West Coast Report, part one: Never Shake Hands on the Bandstand

RB26NEVER SHAKE HANDS ON THE BANDSTAND. This is a standing rule with horn players, and jazz guys, people who take reading gigs, because they’re always playing jobs with people they’ve never met before, and the leaders want it to look like they’re all the best of pals -thus, never shake hands on the bandstand. On our recent, adorable little west coast tour, we were constantly shaking hands on the bandstand -usually with some stranger we’d just played a couple songs with, just another genius songwriter. Jesus, the woods were crawling with ’em. (You can hear this happen at the end of the first cut on “Gold in Them Thar Hills, Vol. 1”, as we make sure to find out who the hell Frank Goodman is.) What a riot.

In listening to these recordings, I was starting to feel like some kind of extra-white, modern Alan Lomax. And I don’t even like folk music! But everywhere we went… well, actually at the Folk Alliance, we hardly went anywhere, and that might’ve helped. We missed everything, supposedly, just squatting in our little room, watching the parade of singers, players, writers and characters, completely amazed at the total lack of horror shows. I mean, I’ve always considered myself to be pretty snotty, musically -I don’t go around liking everybody, that’s for sure. In fact, as a part-time music critic/generally pretentious theoretician, I’ve always been proud of my ability to point out whatever is most terrible about what anyone else is doing (even people who are way more talented and wealthy than myself.)

Always an enthusiastic and creative complainer, I was somewhat taken aback at my inability to fault all the other musicians. There seemed to be nothing but friendly, interesting, talented people on hand -what a weird problem! I was definitely expecting more relentless tambourine players, banjo guys with mustaches, harmful sensitive singer songwriters, harmonica players that never shut up; I even rerserved a room at the end of the hall, figuring one less neighbor might be the way to go. Let’s face it, I’ve seen some hoot nights, and I was scared.

But you know what? I didn’t meet a single lame the whole time. Of course, when I examine that statement, it sounds pretty unlikely, and I have to suspect operator error -there must have been some lames, there always are. But somehow, I missed them -how’d I get fogged up like that? Was it because I was sitting with them in a room with no sound or lights or other devious distancing devices, or because we were sharing beverages and conversation? Where did I lose all my critical faculties?

Even when I got home and started listening to the tapes, I still didn’t hate it; not at all. I listened to it way more than I had to to edit it down; I’m listening to it now. Folk music. And I still really like it. What the fuck? I really don’t trust this at all. I think i just got to like all these people somehow -no, wait a minute, that’s even more unlikely. Liking all those people is probably even more unlikely than liking all that music. I don’t know what the hell to think anymore.

One thing I can tell you for sure is that all my guys – Dinty, Fred, and Berke -sure had an absolute ball playing with everyone. We played more that weekend than we probably ever have (except maybe Berke, who seems to be an utter maniac, as far as I can tell, and more on that shortly), pretty much nailing down the 1 am to dawn shift three nights in a row with one big, never-ending set -and I didn’t think I even liked jamming, either. The whole thing was just strange.

There is the chance we were just plain lucky… I mean, there is evidence to that effect, via these recordings of one amazing guest star after another. David Roth, I had at least heard of; and knew he lived nearby on the cape, and Dinty and I were somewhat acquainted with Deb Pasternak from Cambridge; but Laurie McClain, Frank Meyer, Karen Mal, Frank Goodman, Mick Overman, Ralston Bowles, Suzanne Paris -we’d never met or even heard of any of these people, and now… well, we have!

In retrospect, I think one of the reasons we didn’t run into more assholes was the pajama party aspect; we were mostly dressed in pajamas and bathrobes, as usual, until Berke gave Dinty this wild yellow suit (one of my highlights of the weekend was seeing Dinty standing on top of my bed in his new yellow suit, pointing out the lyrics to the congregation in one of our monster notebooks as all concerned lifted their voices in a spirited, decidedly non-soft version of the Cookies’ “Softly in the Night.”) A whole section of the room was pretty much covered in hats and bathrobes, and I think part of their effect was to filter out some of the more faint-hearted types that we probably didn’t need anyway, while simultaneously beckoning to the occasional utter maniac, as if to say, yes! these are my people!

Which isn’t to say that some people weren’t pretty relieved to see that there was beer available, too. Nothing wrong with that. I like an occasional beer myself. Strangely, though, I don’t think any of us got really plowed the whole time -it seemed we were just too busy “jamming”. Again I say, what the hell?

The catalyst for a lot of this was my old cohort Wendy Sue Rosloff, who charmed/browbeat a good portion of these folks into dropping by originally, and for that I will always owe her big-time. Well, for that, and the cookies. And the damn fine bucket playing. And thirty-five years or so of laughs and support and crazy talk and “alternative” thinking and laughs again and now, the bucket. Christ! Everybody’s a musician nowadays!

I think one of the first people Wendy Sue brought over (one might almost say, sacrificed) was Laurie McClain, from Nashville, who immediately seemed a kindred spirit. In fact, I remember her early on expressing surprise at not hating our saxophone player, Berke, even though he played saxophone -I assumed this meant she was experiencing the same sort of identity crisis I was. She had harmonica hygiene issues, and she kept losing stuff, and sometimes she’d say the darndest things. In addition, of course, to being a genius songwriter -“My Heaven”, in particular, is just exquisite, but a whole lot of her stuff has this charming, frank, compassionate/neurotic attitude… we all loved her.

On Friday night, Wendy Sue bestowed upon us Frank Meyer and Karen Mal, who were a rather striking couple, a lanky, grinning, leathery looking cowpoke with a deep, low voice and (what i guessed might be) his child bride -these two probably generated more immediate curiosity than anyone else, in part due to their Stevie Nicks/John Carradine-like charisma. Speculation ran rampant. It immediately became apparent that Frank was an amazing, easy-going, dryly hilarious songwriter/stylist with an appetite for slow tempos who -HALLELUJAH! -rolled a perfectly good joint (which immediately qualified him as one of my heirs and closest pals -I had been looking for someone to do something constructive with my stash for what seemed like hours.

Karen, on the other hand, was a lovely singer, as well as a completely fabulous mandolinist with a commanding sense of humor (who, of course, later turned out to be a damn fine songwriter herself, though it was a while before she layed “Fourth of July” on us, which had one of my favorite couplets of the weekend: “I never told time, it was time that told me / when to wake up and how hungry to be”.) Frank and Karen both became instant pals. Amazing. (By the way, for those of you keeping score, turns out they weren’t married after all; some things are just too good to be true.)

So Laurie and Wendy Sue and Frank and Karen were kind of the regulars, or at least the folks who hung in there until dawn most frequently, though we also got to know a guy named Mick Overland, who turned out to be a great slide player and who had one song called “If I Had It” that we all particularly enjoyed playing but somehow kep failing to record properly (maybe we were changing reels, or maybe folks were noisy, or I was having a coughing fit -we had to drop a few good ones due to problems like these, unfortunately.) Deb Pasternak, an old friend from Cambridge, also hung out a bit for a couple of nights, playing a couple of my favorite tunes from her album, “Home”. For us, it was nice to have a home-y on board, and I think Deb may’ve been amused to see us so out of our element.

There were also some non-musicians who were frequent visitors, like the guy from Bose (whose name was Bill, I think) who kept promising to give us a p.a. system if we’d give him a beer; the p.a. system never materialized, but we were flattered that he seemed to enjoy our company -or was it just our beverages? -so much.

Frequently, one guest led to another; Laurie McClain brought over her fellow Nashvillean Frank Goodman for an all-too-brief visit on our last night in town; Frank only played three songs, but one of them, “If Love Turns Its Back On You”, particularly hit the spot with an easy-going Rascals/”Groovin'” kind of vibe. All three of them were things the band could really bite into, and luckily Frank seemed to enjoy being bitten.

As did most of our guests -it turned out that having great backup musicians like Dinty and Berke was a real windfall for visiting songwriters. Dinty has been one of my closest cohorts for seven or eight years now, an indispensible part of the Philharmonic, so I knew how wonderful he was ahead of time, but Berke was a bit of a surprise. Berke lives in San Diego, but summers on Cape Cod, so we had had the good fortune to have him with us on a variety of saxophones on a handful of CTP shows back east. It wasn’t until our first day in San Diego, however, that we learned that not only was he an excellent bass player, but an absolutely tireless all-around music maniac.

Berke’s San Diego schedule went something like this: early in the morning, like 8 or 9am (and this is in the actual morning, mind you), Berke would teach classes for a few hours at a college in town; then, he’d teach a few private lessons; then do an Irish gig from 9 to 12:30 at night; then come over and mess around with us until dawn. Three nights in a row, sometimes with a bit of afternoon practice or an early showcase added in. He also drove back and forth to Los Angeles a couple nights to do club dates with us on either end of the Folk Alliance, both times in a total downpour, both times without cancelling any of his classes. Oh, yeah, and then Santa Barbara, too (only five or six hours from San Diego), just for good measure.

And beaming and happy and sharp as a tack at all times! Check out his perfectly in-the-groove stuff on “If Love Turns Its Back”, or his simultaneous performance of both the bass part and the horn part on “Don’t Blame Me” (I really should remember to tell him not to that, before he hurts himself.) Berke was so good on bass that for the whole first night, I forgot I played bass at all (I did eventually remember and pitch in, thus freeing up Berke for more tenor sax and clarinet duty.) Obviously, he’s not a human -and who needs huimans, anyway?

The other thing about Berke and Dinty is that they both know when to shut up. You’ll find a few performances that are totally unadorned, and that’s no small feat -there’s some very fine musicians out there who still haven’t figured out that just because they’re holding an instrument doesn’t mean they have to play it.

This is particularly valuable in jamming conditions, when you can not only be quiet yourself, but also prevent other people from making the mistake of joining in by forgetting to lend them your ax (though generally everyone was welcome, and I don’t think anyone ever either felt denied or abused the privilege.) (Again, miracles! Doesn’t happen much in real life! Don’t get me started…)

We also had quite an assortment of lovely cameo appearances. One of my favorites is Ralson Bowles “Fragile”, which I think is a terrific song, but it gets even better when you know the circumstances.

The first night we were there, at some point we started smelling something burning. Of course, we didn’t stop playing at first, and weren’t unduly alarmed; when it didn’t go away, we checked our one small amplifier to make sure it was OK (because it did seem to be that kind of smell) and went back to playing once we’d found that wasn’t it. But it did get stronger, and once we saw the flashing lights, even we knew something was wrong somewhere. Turned out someone’s room in the building next door had caught fire and had pretty much burnt to a crisp, though the firemen had contained it and kept it from spreading. We were later glad to hear that no one had been hurt, but unfortunately some poor guy had lost a couple of instruments and clothes and personal effects.

The poor guy in question turned out to be Ralston Bowles, who nonetheless turned up in Rm 1219 a couple nights later, surrounded by crazy people in a variety of bathrobes and various states of inebriation, playing this gorgeous, sensitive song with a pair of my pajamas wrapped around his head in an extremely sporty manner. Apparently, life goes on.

But not this portion of our fable, the story of the Chandler Travis Philharmonette’s stay at the Folk Alliance convention in San Diego, which I think perhaps I should wrap up about now, as it was only a small portion of our west coast experience. It sure did set the tone, though, and we sure did have a blast and a half. We’ll be there again next year in when they hold it in Montreal, and it is our dream to see you all back in your places at pajama part, ’05 (serious recruiting to begin any minute now.)

I’m still worried about this, though. I’m afraid that listening to this music for someone else might be as boring as someone showing slides from their trip. Could something that means so much to me possibly just be plain dull for someone else? Of course it could! However, these people should fuck off.

© Chandler Travis, 2004

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