On a frigid, January night in Ann Arbor, Kaki King warmed up The Ark with her unique brand of guitar theater. She currently tours with a projection guitar—images from a screen behind her mesh and mingle with similar moving images on her axe. Here is an artist who has embraced the visual age and incorporated our insatiable fixation with ocular stimulation into her performance.
Kaki King’s guitar work is singular. While stylistically divergent and favoring an acoustic, she is a virtuoso in the vein of Pat Metheny or perhaps Jaco Pastorius (who worked a bass, but you get the point). She finger-picks her instrument with artistry and technical precision—if she misses a note, it sounds intentional. Her textures range from experimental jazz to avant-garde folk to hip-hop. Dave Grohl has sung her praises.
King opened with some somber noise numbers—an inquisitive start to her performance-art narrative—then gradually intertwined musical sleight-of-hand with carefully selected moving pictures. She followed with some incredible noodling skills (almost unfair to use jam-band terminology, but words fail) with just a touch of funk and percussion. The performance crescendoed with a visual, captioned story about her ivory-colored guitar over a mellow hip-hop beat. The vignette also served as personal backstory for a musician who has clearly fought to assert her eclectic nature.
Her latest album, The Neck Is A Bridge To The Body, released in 2015 on the Short Stuff label, is her eighth full-length album, and showcases an artist who is ever-evolving and ever-evading the status quo. Her earlier work was a bit more straight-ahead; she has preferred more uncharted corners of the musical universe since her first two albums (Everybody Loves You, Velour, 2003 and Legs To Make Us Longer, Red Ink, 2004).
While originally from Atlanta, King espouses a New Yorker’s sensibility. She has a song entitled “Carmine Street” (off her debut album) and the accompanying visuals for one song on the night were clearly of NYC mise en scene (including a sign for Carmine Street, which lies just north of Houston in Greenwich Village).
Her insistence on free-flowing jazz and artistic reverie can be infuriating, even inaccessible, but her mastery of her craft must be appreciated. The house was certainly entranced and intrigued and stuck around for her annotations afterwards. King rarely features vocals (when included, they are often from guest artists), so it almost seemed like breaking the fourth wall when she spoke to the audience after her set. Kaki King offered an unpredictable art installation alongside her music—her work and live performance are equally compelling.
M.F. DiBella contributes to Current Magazine and Found Magazine, and blogs at 1lessblog.com
Kickshaw means “rare delight.” The term now also refers to Kickshaw Theatre, Ann Arbor’s newest professional theater company, whose first full production, The Electric Baby, by Stefanie Zadravec, opens on Thursday, January 28.
In alignment with their core values, Kickshaw Theatre has partnered with local organizations, including the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, the Ann Arbor Storytellers Guild, and the Lamaze Family Center, to bring this magical drama to the Ann Arbor audiences.
The dark comedy The Electric Baby received its World Premiere in 2012 and, in addition to other awards, received the American Theatre Critics Association’s Francesca Primus Prize for an Emerging Female Playwright. Talkin’ Broadway raved that the play was “richly entertaining;” and The New York Times praised The Electric Baby as “gently touching” with a “mix of expressionism and magical realism.”
The plot revolves around six characters (Will Bryson, Peter Carey, Mary Dilworth, Julia Glander, Michael Lopetrone, and Vanessa Sawson) whose lives collide after a tragic car accident, forcing each to confront the secrets, hopes and fears that consume them, and helping them to find love, strength and forgiveness through a mysterious baby that glows like the moon. Kickshaw’s premiere production is directed by the Theatre’s artistic director and founder Lynn Lammers.
Take a chance to view this magically delightful new play with Ann Arbor’s brand new professional company!
Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.
Performances of The Electric Baby will run from Thursday, January 28 through Sunday, February 21 at the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth, 704 Airport Blvd, Ann Arbor, MI 48108. There are also several special performances featuring post- performance conversations with special guest organizations. For tickets, visit kickshawtheatre.org or call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006.
My guess is Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s unnerving, primal singing style isn’t exactly what filmmaker Robert Flaherty had in mind to accompany his silent masterpiece, Nanook of the North (1922). But when she was commissioned in 2012 to provide a soundscape to Flaherty’s legendary cinematic landscape, Tagaq, an outspoken advocate of aboriginal rights, was put off by the film’s racial stereotypes and so conceived a soundtrack meant to reclaim the film with a 21st-century filter.
Flaherty’s documentary methods, including some staged sequences, have come under criticism over the decades. But the landmark film, still stunning nearly 100 years on, has an authenticity that overrides these complaints. (And to be fair, there was no documentary or ethnographic film-making to speak of before Flaherty; he can arguably be said to have invented the genres. And as such, there was certainly nothing remotely resembling later-day Cinéma vérité.)
Above all, the miracle of Flaherty's achievement in Nanook of the North - aside from the fact that he pulled it off with one camera and no lights in the freezing cold - is in documenting a remote way of life never seen before during a decade of the 20th century noted for ratcheting up nationalistic fervor and suspicion of outsiders across the globe. In her upcoming performance, Tanya Tagaq’s evocative style, full of throaty breathing and influenced by electronica, industrial, and metal, should lend as much to the stunning beauty of Nanook’s arctic landscape as it does in calling out the film’s racially charged clichés.
Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
"Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North" takes place on February 2, 2016 at 7:30 pm at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University, Ann Arbor.
Working at the intersection of art and technology, Petoskey-based artist Robert deJonge crafts digitally-manipulated photography designed to sharpen his viewer’s view of the world around us. The understated embellishment isn’t so much modified landscape photography as it is an attempt to create a sort of restrained hyperrealism.
A particularly nuanced miniaturist, deJonge’s keenly realized photographs make us see the world as we would like to see it. And as such, his exhibit for the University of Michigan Health System’s Gifts of Art, A Walk Along the Shore, is a technological homage to such photographic landscape greats as Ansel Adams and Michigan’s own master landscape photographer, Howard Bond.
Yet unlike Adams or Bond—both of whom grapple with nature as it presents itself through their photographic technology—deJonge goes the additional step of attenuating our perception of the external world through digital means. So while Adams and Bond found ways of sharpening our perception of the natural world from within their photographic frame, deJonge chooses instead to selectively modify his landscapes with minute attention that heightens the appearance of his world.
In an earlier era, these modifications would have been color-tinted by hand. And this touch-up, so to speak, created drama through the selective addition of pigments, thereby adding one layer of articulation upon the initial photographic base. But by utilizing digital modification, deJonge instead imperceptibly shifts the emotional tension of his composition from outside to inside the frame. The manipulation of the materials therefore differs from one sort of art to another, even if the intent itself remains roughly the same.
In his Gift of Art gallery statement, deJonge explains this in more detail:
Art is worship. Using a camera and computer, I try to build images that express a spirit of wonder and playfulness.
I also enjoy drawing from the deep well of art history. I’m inspired by the magical world of Paul Klee; the lyrical world of (Marc) Chagall; and the natural connections of the (Canadian) Group of Seven (also known as the 1920s Algonquin School).
As an artist, I embrace the entire gamut of possibilities within the digital imaging world. When I capture images with my camera, I create a mental list of what the images can become through the manipulation of computer processing.
Capturing images is like collecting found objects to create an assemblage. Individual frames in the camera will most likely be combined with other frames to ‘build’ a new image. It’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it’s fun to have a digital palette to work with.
Fun is certainly the word. His signature photograph, amongst the dozen pieces that make up A Walk Along the Shore, is a memorable artwork entitled “Lights and Love.” This oversized horizontal masterpiece is ostensibly a visage of a north-looking Michigan aurora borealis. Yet where these broad bands of light that have a magnetic and electrical source are intrinsically dramatic, deJonge uses them as a mere platform for his art.
The photo features two broad strips of yellow light straddling a distant inlet at night with bookend stripes of attenuated pink bands. But while these lights alone would dominate the composition, deJonge paints mitigated shafts of green grass whose vertical placement creates an internal tension in the photograph—essentially a curvilinear belt of primary pigments braced by a horizontal secondary plume.
What’s left is a neutral-enough shoreline and darkened sky. And this shift of emphasis in turn creates a new dimension in art that doesn’t rely on the modernist objective mingling of artforms. Rather, deJonge’s union of photographic composition to the digital domain creates an expanded palette whose modification is quite nearly infinite.
The wonder of “Lights and Love” is not that the photograph has been digitally enhanced—after all, this is effectively true of virtually every professional image we now see in print or online. Rather, deJonge’s restricted discipline in creating his digitally enhanced art creates modifications that will only be noticed with the closest inspection. And, for most of us, that’s enough to satisfy both the eye and the mind.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
“A Walk Along the Shore: Digital Imaging” will run through March 13 at the University of Michigan Health System (Main Corridor, Floor 2, Gifts of Art Gallery - 1500 E. Medical Center Dr). Gallery hours are 8 am to 8 pm, daily. For information, call 734-936-ARTS.
Matt Jones wears a lot of hats—songwriter and bandleader for Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, drummer for Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful as well as Loose Teeth, Civil War expert/aspiring Gettysburg National Park Ranger, and EMU Historical Preservation student. Yet his newest hat is the most ambitious. He’s becoming the Alan Lomax of Michigan with his new project The River Street Anthology.
Lomax made extensive field recordings of American Folk Music from the 40’s through the 60’s. He covered a vast range of musical idioms with his recordings. They are not only a major historic document, but an endless font of musical inspiration for generations. From Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the list of music inspired by these recordings is staggering. Jones aims to do something similar—just a little closer to home—by capturing a multitude of musicians across genres throughout the entire state of Michigan.
The River Street Anthology had humble beginnings in spite of its now ambitious scope. Matt explains:
It started out as a way to get my musician friends together. There aren’t a whole lot of venues in Ypsi. I felt more often than not, I saw my musician friends just sitting around on bar stools—myself included—not playing on stage, and I just wanted something to do. The idea had been there for years—ever since Fred Thomas put his Ypsilanti Folk Singers compilation together back in 2006/¬07. That project was so fun, that I wanted to do the same, and I even asked him if he minded me using the same title (he was happy to let me use it—a sort of Volume II). It started off as a little 10 or 15 person compilation from Ypsi. Within an hour (of posting it to Facebook on February 6, 2015) it turned into 60 people.
It’s turned into my dream job that I don’t get paid for. I want this to be a legitimate historical document. It’s always been my goal to get something into The Library of Congress. I’ve been trying to weasel my way into history for years. This is even better because I can take everybody with me. It’s a way to get everybody on the books.
In the process the project birthed in the basement of his River Street home in Ypsilanti has changed him.
I lost my edge. I think that I had developed a sort of reputation around here for being a little dark, sarcastic, and quick to judge. Quick to plunge the knife in. I don't think that is necessarily ever who I really was, but we settle into playing out roles. Sometimes doing what is expected is easier than showing your real hand—vulnerability and all that. I learned real quick that there was no room for that edge in this project. I realized that to make the RSA, I would have to have support basically growing out of my armpits, up to my eyeballs and I found that I liked it. Then I found that everyone deserves it and that people thrive with it. I sit here, a foot away from people and watch/listen to them do what they love doing most. They are excited about taking part in this project and they play their hearts out. If you can seriously sit there, that close to someone pouring it out, and not love it too, I'd say you just might be a sociopath.
The beauty of Jones’ recordings is his stripped down approach. He uses one inexpensive microphone, a preamp for the mic, and a digital recorder. That’s it. And he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He tells artists it’s one take—even though it’s not always so. The end result is a great—and quick—spontaneous take that leaves him time to record a lot of other artists in a session.
At first, I wanted it to be one mic, one song, one take—I think just because it had a real nice, punk rock ring to it. I still have just the one mic, and I still only want one song... and it would be reeeeallly nice if people could pull it off in one take. But truth be told, I only tell people "one take" anymore so they rehearse before they get to my house. Usually people get in and out in under a half hour, BECAUSE THEY PRACTICED BEFOREHAND. Thing is—I have never really truly enjoyed the recording studio because it's one of those places where I can't have total control all the time. I don't pretend to be a recording engineer—I want to be a historian, not an engineer. I don't want to sit there while you work your parts out, and decide which lyrics to sing, and have second thoughts about that ending or that intro. We aren't making your next record—we are making a historical document of What You Sound Like Today. So hopefully, when I tell people “one take,” it scares ‘em enough to rehearse prior, in order to get that one take, and get themselves down on tape, and hopefully, into history the fastest way possible. History doesn't wait—you either get in it or you don't.
All of which brings us to last Saturday. Matt had his second River Street Anthology Listening Party down the street from his house at Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse on River Street in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. Alternately insightful and funny, Matt gave the backstory on his project and shared 10 audio recordings as well as several videos done by Charlie Steen and Mostly Midwest from his project so far. To date Matt has recorded over 200 artists in 7-plus towns in both peninsulas of Michigan.
The evening wound up as Matt added another recording to the anthology—live in front of the hushed audience, Jones recorded Erin Zindle of The Ragbirds (along with percussionist Randall Moore) in one beautiful take.
He took about a minute to position the microphone and get the levels right and hit record. The rest is history.
Doug Coombe is an Ann Arbor and Detroit based music and editorial photographer. He's been a photographer for the Detroit's Metro Times, Concentrate Media, and Urban Innovation Exchange Detroit.
This Sunday Jones continues the project, recording 20 musicians in Kalamazoo.
Last Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra celebrated Mozart’s birthday in style, with a performance of The Abduction from the Seraglio at the Michigan Theater. Opera is all about spectacle—elaborate sets, a cast of thousands—but the A2SO made a deliberate decision to highlight Mozart’s excellent music, which underpins the story. The A2SO brought in incredibly talented lead vocalists to round out the presentation of the opera, but decided to present a semi-staged version of the piece. The overall effect was that this was a performance for music lovers, with an emphasis on the songs within the opera, rather than the drama of the story.
The Abduction from the Seraglio is somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy. It tells the story of a pair of lovers, Belmonte and Constanze, and their servants, Pedrillo and Blondchen. The opera opens after Constanze and Blondchen have been kidnapped and taken to the titular seraglio (which turns out to be a harem) of Pasha Selim, Sultan of Turkey. The Pasha has fallen in love with Constanze, who resists his advances and remains true to Belmonte. Blondchen, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of Osmin, who guards the seraglio. The opera centers on the trials of the lovers as they try to find a way to escape the seraglio. There is a lot of singing about the pain of being separated from a lover and how painful love can be. Our heroes are ultimately released by a suddenly benevolent Pasha, who is moved by the strength of the love between Constanze and Belmonte.
A narrator verbally bridged the action between each song, providing background information and a quick summary of the plot. It was a clever device that allowed the focus to remain on the music of the opera, and, perhaps more importantly, it was an entry point for opera newbies. Those not previously familiar with The Abduction from the Seraglio might have had a difficult time following the action and emotion through lines of the opera, particularly since it was performed in German. Between the narrator and the lyrics projected on a small screen above the orchestra, there was no need to have memorized the entirety of the opera beforehand.
The real standout stars of the opera, among the vocalists, were the female performers Jeanette Vecchione and Suzanne Rigden. Vecchione played the part of Constanze with a wonderful gravity. Vecchione was also remarkable in her ability to keep pace with the full orchestra immediately behind her. There were moments, particularly in fire and brimstone songs, where the vocalists could get a little drowned out by the full orchestra directly behind them. This was not so with Vecchione, a testament to her skill as a vocalist. Rigden brought a wonderful lightness and humor to the stage, and was a real joy to watch. All of the vocalists deserve mention for excellent performances.
I haven’t said much about the orchestra itself, and that’s because the performance was essentially flawless. The orchestra blended into the background, supporting the vocalists’ performances, which is what you want in this sort of setting. It was interesting to get a sense of the music through the movement of the bows on the stringed instruments, however it was impossible to resist the action of the story communicated through the vocalists on stage.
The close quarters of the semi-staging helped to underscore the natural humor written into The Abduction from the Seraglio. Pushing all of the vocalists into close quarters helped up some of the dramatic tension. The downside was that the actors didn’t always have much to do, but this performance was always focused on the music of the opera. The performance was a joy to watch, and proved to be an accessible entry point into the world of opera.
Audrey Huggett is a Public Library Associate at the Ann Arbor District Library and has never seen an opera before.
The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's next Main Stage event will be Harp Magic on March 12 at the Michigan Theater.
If you pay any attention to local music, you know the Michigan scene is rich with diversity and talent. But as the Ann Arbor Art Center’s new show GIG: The Art of Michigan Music points out, there’s also a wealth of outstanding visual art inspired by local music. Visual art–whether an album cover, a concert photograph, a gig poster, or a T-shirt design–has a mighty influence on the way we interact with a band. Often it’s a deciding factor in whether we pick up that album or check out that show in the first place. But it’s rare that we really think about, let alone actively pay tribute to, the folks who made that art. With about 150 works by 20 different local artists, GIG at least gets a good start on giving those individuals a well-deserved tip of the hat.
The show is cleverly laid out in that it groups works not by artist but by theme, subject matter, and color scheme. There are few enough artists in GIG that each could easily be segregated into their own little stretch of wall. But it’s more interesting to take in a wall of Alice Cooper- or Kid Rock-related art, more interesting to explore a section of comic book-inspired illustrations for bands. There’s a pleasant surprise in realizing a group of works are related not necessarily by their creators, but by aesthetic qualities–sometimes different takes on the same subject material.
Within those varied groupings, certain artists consistently stand out. Ann Arbor photographer Doug Coombe has possibly shot more local bands over the past couple of decades than any other photog in town. His works in GIG repeatedly distinguish themselves not only for the diversity of bands Coombe has photographed, but the incredible eye he has for capturing them in striking moments and settings. Feast your eyes on his gorgeous black-and-white shot of Flint R&B artist Tunde Olaniran and one of his backup dancers, both bending backwards toward each other in an ecstatic dance movement. Or marvel at Coombe’s shot of a very, very young White Stripes playing the Metro Times Blowout at Paycheck’s Lounge in 1999. (Jack White is clad in a puka-shell necklace that the dapperly-dressed rocker likely wouldn’t be caught dead in these days.) Coombe’s posed shots are great as well. See his shot of Ann Arbor-bred party rocker Andrew W.K. playfully stepping out of the shower at his childhood home, or Ann Arbor soul singer Mayer Hawthorne standing almost bashfully in front of Hitsville, U.S.A., in his first promo photos (Hawthorne’s suits and haircuts have gotten notably better since then). Coombe has chronicled the scene like no other, and done it in gorgeous style.
Another standout photographer in the show is Lansing’s Jena McShane. McShane has an outstanding command of color and negative space, both of which are on particular display in her photos of the Michigan Pink Floyd tribute band Echoes of Pink Floyd. McShane shoots Echoes saxophonist Chad Bement as a relatively small figure at the bottom of one composition, with a triangle of white fog and spotlight setting him majestically apart from the surrounding blackness. Or see one of McShane’s multiple photos of Alice Cooper, with the singer set strikingly apart from blue-green light in an almost magenta jacket as he wails into a microphone at the right edge of the frame. McShane has an incredible eye for the dramatic and it’s hard to avoid gravitating towards her shots.
In addition to these fine photogs, many of GIG’s artists do their work primarily from behind a drawing table or computer screen. Chief among these is Ann Arbor artist Jeremy Wheeler, who blends ‘60s psychedelic aesthetics, an ‘80s B-movie obsession, and the dynamic style of classic comic books into an eye-popping style all his own. Check out Wheeler’s pen-and-ink illustration for a poster promoting “a celebration of life” following the death of Gary Grimshaw (a Detroit music poster legend in his own right). Text describing the lineup undulates in stately black-and-white waves below a rendering of Grimshaw’s likeness. Or see the original pen-and-ink drawings and digitally colored finals for Wheeler’s comic strip describing his experience at the Stooges’ 2011 show at the Michigan Theater honoring their late guitarist Ron Asheton. Wheeler’s story is humorous, touching and brimming with energy, a truly unique tribute to Asheton, the Stooges, and the local scene done purely for the love of the art.
Coombe, McShane, and Wheeler are just three highlights out of an exhibition packed with talent. Tony Fero and Robert “Nix” Nixon both provide some truly striking posters and album art, with B-movie and comic-book influences that echo Wheeler’s. Show curator Chuck Marshall presents several dynamic photos printed on canvas (make sure you seek out the show’s Easter egg: two boards full of Marshall’s lovely snapshots of a variety of local acts, tucked right around the corner from the main wall that introduces the show). Marshall noted that GIG is “just scratching the surface” as far as representing Michigan music-related visual art. And that’s the incredible thing about the rich variety of works in GIG: they comprise only a tiny sliver of a wild artistic world. It’s well worth taking a look at GIG in the setting of the Art Center, but the show is also likely to open attendees’ eyes a little more to the riotous never-ending art show taking place on telephone poles, venue walls, merch tables, and record store counters all over metro Detroit.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.
"GIG: The Art of Michigan Music" will run through January 30, 2016, at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St., Ann Arbor, MI. 48104.
This Wednesday Carl Craig, Detroit-based producer of techno music and one of the most influential members of the second generation of Detroit techno artists, will give a talk at the Walgreen Drama Center, Stamps Auditorium on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. He founded the Planet E Communications label and, through this, has provided support for many young techno artists from Detroit and beyond. Craig's talk promises to be a free-flowing perspective, in a Q&A setting, touching on techno’s past, present, and future.
Anne Drozd is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Craig's talk begins at 7:30 pm at the Walgreen Drama Center, Stamps Auditorium, University of Michigan North campus, 1226 Murfin Ave. Free - no tickets required.
In the past year or so, Matthew Dear has returned home in many ways. He's got serious Ann Arbor roots, as the first artist to sign to Ghostly International in 1999, and the Blind Pig is a familiar place for him. He grew up in Texas, but moved to Michigan to pursue a degree at the University of Michigan, where he met Ghostly’s founder, Sam Valenti. For me, as a local and an employee of the label, it’s wonderful to see him back in the town where his musical career began to take off.
Matthew Dear has left an indelible imprint on the fabric of popular music history that Ann Arbor has woven. He has been a part of the newer breed of musicians building a career after getting their feet wet in this college town that’s always been supportive of musicians who are a bit left of center, like Commander Cody, Mayer Hawthorne, the Chenille Sisters, Iggy Pop, Pity Sex, Scott Morgan, Andrew W.K., and Wolf Eyes, among others.
Since leaving town, Dear's been busy. He's made moves to Detroit and New York, gotten married, started a family, toured with Depeche Mode, performed both as a solo artist and with a band and as a DJ, performed a seemingly endless string of live dates, and now, Dear has actually moved back to the Ann Arbor area. This show may be a bit of a homecoming of sorts, an expansion and translation of the sets he DJ’d for parties while attending school, honed by nearly 20 years of experience on the road, soundtracking delightful evenings for his fans.
I’m hoping you’re as excited to see his blend of experimental and front-forward dance music as I am. It's been ages since I've seen Matt perform, and I’m just as giddy about his return to The Blind Pig's familiar stage as I was to hear him play at the first Ghostly show I attended, years and years ago.
Jeremy Peters is Music Publishing Director for Ghostly International and Ghostly Songs, and Co-Founder of Quite Scientific.
Matthew Dear will perform at the Blind Pig on Saturday, January 23, 2016, doors at 9 pm.
I’ve lived in Arbor for three and a half years now, and for someone who calls himself a “small music” fan, I haven’t gotten out often enough to visit all the great venues we have in and around town. The Green Wood Coffee House has been on my must-go list for some time now, and Friday night I walked in. Located at the United Methodist Church on Green Road, it’s an Ann Arbor institution of great live folk, roots, and Americana music, and the performance by the Juggernaut Jug Band did nothing but burnish that reputation.
I’d never heard of “JJB” or their music before last night, though I confess to being a lapsed practitioner of the washtub bass (it was a high school thing). There was no washtub there, but JJB frontman Stu “Roscoe P. Goose” Helm had at his disposal more than a dozen jug band instruments, most of them clamped to a red 4-foot step ladder. The star of the rhythm assortment was Roscoe’s ancient-looking crockery jug – a gallon-sized model – equipped with a 21st century wireless mic. This video provides a nice intro to JJB.
Louisville, Kentucky is considered the birthplace of jug band music: a goulash of Dixieland, honky-tonk, blues, jazz, minstrel, and swing that first bubbled up in the late 1800s. JJB’s primary calling is to preserve the jug band tradition and to expand the envelope of this sub-genre with modern musical infusions. Channeling past jug band ghosts like the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Whistler’s Jug Band, the Mud Gutters, and Ballad Chefs, JJB covers the best of traditional jug music, complete with washboard, cowbells, tin cans and nose flute.
But wait… there’s more! In addition to those original sounds, JJB samples modern rock in a jug band format that has the audience’s senses and sensibilities reeling – in a good way. Consider "Pinball Wizard"… played to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues". Or a Led Zeppelin medley of "Heartbreaker", "Kashmir", and "Stairway to Heaven". These guys know how to turn a genre on its head, whether it’s theirs or any other. If you’ve not heard a jug band cover of "People Are Strange" by Jim Morrison and The Doors, you must seek this out immediately.
Before you write off JJB as a bells-and-whistles novelty group, you need to know that these guys are accomplished and talented multi-instrumentalists. Roscoe Goose surprised me by setting aside his washboard thimbles for a song and pulling out a muted silver trumpet in mid-set. Greg “Frankie” Lentz displayed his fretboard skills on an electrified Fender dreadnaught. Pat “Slim Chance” Lentz (Greg’s brother) strummed and picked a masterful electric jazz guitar of his own making – and alternated with a Dixieland banjo, while the newest member of the group, James “Jug Band Jimmy” Brown anchored the group with his stand-up bass. Members of the band have changed since its inception in the early 1960s, but the tradition, original sound, and corny jokes carry on. Roscoe Goose has been raking the washboard for JJB for more than 50 years.
What I absolutely did not expect from this group was the level of vocal skill and harmony-making reminiscent of good barbershop groups. Roscoe possesses a sweetly natural lead voice, and ranges easily down to the bass notes required for the jug. All of JJB’s members join in often for the choruses, and the lead singing role is occasionally thrown to “Slim”.
Catch Juggernaut Jug Band on their next trip through town (they promised), since no studio recording quite captures the look on Roscoe P. Goose’s face when he’s playing the nose flute on "Stairway to Heaven". Visit this Spotify link to sample their stuff. If you like it, BUY their music at the Juggernaut website. And thank you, Juggernaut Jug Band… for keeping musical history alive… and kicking!
Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.