: Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Rory Gallagher, Buddy Guy (see first video below), Jimi Hendrix (don’t discount Hendrix’ blues orientation!), Bonnie Raitt (see second video), Ike Turner (again, a player with deep blues roots), & Stevie Ray Vaughn, just to name some of the best known. It’s also worth mentioning that, although he’s not really thought of as a blues player, Ry Cooder’s use of the Strat for slide playing has helped popularize its use in this style.

Leo Fender—who you may recall from my post on the Fender Telecaster—George Fullerton & Freddie Tavares designed the Stratocaster in the early 1950s & began marketing the
model in 1954. Interestingly, Fender himself believed the instrument to be ideal for country music—he designed the instrument with western swing guitarist Bill Carson in mind—the instrument quickly moved into the rockabilly scene, & from there into rock & roll “proper,” with its popularity being aided by Buddy Holly’s appearance on Ed Sullivan playing a Strat in 1957.

The Stratocaster was Fender’s third instrument (if you count the prototypical Broadcaster & the Telecaster as the same); the Precision Bass, another revolutionary instrument, also preceded the Strat. In comparison with the Telecaster, the Stratocaster was designed specifically with comfort in mind—it’s more contoured than the earlier model, which is no small thing as electric guitars can be a bit heavy; after all, the whole principle of how they sustain involves vibration thru a hardwood block that forms the guitar’s body.

But in addition, the Stratocaster also involved two major innovations: a third pick-up was added in the “middle” position to increase the instrument’s tonal range beyond that of the Telecaster (like the Telecaster, the Strat is equipped with single coil pick-ups, which account for its characteristic bright & biting sound.) The third innovation was the Stratocaster tremolo bridge—the “whammy bar”—which was originally intended to allow the player to imitate the sounds of a pedal steel guitar. Of course, as history has shown, the Stratocaster tremolo has been employed for an array of effects far beyond what Leo Fender & his collaborators could have envisioned!

The videos will demonstrate the Stratocaster’s blues power in the hand of master players. By the way, I picked the Raitt song specifically because she’s doing a Stevie Ray Vaughn song—my way of “covering” two fantastic Strat players in one video!

Photo of the Fender Stratocaster links to its source

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Photo of the Week 4/15/12

Saucer Magnolia Blossoms
N Commercial Ave, Portland, Oregon
Saturday 4/14/12

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Song for Saturday 4/14/12

A beautiful song that I’ve always loved & that fits my springtime mood just about right. “The People that You Never Get to Love” is by Rupert Holmes, a true renaissance sort who has achieved success as a playwright, a singer-songwriter, composer & fiction writer.   Although some of Holmes' compositions are better known, for me “The People that You Never Get to Love” captures a certain existential romanticism perfectly, with smart, sensitive lyrics & a haunting melody.

This version is sung by the great Susannah McCorkle, one of the best Great American Songbook interpreters & one of my favorite contemporary jazz singers. One can only wish she’d had a longer career & life—thinking of McCorkle’s story, I’m prompted to say: Friends, if you’re dealing with depression, please reach out to someone who can help. As this song suggests, a lifetime is a precious & fleeting thing.

There is a bit of an issue with the audio on this video (some clipping) that isn't on the recording itself, but I decided the song is so good I'd post it anyway—this is the only copy of McCorkle's version I can find on YouTube.  I found it's quite a bit less noticeable if you don't listen to it thru headphones; more incentive for you to seek out the original!

Hope you enjoy your Saturday—if people like the Song for Saturday concept, it may become a semi-regular feature!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Frailing Fun 4/13/12

Hi folks, & welcome to Banjo Friday! Did you miss us last week? If you did, some good news—I’m really leaning toward making both Banjo Friday & Monday Morning Blues weekly series again, tho some of the posts may be more “jukebox” oriented—more music, less talk!

This is one of those posts, in fact. I've only encountered old-time banjo frailer Julie Duggan  on YouTube, where she posts on the Knockdownbanjo channel; some wonderful music there (as you are about to hear), & also some nice mp3s on her website (link at her name.)

Beyond that, I know very little about Ms Duggan—she does have a teacher page at the Banjo Hangout, & my ears tell me that she’s a fine & spirited musician. Lots of really good musicians out there, folks: not all of them have record deals or touring schedules, but they’re all keeping us entertained & happy!

“Suzanna Gal” also goes by the title “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” & is a standard old-time fiddle tune.  It was recorded both by Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers & Frank Blevins and his Tarheel Rattlers in the 1920s string band versions. The tune was also recorded by Round Peak, North Carolina banjo wiz (& top notch fiddler) Tommy Jarrell. []

“Ladies on the Steamboat,” the second selection is a less familiar tune; it was recorded by the duo of Dick Burnett & Leonard Rutherford (better known simply as Burnett & Rutherford) who wielded the fiddle & banjo respectively & were stalwarts of early country music from the ‘teens all the way to 1950. They are now less well-known than contemporaries like the Carter Family, the Skillet Lickers & Uncle Dave Macon.

Hope you enjoy these fine renditions of two great old-time tunes!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Burnside Bridge

Happy Wednesday, friends! Things are a bit behind schedule today in no small part due to computer wonkiness yesterday evening. Fortunately, the wonkiness seems to have abated, at least for the time being, so I have the opportunity to once again take you folks on a short Portland tour in words & pictures.

Old Town, W Broadway & 3rd

Last Saturday was a glorious day: the trees were blooming, the sparrows singing in the hedges, & the weather that day was a sunny 70 degrees. Given the favorable conditions, I thought it was an ideal day for another Bridgetown excursion, & I caught the #4 line bus on N. Mississippi Ave with a plan to head for the Hawthorne Bridge—but at a certain point along the way I changed plans & got off at the SW Pine stop, just one block from W Burnside, & headed for the Burnside Bridge, which crosses the Willamette on Portland's central street.

Another reality of Old Town
One small Corner of the Old Town Market, Taken from the approach to the bridge

I did a bit of photo exploring in the “Old Town” section of Portland before heading for the bridge itself—enough to warrant a separate post, for sure. The characteristics in a nutshell: beautiful old buildings, & lots of destitute & homeless people mixed in with tourists & folks headed to the gigantic Old Town Saturday farmer’s market—cognitive dissonance on a sunny afternoon.

Southwest Portland & the Morrison Bridge
Southeast Portland

It was breezy on the bridge—micro-climates in effect here—like “hold onto your hat” breezy. & the bridge had lots of pedestrian traffic—much more than I encountered on either the Steel Bridge or the Broadway Bridge. Fortunately, the sidewalk is ample, tho it should be noted that this is literally a sidewalk: there’s no railing separating pedestrians from the busy auto traffic.

There was this intriguing object in a little park at NE Couch & MLK

This was the first time I began a bridge walk heading into the east side, & I didn’t find too much that warranted exploring in the immediate environs once I got across the bridge. Burnside does cross both Martin Luther King Blvd & Grand Ave here, so heading either north or south on those major streets one might find some fun things. But after a few blocks up Burnside itself, I decided to double back & make the return crossing.

Stairway down to the Eastbank Esplanade
One notable thing that the Burnside Bridge connects to is the Eastbank Esplanade, a walking & biking path that connects the Steel Bridge to the Hawthorne Bridge (see pic above & below); this will most certainly be part of a future excursion!  I also forgot to check this out, but there’s a skateboard park under the bridge at the east end—which accounts for all the skateboard traffic on the bridge!

A section of the Eastbank Esplanade with the Steel Bridge (et al.) to the north
The Burnside Bridge is another bascule type drawbridge (like the Broadway Bridge & others in Portland.) Tho there was a 19th century bridge in this same location, the current bridge was constructed in 1926. Its most notable architectural features are the twin “Italian Renaissance” towers for the bridge operator—apparently these days the bridge is usually lifted by the Hawthorne Bridge operator, but as you can see, it was staffed on Saturday—as I understand it, Burnside Bridge does have an operator during high water periods, & we had a record-breaking rainfall in March.

One of the iconic Burnside Bridge towers
Speaking of iconic: you get great shots of the Portland Sign (AKA White Stag sign) & the Old Twon Water Tower from the Burnside Bridge
Trimet bus lines use the bridge, but there is no train or streetcar traffic. As opposed to the Steel & Broadway Bridges, bikes share the street with auto traffic as opposed to sharing the walkway with pedestrians. There what seemed to me an ample bike lane however, & there was a good amount of bike traffic—Portland prides itself on being a very bike-friendly city!

Waterfront Park from the western end of the Burnside Bridge

I ended my outing with a walk along the west side’s waterfront park—teeming with folks on such a pleasant day. It’s truly a lovely space—the cherry trees were frothy with blossoms!

See you back in Portland—virtually speaking—next Wednesday!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“Parting Ways”

[In which our marvelously savvy Rockstar Poet-in-Residence Barbie Angell reminds us: we are known by the company we keep!]

Parting Ways

Uncertainty and I went for a walk
not sure where we were going
or the essence of our thoughts.
We had always seemed quite close
and it seemed it wouldn’t change.
See, neither of us fathomed
how to go our separate ways.
And we walked without direction,
we didn’t care where we were at.
Up hills and through the woods,
sometimes we circled our own path.
Content without intention,
whether walking fast or slow,
then I found myself with Certainty,
who knew exactly where to go.
I was confused by all this change.
I’d never met this man before.
I introduced myself to Certainty
and asked him what would be in store.
He said the folks he walked with
were Strength and Hope and Pride,
and as long as I would let him,
I’d have Conviction as my guide.
I see my destination now
and it’s extremely clear.
And sometimes I see Uncertainty
wander past with Loss and Fear.
Though we don’t speak much anymore,
common interests now are strained,
whenever I see him with someone new,
I try to help them find their way.

Barbie Angell
© 2009-present

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Photo of the Week 4/8/12

Vacant Lot Fence Made from Doors
W Burnside, Portland, Oregon
Saturday 4/7/12

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Sunday Fun at Mississippi Studios

Good morning, kids! Like Bob Crachit, I’m “a bit behind my time” this morning, & I don’t even have the excuse of “making somewhat merry” yesterday. Ah well.

It’s Wednesday, of course, so of course we find ourselves in my newly adopted hometown, & in fact quite close to my home. One of the great advantages I enjoy in my place of residence is that I’m only a couple of blocks away from the thriving scene on N. Mississippi Avenue; & one of the most happening places on that very happening street is an exciting music venue: Mississippi Studios.

In fact, the first time a friend showed me around Mississippi Ave, back last September not long after I’d moved to Portland & long before I knew I’d end up settling in this part of town, Mississippi Studios was one of the places he particularly pointed out. Since moving here in November, I’ve had it in mind to go there, so when I learned a while back that banjoist Abigail Washburn would be playing there Sunday night, I jumped on buying a ticket.

I’ve written about Abigail Washburn before in the context of Banjo Friday, & I have to say this was an excellent show—Washburn was performing with Kai Welch, a recent touring partner (see video below), & Welch is an excellent musician, singer & songwriter in his own right, as he accompanied Washburn’s banjo on guitar, keyboards & trumpet. If you know Abigail Washburn’s music, you know she’s an innovator—the banjo seems particularly fortunate these days to have so many innovative performers making a strong case for the instrument outside its usual contexts of bluegrass & old-time. Of course, Washburn draws elements from the Americana tradition in her powerful songwriting, but she also draws elements from other diverse sources as well, including of course, Chinese folk music.

The opening acts were local musicians who made a strong case for the strength & vibrancy of the local scene. Casey Neill was the opener, & he treated the audience to several songs in the country-folk vein. Neill was followed by Calico Rose, & I was completely smitten with them—great musicality & energy, with harmonies in the Carter Family tradition (not to mention Cateresque autoharp on one song!), & extremely impressed by the songwriting. Calico Rose is Annalisa Tornfelt, Anita Robinson, & Kate O'Brien-Clarke, each of whom also plays in other Portland bands: Black Prairie, Viva Voce & AgesandAges respectively. I’ve already bookmarked a couple of their upcoming shows!

The venue itself is beautiful—really quite an intimate space, with gorgeous acoustics—as I understand, it’s a renovated old church, & I know from my own modest performing experience how great the acoustics in those old churches can be.  This space is no exception. There’s seating both on the main floor & both seating & standing room in a wrap-around balcony above—tho I understand that for some shows the main floor is mostly standing.

I was surprised to learn that Mississippi Studios is not that old—it opened in 2009—because it has the feel of a place that’s homey. I love the fact that the venue makes space for both nationally known acts like Abigail Washburn (& for instance Michelle Shocked later this month), but also gives generous exposure to local musicians as well.

Besides the concert venue itself—which does include a bar—there’s also BarBar next door to the venue, & part of the overall business. This is an eatery that specializes in burgers & other such classic American fare. There’s also patio seating for BarBar.

& this is all a 5-minute walk away (if that!) What a life.

Pix: Exterior Shots by yours truly; interior shots link to their source on the Mississippi Studios site

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Texas Blues #1 – “Don’t Ease Me In” – Henry Thomas

Happy Monday, folks—we’re here to drive away your Monday Morning Blues—& also to start off a new series that’s going to be running for some time.

The music that we know as the blues sprang up in the southern U.S., tho no one knows exactly where or when. What we do know is that there were blues “centers”—places around which the music seemed to be particularly concentrated & which each had—to some extent at least—regional characteristics in terms of the particular blues “sound.” There was a sound associated with Atlanta & the east coast, & certainly a sound associated with Mississippi, as well as with Memphis & New Orleans, tho those cities also figured in other associated types of music as well—jazz, certainly, but also string band & jug band music. Later, blues became centered in Chicago as blacks migrated out of the south—in many ways, the Chicago blues sound post World War II was an extension of the Mississippi sound, thanks to the Illinois Central Railroad & such Mississippi stalwarts as Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson I, & Muddy Waters all moving there.

But there was another center as well, & one that has in its own right been as fundamental to the blues sound as even Mississippi—& that’s the Lone Star state, Texas. Now when you think of Texas, you may think of cowboys & 10-gallon hats, of Bob Wills & Jerry Jeff Walker. But the fact is that many of the greatest blues musicians also hailed from Texas; so many, in fact, that what was going to be a 10-part series has expanded far past that, & will move in rough chronological order from the oldest “blues” musician we have on record right thru to contemporary electric guitarists.

Henry Thomas—who often recorded under the name “Ragtime Texas” was born in 1874 in Big Sandy, Texas. Given Thomas’ age, we can be pretty sure that he was around to witness the development of the blues from whatever its ultimate sources were, & he is often referred to as a “songster,” meaning that he didn’t specialize in blues, but played in a number of genres. Of course, that’s deceptive, because there’s strong evidence that many early musicians who we think of as playing blues exclusively also played widely in other genres too, but when it came time to record, they were mostly encouraged to draw from their blues repertoire.

In any case, we’re lucky to have Thomas’ music on record, as he disappeared not long after his 1929 sessions, & is presumed to have died in the early 1930s. Between 1927 & 1929, however, he recorded 23 sides for Vocalion.

Probably Thomas’ best-known song is “Fishing Blues,” a double-entendre, slightly ragtime tune that was famously covered by both the Loving Spoonful & Taj Mahal. Thomas’ own version is the final cut on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, & it includes one of Thomas trademarks—his solo on the quills, an African-American instrument that’s essentially a panpipe. A guitarist like Thomas could play the quills while he accompanied himself on guitar with the means of something like a harmonica rack. Although I didn't choose "Fishing Blues" for today's song, it worth a listen for sure. You can find it on YouTube  here.

Today’s song doesn’t have the quills, but it may be Thomas’ second best known tune, not so much because of his performance but because it was covered by the Grateful Dead  & was a concert staple.

It’s been conjectured that “Don’t Ease Me In” is a close relative to “Alabama Bound,” which was a hit for Papa Charlie Jackson in the mid 20s, & in different forms found its way into the repertoire of such diverse artists as Jelly Rolly Morton & Leadbelly. The Grateful Dead re-wrote some of the lyrics; in the original Thomas sings, “It’s all night long, Cunningham, don’t ease me in,” which is apparently a reference to the owner of a large sugar cane plantation in Sugar Land in Texas, who leased much of his labor from state prison farms.

This is great music! Hope you enjoy it. & stay tuned, because next month there will be a new installment in The Texas Blues.

Photo links to its source

Sunday, April 1, 2012