At the Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg
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Cornbread (Michael Hurley) made a surprise appearance at a Colorblind Brunch
Larry Hoyt of the Syracuse New Times said of their latest album:
Many goups claim they "sound like no other band," but in the case of the Colorblind James Experience, it's more than hype. The Experience feeds creatively on a vast amount of influences, blending the energy of rock, the two-beat drive of polka, the sureal calliope sound of circus music, the grace of swing, and the down-home feel of jugband, country and folk. Add to this spicy musical melting pot the playful yet thoughtful lyrics of a writer comparable to Bob Dylan, and there emerges a magically engaging sound, simultaneously mysterious and accessible, intelligent and absurd, insightful and ironic, heartfelt and distant, humorous and eerie.
I Could Be Your Guide (Death Valley Records)stands as a thoroughly enjoyable 13-song collection, due in no small part to the number of toe-tapping, finger-snappin' dance tunes. But there's something more at work here. The CD's cover art, which pays obvious homage to the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album, suggests Guide has a similarily unified artistic vision that deserves serious consideration.
One of the most striking examples of Colorblind James' skills comes in the seven-minute story-song "I Saved Your Life." Over a repeated circus riff that composer Nina Rota could have written for Fellini, the singer-poet recites a tragic tale of a "honest citizen" who refuses to give "a little change" to a beggar. Cursed with guilt and "strange visions," the narrator ultimately succombs to a similar fate of homelessness and poverty. This modern parable preaches compassion, but with a discomforting undercurrent. Should we really be drawn in by this beggar's plea for charity-and if we don't, will we really end up just like him?
Even with songs of more expressionist, abstract lyrics, such as the quizzical"Maybe I Will, the verses seem to emanate from different personas, while the easy-to-remember, sing-a-long chorus stands as a mantra for the world's indecisive souls. "Maybe I Will, Maybe I Won't/Maybe I will, Maybe I won't/Maybe I will, Maybe I won't/ I can't say for sure."
The collection's title track chugs tirelessly ahead with the manic, over-driven backbeat of a parallel-universe marching band heading down the field, with Colorblind singing this not-so-reassuring assurance: 'If you want to find your way back home/I'll just step aside/But if you're lost and you want to stay lost/I could be your guide."
Guide shines brighter due to the lively interplay of the Experience's talented musicians: drummer Jim McAveney, guitarist Tommy Tremontana, keyboardist Charles Jaffe, saxman Ethan Lyons and bassist Gary Holt. Singer Rita Coulter, whose appealing alto harmonizes nicely throughout offers five wonderful lead vocals on: "You Need Somebody On Your Side," "I'll Never Get Tired," "See If I Care,"and "Please Don't Make Me Wait." With Colorblind James adding his own eloquent baritone, choppy rhythm guitar, and melodious vibraphone to these richly- woven arrangements, I Could Be Your Guide impresses as one of those rare albums that pleases from start to finish, with repeated listenings a mandatory indulgence.
Colorblind James Writes:
Michael Hurley, who'll appear at the Rose and Crown on Friday, June 5, has made a handful of appearances here in Rochester over the past ten or fifteen years, The first was at the old Snake Sister's Cafe on South Avenue, probably in 1986 or '87. He, (accompanied by bassist Dave Reisch) was incredible, holding a large crowd (most who had come with no idea what to expect) spellbound. I've spoken with others who were there that night, and sorry (if this sounds a little flaky) most seem to share a vague notion that something more or less supernatural transpired there.
Of course, it was supernatural in a kind of low-key way. Hurley isn't likely to elicit a screaming, fists-punching-the-air kind of reaction, or a chorus of hallelujahs either; he called one of his early albums Armchair Boogie, and that pretty well sums up his approach. Though he's a master at creating deep, otherworldly grooves for his deep, otherworldly lyrics, the excitement elicited is mostly internal.
Though not remarkably prolific, Hurley has been making records since the mid-60's. There have been nine in all (not counting a wonderful batch of home-made cassett releases) and none is less than brilliant. His second and third albums were released on Warner Brothers, but it was the next three, on Rounder, that gave hurley his highest profile. Those three have all been recently reissued, and have resulted in a new wave of recognition for the veteran troubadour. He toured Europe twice and will be going back again this summer, shortly after his Rochester appearance. He recently completed the recording of his next CD, and has already begun work on the follow-up.
In concert, Michael Hurley performs an assortment of his original compositions along with personalized renditions of (mostly obscure)American classics. Hurley is not after cheap laughs, but humor abounds, And no songwriter that I know of-not Bob Dylan, not Randy Newman-can pack more meaning into a plain-talk phrase than Michael Hurley.
But it is not just the level of his songcraft that makes a performance by Michael Hurley special; it has more to do with where his songs come from. There's an idealism in Hurley that shines through his music, and a loyalty to the values-honsety, humility, compassion among them-that have nourished the man and his music over thw years. Honesty, humility, compassion: These aren't words frequently associated with popular music. One gets the feeling that Hurley has not had a lot of company on the road he's chosen to travel; maybe that's why it's such a thrill to see him passing by. Colorblind James (CITY NEWSPAPER- June 3-9. 1998)
A time-honored tradition featuring an array of all-star musicians
SOUND SO SWEET
By Chuck Cuninale (Colorblind James on Jugband music
from Rochester City Newspaper September 30, 1998
Way down yonder in Memphis, Tennesee
Jug band music sound so sweet tome,
It sounds so sweet! It's hard to beat!
Jug band music certainly was a treat to me
............ "Jug Band Quartette
The Memphis Jug Band, 1934
It's easy to imagine that when The Memphis Jug Band recored "Jug Band Quarteete" in 1934, they had at least an inkling that it might be their last recording. The band's two principle members, Will Shade (also known as Son Brimmer) and Charlie Burse had aldy endured an involuntary two year recording hiatus. The novelty of the jug band form had been wearing off for some time, and demand for the group's services was nowhere near what it had been. The Victor label, which had released nearly 60 sides by Shade and his compatriots between 1927 and 1930, had dropped the band from its roster. The small company for which they had recorded in 1932, Champion, was already defunct, and Okeh, the label for whom they were recording presently, had apparently not written longevity into their contract. "Jug Band Quartette," delivered in the past tense, with its odd juztaposition of celebratory lyrics and mournful melody, seemed a fitting farewell freom the form's most popular, and arguably greatest, practitioners. And that's what it turned out to be.
An invention of black entertainers in the Louisville, Kentuckt area, jog band music raised its beautiful head in the early 1900s. With roots in the turn of the century New Orleans "spasm" bands (raucus street bands that made music with whatever was available-kazoos, pieces of pipe, pots and pans, etc...)and traveling medicine shows, jug band music valued verve and spirit at least as highly as virtuosity. The early bands varied widely in approach and instrumentation (guitars, banjos, mandolins, violins, clarinets, kazoos,saxophones, washboards and pianos all found their way on to jug band recordings), with one common denominator: The Jug.
The jug was played as a bass instrument, the intention being to emulate the sound of a tuba or sousaphone. The erstwhile jug player causes his lips to vibrate while half- blowing, half-humming over the jug's mouth. Jim Sherpa (street name: Dr. James Rhythm) plays jug and washtub bass with the Ithaca/Syracuse based Water Street Boys. The "embouchure is similar to that of a tuba or trombone," says Dr. James, "but there is an air space between the lips and the jug. You move the jug to change tone." Results vary, but, in the hands of the best players, the jug has produced some credible, and memorable bass lines.
Among the Louisville bands, which included the Cy Anderson Jug Band, Phillips' Louisville Jug Band, Earl McDonald's Original Louisville Jug Band, and The Kentucky Jug Band, the best known was violinist Clifford Hayes' Dixieland Jug Blowers. Like many of the Louisville bands, the Jug Blower's approach was jazz oriented, with more of a "city" flavor than that of the Memphis bands. The jug itself, in Louisville, was often a novelty item thaqt jazz bands added in order to join in on the current craze.
Anearlier version of Clifford Hayes' group, The Old Southern Jug Band, released what was probably the first-ever jug band recording. "Blues, Just Blues, That's All" in 1923. Its success, and the success of subsequent sides by the Jug Blowers, caused jug bands to pop up throughout the south. But the city where jug band music really took hold was Memphis, Tennessee. By 1930 there were at least seven organized jug ensembles working the streets and establishments of Memphis. The greatest of these were The Memphis Jug Band and Cannon's Jug Stompers.
Born in 1889, Will Shade was the central figure in Memphis jug culture, and the driving force behind the Memphis Jug Band.. Shade spent a good part of his youth on the road with traveling medecine shows, honing the faine art of street performance. Around 1925, he heard recordings by the Dixieland Jug Blowers, and resolved to put together a similar aggregation. Fortunately he failed. The Memphis Jug Band bore little resemblance to its Kentucky cousins; steeped in the traditions of country blues and string band music, the MJB had an elemental had a drive and intensity that the Louisiville bands never touched.
Working with a core that included Charlie Burse and Jab Jones, while employing an ever-growing and ever-changing cluster of part-time, peripheral players, Shade assembled a versatile and flexible unit. A list of MJB alumni is a who's who of Memphis blues at that time, including, in addition to Burse and Jones, Furry Lewis, Will Weldon, Dewey Thomas, Tee Wee Blackman, Charlie Polk, Charlie Pierce, Milton Robie, Hattie Hart, Dewey Corley, Ham Lewis, Vol Stevens, and Robert Burse. The group was so large, in fact, that they were able to play two different engagements simultaneously, and did so often.
The MJB started out playing for tips at Handy Park, but as their popularity grew, found themselves being offered more lucrative engagements. Popular in both black and white communities, the band played street corners, bars, restaurants, house parties, store openings, civic functions, and country clubs. They even played rallies for Memphis political honcho Edward Crump, who ironically, was responsible for the city's efforts to "clean up" the booming, if not genteel, Beale Street area. Beale Street, the center of the black entertainment district, and the jug band's bread and butter, was nearly as renowned for crime and corruption as for music. Sam Jones, a well-known evangelist at the time, reportedly said: "If whiskey ran ankle-deep in Memphis, and each front door had a dipper attached to it, you could not get drunker quicker than you can on Beale Street now."
Mephis' second great jug band, Cannon's Jug Stompers, was led by another veterin of the medecine show circuit, Gus Cannon. Cannon's first (jugless) recordings were released in 1927 under the name of Banjo Joe, and featured country blues legend Blind Blake on guitar. A year later, after Will Shade led Victor talent scout Ralph Peer to Cannon's door, Cannon's Jug Stompers made their first recordings.
Unlike the MJB, Cannon's group did not draw on a large cast of characters, being composed of Cannon, singer/harmonica player Noah Lewis, and either Ashley Thompson, Elijah Avery, or Hosea Woods on guitar or banjo. Cannon himself played banjo, jug (in his case, a copper paraffin can that he wore around his neck with a harness, allowing him to play banjo and jug simultaneously), and sometimes guitar. Never as popular as the Memphis Jug Band during their time, Cannon's Jug Stompers' stature has grown with age; many contemporqary listeners find their hard-edged approach preferable to the MJB's more whimsical offerings. Much of the Stomper's intensity can be attributed to Noah Lewis; his remarkable playing gave the music a ferocity that bordered on danger. "Noah, he was full of cocaine all the time," Cannon told interviewer Bengt Olsson in 1973, "I reckon that's why he could play so loud. Aw, he was good." He could sing too; his renditions of "Viola Lee Blues" and "Going to Germany" are among the Stompers' brightest-and darkest-moments.
Though the bands differed significantly in their sound, and style, at least three elements brought them together: impeccable rhythm, unusually fine material, and rich humor. Shade's brilliant compositions, including "See You In The Spring," "Stealin, Stealin," "You May Leave But This Will Bring You Back," and "K.C. Moan," earn him a place among the very best blues composers. Part of Shade's appeal is his wry awareness of the jug band's precarious place in society. "Somebody tell me what makes the jug band drink," he pleads in the classic, "Fourth StreetMess Around." And in "Whitewash Station,"he presents his strategy for sneaking the jug band past Saint Peter. "Build a Whitewash Station two miles below/So the jug band has a chance.
Cannon's humor was often darker; witness "Feather Bed," an ironically tiled tune about a black man convicted of theft: "I saw the judge up in the stand/ He had them law books in his hand/ He pull out a writ and reads to me/ This nigger's been stealing in the first degree." Run-ins with the law are common in Cannon's repertoire; "Madison Street Rag", "Riley's Wagon", and "prison Wall Blues" ("You might as well laugh good partner, when you fall/ Hollering wont get from behind these prison walls")all find the singer running from, or in custody of, the long white arm of the law.
The depression hastened the untimely end of the jug bands, and by the late 1930's they had pretty much ceased to exist. Until, that is, in the early 1960's when folk revivalists raised the jug band banner once again. The best of these second generation groups, Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, borrowed heavily fromthe material of both Shade and Cannon. The Even Dozen Jug Band, The Holy Modal Rounders, Taj Mahal, Dave Van Ronk, and Arlo Guthrie also had hands in popularizing the old tunes.
The music slipped into the pop world, too. John Sebastian was a member of the Even Dozen group before he crossed over to the pop side with his excellent band The Lovin' Spoonful. Sebastian borrowed the melody from Cannon's "Prison Wall Blues" for his "Younger Girl", and also snatched Cannon's "Bring It With You When You Come". The Grateful Dead covered "Minglewood Blues", and "Viola Lee Blues", and "Big Railroad Blues", and its late leader Jerry Garcia, was a jug band guy himself, having played, pre-dead, in a band called Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. Even the mighty Beatles fell under the influence; John Lennon's first band, The Quarrymen, was a skiffle band, complete with accoustic guitars, banjos, and a wash tub bass-like instrument made from a tea chest.
One jug band tune-Cannon's "Walk Right In"-even became a number one hit. The Rooftop Singers, A New York City folk group that made Up With People sound exciting, reached the pinnacle of pop with their nondescript cover.
And in ways less easy to demonstrate, jug band music may have shaped American music more than we know. The drive, the vitality of the Memphis bands, as well as the simple chord progressions and rhythm, invites comparison to early rock and roll. There may be no evidence that chuck Berry listened to jug band records in his formative years, but his music, with its wry take on personal hardship, its refusal to take itself too seriously, its inventive, lively language, its sly defiance of authority, and its abundant humor, says that he did.. And is it a coincidence that the city that spawned the great jug bands also unleashed Elvis onto an unsuspecting world? An avid listener of black music, its unlikely that the raucous sounds made right around the corner (though a few decades earlier) would have escaped him entirely. Noteworthy historical aside: Charlie Burse, longstanding partner of Will Shade, recorded in the same Sun Studio in which Sam Phillips gave young Elvis his first break.
Locally, the jug band spirit lives on in the music of bands like Watkins and the Rapiers; though jugless, the Rapiers' anything-goes attitude hearkins back to the jug bands' medicine show roots, and The High Risers, who, with nary a jug band tune in their repertoire, capture the loose, spontaneous jug band feel better than any preservationist could.
"It's a joyful sound; full of life," says Jim Sherpa. "I's the sound of people getting together and having a good time making music." In a world where a song's shift from verse to chorus can sound more like a business decision than a matter of inspiration, that's quite a concept.