Judge Woody

1966, San Angelo, Texas. Summer, or what felt like it on the sun-hammered flat wide. Late afternoon, a dive bar that mixed low-alcohol beer with Tabasco and tomato juice in its trademark “red bird.”

A bartender responded with innocent surprise when a patron remarked that dousing bowls of popcorn with chili powder revved up drinkers’ thirst. “Now, is that a fact?”

The city fathers forbade hard liquor so tipplers drove fast to the next county for the harder stuff, brilliantly effective for drunk driving. This was one of the more exciting pastimes available, along with the flashy thrills of climbing on our barracks roofs at Goodfellow Air Force Base to watch thunderstorms crash and crush.

Onstage in the bar sat a tall thin guy with a guitar and calm, twinkly charm. He was among friends; fellow military guys from Goodfellow where we trained in radio intelligence.

When applause rewarded a song, singer Woody Smith waved it off. “What I do best is pick fly shit out of pepper with boxing gloves on.”

For all the fun he has had making music and telling jokes, what he did best was at a different sort of bar. Over 40 years in court-rooms, Woody Smith was a public defender, prosecutor and judge.

Woody grew up in Carlsbad where his dad worked in the potash mines. Woody did, too, but he also waited tables in the snack bar at the famous caverns. One day, a feud with his cook erupted in the dining room to the consternation of a hungry family. The cook prepared what looked like the cheeseburgers everybody ordered. But when Woody served them, the confused dad beckoned him back and lifted his bun top. It was empty. The dad looked quizzically up at Woody as if the question was too obvious to need asking: Where were the burgers? 

Woody helpfully explained, “Maybe you should have ordered the deluxe.” 

Before the dad could react, Woody brought out his manager who comped the family’s cheeseburgers, fries and drinks.

After radio-spy school in Texas, we moved around the world, in uniform. I spent a year on the Black Sea coast of Turkey before I joined Woody and other pals already stationed on a Navy base between Tokyo and Yokohama. We all lived in nearby villages, graciously welcomed by our Japanese neighbors despite overloud stereos and other frat-brat misbehavior. In our “battle of the bands,” we cranked up warring stereos in different rooms. 

Woody lived nearby, so we partied together some. Once Bob Brown, drunk and over-confident in his navigational skills, mistook a maternity hospital for the home he shared with Woody and other sailors. Bob made himself comfortable, climbing into a delivery-room bed with a laboring mother to be. At his court-martial, the judge told Bob the Navy “takes a dim view of sailors acting like hairy monsters.”

Woody’s post-Navy path seemed more direct than the erratic trajectory most of us followed. We mostly blundered around; Woody went to law school. 

A framed motto in his home on an east Albuquerque cul-de-sac proclaims his judicial philosophy: “If it ain’t fair, it ain’t legal.”

Before his bench, as he once explained, “First I identify the ass-hole; then I use the law to make sure they don’t win.”

Sometimes this was easy.

When a woman sued a neighbor over her constantly-barking dogs, the defendant brought a box of cassette tapes to court. Judge Woody asked what was on the tapes. She said it was the sound of her dogs – not barking. Judge Woody pointed out that could be the sound of anybody’s dogs, not barking. So she called a witness. She spoke in a normal tone, and when nothing happened she gave a loud shout. “Mister MENDOZA!” Some shouts later, an old, clearly deaf man rose and headed for the witness stand.

Judgement for the plaintiff.

As a prosecutor, Woody laughed when jail inmates mooned him as he walked to his courtroom.

I only once saw him there, in action. When our fellow Navy vet John Collins, his partner Sally and I visited his courtroom years ago, he was assuring the accused that DWI is a serious offense. This observation grew increasingly ironic. 

“I’ve got nothing on under this robe,” he announced, leaving the bench after the trial. He actually wore a Rolling Stones T-shirt and jeans. 

We lunched at Sadie’s in a nearby bowling alley, with beers. Then, we all boarded Woody’s spacious Chrysler sedan. Worried that thirst might overtake us on our ramble, he stopped at a drive-through for a six-pack that was gone before we arrived at a bar in Bernalillo.

There we settled into lazy wet afternoon. We shot lots of pool, badly, draining pitchers of draft beers and playing the same song over and over on the jukebox – a lively Mexican polka, “La Gallina.” The guys at the bar – we bought their pitchers, too – told us it meant “The Hen;” but it also means “funk” – which makes more sense.

Woody then drove us back to Albuquerque, dropped us off for naps and a late dinner while he went home to practice, then pack up his sax.

He picked us up at dusk and drove us to our third bar of the day, if you count Sadie’s. In retrospect, I surely would. 

There, he climbed onstage with his band the Tube Worms. Every seat in the place was full but a barstool held vacant by a sign memorializing Chuy, its deceased occupant.

Woody and the guys had and delivered a high old time, playing rock and roll classics loose, fast and rowdy. Time flowed fast as the riffs and I was surprised on arriving back at John and Sally’s place to find it was 2 a.m.

I don’t know if Woody had court the next day.

As busy as his docket ever got, he never gave up music. For years, he led a crew he called the Woodpeckers in bars around Albuquerque and surrounding towns. And they opened for some stars at the Kino, an art-deco movie palace downtown.

Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys played some of those gigs; as I found during a September reunion in Albuquerque with Navy vet/radio-spy friends including Judge Woody. He handed me a gleaming Virtuoso alto sax Keys had gifted him, for a magical/religious moment. 

Keys played with the Stones for decades, though they fired him during the “Exile on Main Street” (released in May 1972) sessions in Keith Richards’s basement studio in the south of France. Mick Jagger took umbrage when they wanted to record a sax part but Keys couldn’t be found. He was discovered enjoying himself in a bathtub he’d filled with Dom Perignon. He and two women friends were all naked there, “nekkid,” as Woody likes to say. Richards laughed and wanted to let Keys sober up and play but Jagger insisted that Keys be booted. 

Keys had previously toured with fellow Texans Buddy Holly and Buddy Knox, then with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends whose guests included Eric Clapton and George Harrison. This introduced him to top British musicians. Delaney & Bonnie bandleader Leon Russell hired Keys for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishman” tour and live album.

Years later, the Stones rehired Keys. As Richards told Rolling Stone after Keys died in 2014, “…The Stones were rehearsing for another tour. This was 1980-something, and I bought Bobby a ticket and said, Just get your ass here. When we rehearse ‘Brown Sugar,’ just sneak up and do the solo, man. Once we did ‘Brown Sugar,’ Bobby hit the solo and then I looked at Mick like, You see what I mean, Mick? And Mick looked at me and says, Yeah, you can’t argue with that. Once he just played those few notes, there really was no question. So Mick relented and said, Okay, let’s get Bob back in the band.

Keys played on a dozen Stones albums and dozens more by artists from Ringo and B.B. King to Carly Simon and Leo Sayer.

When the Stones played in Albuquerque on their “A Bigger Bang” world tour (2005-06), they paid Keys $15,000 for that night’s work. Then Judge Woody picked him up, buzzed him across town to play a dive bar with the Woodpeckers. 

Keys’ cut of the door money: $25.

Woody told this tale at a late-September recent reunion in Albuquerque that brought together half a dozen old-friend Navy vets, some with our wives/patient partners. Some of us hadn’t seen others of us in 40 or 50 years, and we chose Albuquerque in deference to the two vet residents: Woody and John Collins.

We shared memories of the same episodes remembered differently and vice versa; tall tales of high times, and low.

And we recalled how we’d variously bridged big gaps in time and distance – most recently last fall when five of us assembled in Newville at the Herkimer County farmstead where my wife Ellie grew up and which she and some siblings still own.

Old Vets’ Reunion – From left, me, Schmuel “Stuart” Ferency, John Collins, Steve Bouck, “Lew” (Michael Ayres) in Newville, NY; fall 2021. Ferency lives in Hull, Massachusetts, Collins in Newville or Albuquerque, Bouck in Muskegon, Michigan, and Ayres in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Once Steve Bouck had Amtrak’ed from Seattle across country unannounced to Schenectady where Ellie and I found him sun-bathing in Riverside Park. John Collins showed up once, also unannounced, in a new pick-up. We hung around drinking reunion beers just long enough to be in the right place at the right time to paddle my birthday-gift canoe along the Watervliet Reservoir and rescue two capsized paddlers. One was going down for what would likely have been the last time, so I felt pretty proud of us until John suggested the guy we’d saved could now fulfill his destiny as a serial killer.

Years before that, Woody and John visited me in a Hamilton Hill hippie flat where I lived with many housemates. We all went to Union College to see John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra all but level the Memorial Chapel – one of the loudest concerts I ever heard. Woody and John were en route home from travels in the Soviet Union, including Russia, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, maybe other -stans. 

Some years later, I visited them both often in Albuquerque on side-trips from visiting Ellie who taught for 10 years at the Anne Hyde Institute of Design near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. One of her students was Kim, then-wife of rocker Steve Miller who played Red Rocks during her term and sent a limo to pick her up. 

Those Albuquerque side-trips took me with son and traveling companion Zak to the Green Corn Dances at Santo Domingo Pueblo (every August 4th for hundreds of years) and other pueblo visits. We tent-camped in Chaco Canyon and on the shores of Heron Lake and enjoyed tasty times in Mexican restaurants around town. When asked my favorite meal, I still say: “A combination plate (three cheese enchiladas, a bean burrito, rice, beans and lettuce-tomato salad) at Los Cuates, an Albuquerque eatery run by twin sisters. 

Once on a visit to Woody’s place, his daughter Ramona, then maybe 10 years old, told us why she’d awakened her younger sister. She said, “I accidentally screamed” – an explanation we use in our family to this day to wave off any mishap. 

Recalling Ramona’s remark today reminds me that I accidentally wound up in the Navy, where I accidentally found many remarkable friends, for life.

Some Blues Guys

This summer, I’ve mostly been reviewing live shows for Nippertown, several a week. http://www.nippertown.com.

But I’m talking here about a blues show Aug. 18 in Springfield: Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Backroads Blues Festival co-starring Buddy Guy and Christone Kingfish Ingram.

My friend Dennis treated me to the show as a birthday gift. Dennis leads a posse of us fans to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and has a genius-level nose for musical fun. After seeing Robert Randolph play a New York club, for example – his first gig outside of church – Dennis told Jordie Herold about the young sacred steel player. Herold booked Randolph to play the Iron Horse in Northampton, Dennis’s town. Randolph’s career then took off: record deal, tours with Eric Clapton, the world.

Dennis at the Steinway in RCA Studio B in Nashville; we were on our way to my first Jazz Fest

So, here is that story of going to see Buddy Guy earlier this month, plus my review of a 2007 Buddy Guy show at The Egg in Albany for the Gazette, plus some back-story.

Backroads Blues Festival Aug. 18, 2022, Springfield, Mass.

Only a lout’s shout of “Freebird!” could stop the blues machine that is Christone “Kingfish” Ingram Thursday at Springfield Symphony Hall. The 23-year-old Mississippi guitarist and singer paused to laugh a bit at this intrusive “request,” then rolled on with extraordinary power and punch.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Backroads Blues Festival felt upside down.

Based on superior energy and imagination, Ingram should have closed the show but instead opened. Shepherd played second and reigning blues eminence Buddy Guy closed; a classy, respectful move by Shepherd that proved ultimately unkind to Guy. The 86-year-old headliner still impressed when he played and (especially!) sang, but coasted and talked rather too much. Anyone who’s seen him in the past decade could have predicted his every-show promise to play “so funky you can smell it” and salty recollections. Last of the second generation of blues stars, Guy is the B-52 of F-bombs.

Back to Kingfish.

Hailed as THE blues prodigy of this generation, the wide young man did not disappoint. A dynamic powerhouse, he mixed the resonance of the familiar with the electric excitement of the fresh.

Early on, in fact, Ingram evoked one of Guy’s special powers: playing quietly to draw the audience deep into the song. And when he revved, he unleashed soaring flurries of cleanly articulated, fast-flying notes. It wasn’t just speed, either – his solos had form as well as force. Maybe best yet, Ingram makes blues for real, from life, and in this self-expressive, self-exploratory reality is his greatest precocious gift. Whether detonating riff storms or banking his fire in the well-crafted “Another Life Goes By,” “Too Young to Remember” or “Trouble” – which opens as all trouble seems to in the blues realm with “Woke up this morning” – Ingram made music from the soul.

He also made it with an all-aces band: bassist Paul Rogers who went all Larry Graham in his lone solo, flash keyboardist D-Vibes and deep in the pocket drummer Chris Black.

Buddy Guy and Kingfish at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago Illinois, January 18, 2019. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)…

Shepherd also brought the goods alongside and behind him: singer Noah Hunt, keyboardist Joe Krown – a New Orleans eminence most often heard with guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington – and most important of all drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton and bassist Tony Franklin. Layton played in the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble, and Shepherd’s own music closely echoed Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” tornado style. 

Vaughan’s lone-star shuffles and his own radio hits entertained well, though with less electric dazzle than Kingfish Ingram delivered; a well-made workmanlike and crowd-pleasing show. The opener “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” then “Everything is Broken” set the mood: a fast shuffle, then a slower one; but by three songs in – “I Want You” – they started to stretch out and the grooves rolled strong. “Kings Highway” segued beautifully with “True Lies” – both set at midnight, both plaintive accusations. But the high-momentum “Heat of the Night” drew Shepherd into his hottest solo of the set, a searing, soaring statement that used repeats to powerful effect.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd from his web site

After the star-time favorite “Blue On Black” and an authentically macho “King Bee,” the early Fleetwood Mac blues “Oh Well” hit like a surprise classic done just right.

Guy started strong with his anthem “Damn Right I Got the Blues” (title of Don Wilcock’s beautifully written and exhaustively-researched biography) and a playfully boastful “Hoochie Coochie Man.” If his dynamic guitar phrasing wowed everybody, his vocals hit even harder. And he wasn’t shy about employing such flashy tricks as plucking the strings high on the neck with his left hand, dropping in a heartbeat from full-blast to poignant whisper-riffs, then back up into deep space, sending out flaming-hot feedback shards.

But soon things started going sideways. Guy spoke with the same conviction he sang, recounting a classically poor Delta childhood for example, without running water until he was 14, chopping cotton in hot fields. At times, though, the recollections lost energy; worse, so did some of the songs. At times he simply stopped, without an ending to the tune, and this dissipated the power of his performance.

The songs were strong but Guy brought his full brilliance only sporadically to them. In “How Blue Can You Get,” he played at his quietly lyrical best, but truncated the song to slide into “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” at first strong and sharp but fading into noisy shtick as he lay his guitar on top of the speakers to play Crean’s “Sunshine of Your Love” on it with a drumstick. “Take Me to the River” also faded in a perfunctory, dismissive way.

Buddy Guy, from his web site

When Guy brought a shaper focus to the music, he imbued it with soul and skill, as in the anti-racist “Skin Deep,” with a singalong that worked.

The audience often shouted-out encouragement. Nonetheless, his set lost its shape and emotional impact, until the realization of the Hall’s curfew dawned uncomfortably onstage.

In a hurried all-star ending, both Ingram and Shepherd returned to the stage, plugged in and played together – but this felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Hats off to Shepherd – who sported a black Steve-Ray-style topper – for bringing both a venerable blues hero and a bright new blues hope on tour with him. But the thing could use some tightening or a shuffling of the sets so Guy played first, and shorter, Shepherd next and Ingram bringing down the house to close.

Buddy Guy at The Egg on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 

ALBANY – Buddy Guy turned 71 this week, and he looked and sounded so strong and soulful at The Egg on Wednesday that everybody wanted whatever he’s having.

The living bridge between the first-generation Chicago giants who mentored him and the rockers who idolize him, Guy was hot right out of the gate in the Stevie Ray Vaughan rumble “Mary Had a Little Lamb,  abruptly stopping to announce “I’ve got the blues; wait a minute, don’t say nothin’” and diving straight into Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” without waiting for applause but making its “Everybody knows I’m here” refrain an understatement. 

Everything worked on Wednesday: the high-intensity guitar sting that Robert Cray likens to laughter from space, whispery quiet reveries, the stentorian roar or soft falsetto. Guy built towering structures or tidy miniatures with equal and astounding skill. His band more than just kept up. The sturdy undertow of Orlando Wright’s elegant bass locked with the crisp clatter of Tim Austin’s drums, a mountain of a man with the shoulders of a polar bear. Keyboardist Marty Sammon and second guitarist Cornelius Hall both supported and soloed, but when Guy said “Help me” to launch a Hall solo, it was a compliment, not a plea.

Guy pleaded for love, howled his pain and worked hard to entertain – with a showy foray into the crowd in “Drowning on Dry Land” and flashy guitar echoes of John Lee Hooker (“Boom Boom Boom”), Eric Clapton (“Strange Brew” and Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Chile”). Impressive and crowd-pleasing as these emulations were, Guy was at his best immersing himself in the soulful message of “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” and “Feels Like Rain.”

His tricks were fun – playing with just his left hand, over his head, with his teeth, and strumming blinding fast or sparsely picking perfectly chosen soft notes. However, the way he combined guitar heroics with soulful singing united his great gifts at their richest. A bluesman for the ages, he lives intensely and impulsively the moment, but relishes and earns his place in tradition with the flair of a master at the top of his game.

“How about the band, everybody?” called Tom Hambridge, pointing to versatile guitarist Rocky Rollins, the only player onstage with him. A resourceful songwriter, producer and performer best known lately for penning country hits, Hambridge didn’t need much accompaniment since he had bluesy and fun tunes, impressive snare-drum skills, a fine voice and all the charm in the world. He and “the band” had no trouble driving the punchy “Trying to Get Off” down the tracks, conjuring a chunky vamp on “The Fixer,” written for George Thorogood, or going deep into the blues on two tunes written for Susan Tedeschi. His best songs were “19,” mourning a man who wore that number playing football and was that age when he died in Iraq, and its polar opposites, the playful “Rachel” about putting his baby daughter to bed and “Trouble in the Henhouse” in which he made the audience crow “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” on cue, just as they finger-snapped in an earlier number.

DAMN RIGHT I’VE GOT THE BLUES

Rolling back now, a bit further…

When Buddy Guy’s manager phoned me to offer an interview with the blues star before a show hereabouts in the late 1990’s, I accepted only reluctantly.

Although I’d been impressed – knocked out, actually – seeing Buddy play with longtime band mate harmonica ace Junior Wells in sweaty, rocking, deep-funk shows at J.B. Scotts in downtown Albany, I’d recently struggled through interviews with other bluesmen of similar vintage. These were rough rides via long distance phone through faded memories and bruised bravado. 

Not Buddy, though.

He was razor-sharp lucid, engagingly humble and entertainingly funny. We seemed to enjoy the conversation about equally. His manager confirmed this when he surprised me by phoning back a few minutes later. Buddy’s team was toying with the idea of a biography, recognizing both his unique place in blues history and his unprecedented ability to tell that story with clarity and humble humor. They liked how the interview went and offered me the job.

Wow, I wondered: Can I do this?

Every writer, at least every writer I knew, had a book project in mind. And this opportunity had fallen into my lap – offered out of the blue by guys who thought I could do it since I’d achieved an easy rapport with Buddy in the interview.

They, thought I could do it, and readers of my Gazette stories had asked for years, “Where’s your book?”

Could this be it?

After a few days of fence-sitting, I realized the sad truth: No, no I couldn’t. Even for weekly Gazette columns, I would over-research, re-write several times and generally agonize over getting things right. I loved music that much that I’d break my ass to write about it.

If I pulled my hair out struggling with 500-1000-word columns I published every week, I just knew I’d surely over-research this project. 

So, I phoned my friend Don Wilcock, my first editor at the defunct-by-then music weekly Kite (successor to the Washington Park Spirit, predecessor to Metroland) that he published while working full time publishing magazines for GE. Don specialized in the blues and I thought his full-time gig would afford him the financial security to tackle a book project at the same time.

He enthusiastically accepted this challenge-opportunity, I put him in touch with Buddy Guy’s team and the thing took off. By which I mean that Don did exactly what I would have – and which I’d have gone broke doing. 

Don buzzed around interviewing sources in music and the music business. He went to Chicago and took photographer Rick Siciliano with him. They also flew to London, interviewed Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman and wound up drinking with Bill and some royal Beefeater guards in the Tower of London.

And, he struggled with writing the thing, prodded by his publisher to produce more dirt, on a notably non-dirty artist. A protracted struggle of push then push-back finally yielded an acceptable draft. “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” Don’s insightful examination of Buddy Guy’s life and career, beautifully illustrated with Rick’s photos, hit the bookstores in its first printing in June 7, 1999 by Duane Press.

Don gratefully thanked me for the opportunity in a generous introduction, and he inscribed for me the first copy off the press. 

Already a leading authority in the blues, Don’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” burnished his reputation and brought new respect. He’d been on the map before, but this opened new real estate in blues publications and personal appearances doing presentations and running seminars at blues festivals across the south.

Ever since, Don has introduced me as his conduit to expanded recognition as a blues journalist, just as I introduce him as my first editor.

Fast forward a few years, when I got an email from Bill Wallace – as unexpected as the offer to write Buddy Guy’s biography.

Bill was a friend long, long ago, a fellow music fan I met in Japan where we were both stationed by the U.S. Navy in the late 1960s. He and his wife, appropriately named Margot Bliss, were from tiny Placierville in California gold country. They were frequent guests at the stereo-filled home I shared with friends in the village of Tsuruma. There, we pooled our record collections and annoyed the neighbors with our “Battle of the Bands” – crank up the amps in different rooms to see if Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” could drown out Cream’s “I’m So Glad.”

Bill knew a lot about the blues and R&B. He could mimic Bo Diddley’s growl, running the litany of Bo’s band-mates in his stage intros. Grimacing vividly, Bill would announce “the Duchess!” – Bo’s longtime guitarist, born Norma-Jean Wofford.  

Bill and I returned to the states on leaving the Navy in 1970-71, and immediately lost track of each other as he settled in California’s Bay Area and I returned to Schenectady.

Decades passed, then Bill emailed me in early 2000, asking if I were the same Michael Hochanadel who’d lived in Japan in late-1969/mid-1970. I was, I emailed back, and he told me how he’d found me.

Shopping for a birthday gift for Bill, his son was rummaging among music tomes in a Berkeley used-book shop and bought Don’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” wrapped it and gave it to his dad. Bill found my name in Don’s introduction.

Bill was then an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and knew how to find people, even in those early days of internet searches. 

So, Bill searched, found me and we stayed in touch until he died about a year ago.

In one of his emails, he thanked me for some music we shared:

“…for many years I have felt I owed you a major league debt of gratitude, 

Mike.  I doubt you recall this, but you let me tape your Taj Majal 

double album, “The Old Folks At Home/Take A Giant Step,” and 

Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” (as well as some Earl 

Hooker, James Cotton, Fleetwood Mac and Champion Jack Dupree) 

while you were living at Chez Otis (our house in Tsuruma bore a sign:

“Otis B. Driftwood” after a Groucho Marx character), and those two records in 

particular have always been among my favorites.  When I first 

listened to King playing “Cross Cut Saw,” I could finally 

understand what some friends had said about Eric Clapton 

copying his solo note for note for Cream’s “Strange Brew.” 

I long ago wore out my reel-to-reel recording of both discs, but 

was able to score a foreign reissue of the King record on vinyl at 

Arhoolie Records in El Cerritto in the early 1980s. I own about six 

or seven of his albums now, and this week I picked up the “In 

Session” sides with Albert backed up by Stevie Ray Vaughn. It 

isn’t the best Albert King or Stevie Ray work I have ever heard, but 

it is a treat to hear the old master playing with the (at-the-time) up 

and coming SRV.

As for Taj, he lives up in Marin County, but the first time I ever 

heard him play in person was last summer. He was appearing at 

the Shoreline in Mountain View as one of the opening acts for B.B. 

King (or, as I call him, “The OTHER King”) and Kenny Wayne 

Shepherd. He had a cooking group behind him — about eight guys — 

and they were so tight you couldn’t have slipped a Riz La in 

between them. A totally great set, way down at the bottom of the 

card! My son just loved the whole show. I keep looking for a re-

issue of “Take A Giant Step,” which had one of the greatest 

versions of “Good Morning Little School Girl” I have ever heard.

Just wanted you to know: If we ever get together again, I will 

be sure to bring you a bottle of Jameson Irish whisky as a very, 

very partial repayment for comping me to one of my most 

memorable musical experiences more than 29 years ago.”

Sadly, Bill and I never met up again. I never knew he was there, on my several visits to San Francisco over the decades. I thanked Don for putting my name in his book, just as he thanks me, still, for connecting him with this life-changing, or at least, career-enhancing opportunity.

These days, I think of Bill Wallace whenever I hear blues for real, played the way we heard it on batting stereos in Japan. I remembered him last week, seeing Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Christone Kingfish Ingram with my friend Dennis. 

And I realized how permanent are the bonds music makes when it thrills us together.

Remembering Zevon

When music buddy Stephen-in-the-Adirondacks asked about Warren Zevon last week, memories and music ganged up on me, starting with a 1978 Page Hall show – and not just because he jumped off the piano.

He climbed to his feet slowly then, with painful effort. “I think I hurt myself, doing that Michael Jackson shit,” he rued. 

Zevon had leaped off the piano, hoping, I think, to land in a split but instead crashing in an awkward heap. 

He was hot then, more than he was hurt. His star-making third album “Excitable Boy” had just hit, dragging listeners through dusty back alleys of LA, out of the sun and into the gloom – a grown up record, in other words, and quite perfect. 

So was his band, including Waddy Wachtel – has ANYBODY ever looked more like a rock-star guitar hero than Waddy? – also bassist Bob Glaub, second guitarist Michael Landau, a drummer and a keyboardist – maybe Russ Kunkel and Kenny Edwards. Waddy’s website lists the album credits: http://waddywachtelinfo.com/WarrenZevon2.html. All those players orbited around Linda Ronstadt who recorded many Zevon songs, helping him become known.

The student concert board ran Page Hall then, a jewel-box theater on the old uptown campus in the Pine Hills student ghetto. The board aimed big bucks that semester at rock acts with big futures including Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and Zevon, whose partial set-list here sparkles with trenchant tunes writ very large by his killer band and his hard-edged voice.

https://www.setlist.fm/setlist/warren-zevon/1978/page-hall-albany-ny-23c96093.html

He came back around, a few times; but as his records fell short of “Excitable Boy,” he had to let the band go and become a solo performer, a “mobile gestalt unit” he dubbed himself. His life, his music and his career traced ups and downs tall as the Alps, deep as Grand Canyon: divorce, drink, drugs, being dropped by record labels.

Stephen sent me this link to a pretty good profile. 

https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2019/jan/20/zeroing-in-on-zevon-20190120/

Before one tour, I did a phone interview with him. He answered candidly: humbly relating his oblique associations with Igor Stravinsky and the Everly Brothers. But then, something he said made me think of a book I’d just read.

“The Songlines,” by Bruce Chatwin, an explorer-writer of lapidary, micro-precise prose, tells of Australian aborigines’ belief that songs describe in detail the geography of the entire continent from end to end. Each tribal band’s folk-lore takes up the tale from the last so a traveler could chart the entire physical reality of that vast island by the songs. Moreover, and here’s where things got magical and Zevon became fascinated with the idea, the aborigines believe not only that the songs describe the land in its physical features, but the songs maintain its very existence. The songs make the land live. 

So, I bought him a copy.

As it happened, his local stop on that tour coincided with another show that I had to see, in preference to his – probably NRBQ. So, I gift-wrapped “The Songlines,” wrote a note expressing my regrets at missing Zevon’s show and had a fellow music writer deliver it to him backstage.

Warren Zevon at Saratoga Winners. Michael Hochanadel Photo

Time passed, bringing more Zevon albums and tours, and an interview or two.

The next time we spoke, he started the interview saying, “The Songlines.” Confused at first – I’d actually forgotten giving him the book by remote control – I marveled that he had remembered it.

My last Warren Zevon show was in the winter of 1991 at Saratoga Winners, a sizable road house on Rt. 9 north of Albany and south of Saratoga Springs that has since burned down.

Warren Zevon at Saratoga Winners. Michael Hochanadel Photo

In an interview before that show, Zevon said he was excited about making a new album, that he had found the producer he wanted: Gurf Morlix. 

I thought he’d made up the name until I found Gurf in the Austin phone book. Like New Orleans musicians who remain unknown out of town because they never play elsewhere, Morlix is an Austin guy who at first seems an unlikely choice, their vocal styles are so different. Bold and brassy, Zevon all but shouts, while Morlix murmurs or half-whispers in a morose moan. What unites them is a straightforward guitar rock sound and a dangerous wit, as on my favorite Morlix album, “Finds the Present Tense.” 

Zevon died before he could make the album, in September 2003. 

A documentary on him (included that interview on Letterman’s “Late Show” where he advises “Enjoy every sandwich,” also a lunch with Carl Hiassen. Zevon was already deep into the cancer that would soon kill him, way too soon. As he pulled a vial of morphine from his pocket, Barry remarked, “I admire a man who brings his morphine right to the table.”

Zevon could have used some of that when he jumped off the piano at Page Hall, back in his drinking days.

But his songs brought everything to the table.

In the songs on his 15 albums (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warren_Zevon_discography – and the two-CD 1996 compilation “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” Zevon stepped bravely in front of a mirror that revealed himself, in all his failings and strengths, unashamed as an X-ray. He looked around at the world with the same fearless candor and a film-maker’s eye that sketched characters as vivid as Tom Waits’ or Harry Crews’.

We won’t see another like him.

Wise Ass Wednesday

Late edition – Contrite Thursday…

I did it, and I’m SO sorry.

I admit it; I caused that ugly snow-mess on Tuesday morning.

You know: trees and utility lines down, power out, traffic signals dead and everybody driving like cowboys late for the rodeo.

Let me point out that others helped me; I know I wasn’t the only one.

But, see – I jinxed us.

I collected our three snow shovels and the ice chopper I got to replace the one that the last awful storm killed. 

Remember that? 

Remember that bullet-proof ice foam that coated our world like a glazed donut?

Well, I collected the replacement ice chopper and all three snow shovels, and I shoved them into our toolshed. And I boxed up our snow boots and clamp-on ice creepers and hauled them up into the attic.

Never again.

I’lll keep the boots by the door, the snow and ice removal tools on the front porch – always, year round.

And really, I’m sorry.

Bonnie Raitt and NRBQ Pulsate the Palace

Live Review

Good Friday can feel grim for many, but Friday felt very good indeed for mostly-boomer-vintage rock fans filling Albany’s Palace Theater to see Bonnie Raitt and longtime friends NRBQ.

Compressing 12 songs into just 40 minutes, NRBQ introduced new numbers from “Dragnet,” their 37th album since 1968, and hopscotched around through so many musical styles their opening set seemed too short to sample them all. No Thelonious Monk bebop (except oblique percussive detours in Terry Adams’s piano romps), no Sun Ra space flights, but lots of other fun. Their rockabilly stomps – “I Want You Bad,” That’s Neat, That’s Nice,” “Howard Johnson’s Got his Ho-Jo Working” with a powerhouse vocal by saxman Klem Klimek— and Chuck Berry’s highway hit “Back in the USA,” with hot solos by Adams and guitarist Scott Ligon, set up slower songs. The Everly’s “Let It Be Me” sparkled in breathtaking harmonies from Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough, who locked great grooves with drummer John Perrin.

NRBQ played better than they sounded; the PA somewhat muffled and weak. They earned big applause anyway, especially in their guests section where I sat; Johnny Rabb (his own all-star rockabilly crews, and the Neanderthals) on my left, David Schachne (the Rhythm Method, and French Letter) on my right and Paul (F. Lee Harvey Blotto) Rapp a row behind. 

All musicians start as fans, and stay fans; all musicians are NRBQ fans, and nobody applauds as enthusiastically. I could hear their gasps around me as NRBQ crooned “Let It Be Me,” and Schachne remarked how Duke Levine’s guitar fills in Raitt’s “Just Like That” felt (Mark) Knopfler-y, just as I scribbled that in my notebook.

While NRBQ played from deep in their varied influences, Raitt played her own style, flavored with others’;  so she’s the bigger star and they opened. Forays into reggae and Afro-pop expressed her own distinctly bluesy musical personality.

Like NRBQ, she mixed new songs from “Just Like That” (due next week) with favorites that made her an early 70s folk-blues star, then a subtle, solid interpreter of great songwriters’ best tunes ever since. 

Noting Friday’s Palace show was her third gig in 2-1/2 years, she and her band sounded wonderfully strong, versatile and confidently smooth in 18 songs over 105 minutes onstage.

Three of her first four songs were new; the jaunty “Made Up Mind,” the funky “Waiting for You to Blow” and “bluesy “Blame It On Me” bookending the familiar “Longing In Their Hearts.” 

She put the crowd in her pocket right away and got a good, un-cued singalong in John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” just five songs in. 

Her all-aces band helped: drummer Ricky Fataar, bassist “Hutch” Hutchinson (whom she used to introduce as “from the Neville Brothers”), keyboardist Glen Patscha (whose Ollabelle bandmate Amy Helm Raitt hailed from the stage) and guitarist Duke Levine (on loan from Peter Wolf’s band). 

Raitt proved again and again that she could have hypnotized, thrilled, awed and amazed all by herself, and not just with sizzling slide guitar runs. She sat at times to finger-pick, folk-style, but her voice is her best instrument. Raitt doesn’t pack the human-trumpet power of her blues-women heroines, but she sang Friday with all the punch any song needed. She’s as subtle a vocal pop-rock-blues-whatever song magician as we have now. And we’ve had her on our radios and stages so long it’s easy to take her for granted – until she shows up again, like Friday, to knock our socks off, again, and turn our hearts inside out.

A connoisseur of heartbreak, a cello made of tears in the sad ones, Raitt rued her losses at their full depth. The claustrophobic karma of “Back Around” early on and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” as her first encore, made the happy ones soar in sunny contrast. “Thing Called Love,” “Nick of Time” and “Love Sneaking Up On You” partied hearty. And she proved an adept story-teller, speaking through others’ souls. She crooned her late pal John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” better, as he’d likely admit, than he ever did.

Right after that, she sang the new “Living for the Ones,” mourning the recent losses of 14 friends, including Prine. But then she shook off her grief in “Love Sneaking Up on You.”

Despite the unfamiliarity of new tunes from “Just Like That,” the show played like a highlight film, from sheer performance quality, the sincerity of Raitt’s song intros and her canny choices of what to play and how.

Intro’ing the new “Blame It on Me,” she remarked that “where love doesn’t work out, that’s where I make my living,” then earned big applause with a scorching slide solo before yielding the spotlight to Patscha’s organ break. Then she shifted gears seamlessly from that moody blues into Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” – all sunny slide guitar scorch. 

She settled into the band at times, like a chair, or drove it like a hot rod; the boss, the big sister.
Sometimes when Levine soloed – and he always had something to say – Raitt drifted over to stand alongside, and she turned to watch whenever anybody behind her hit an extra-cool riff.

At the end, she brought out NRBQ Terry Adams for rollicking piano in “Green Lights,” a 1978 ‘Q song she recorded in 1982. She expressed surprise that she’d still be playing it at 72, but loyally proclaimed “Bonnie and NRBQ, forever!” – a durable and often dazzling delight on Friday.

NRBQ fans will likely pilgrimage to the Hangar on the Hudson on June 4 for their full ride headline show.

Wise-Ass Wednesday

“They always disappoint us,” cynically mused a veteran campaign operative character on “The Wire” after helping elect an insurgent Baltimore mayor to replace an entrenched corrupt one.

Hello, Kathy Hochul – and that sure didn’t take long.

While making herself readily available to big donors, our new-ish governor ignores the pleas of St. Clare’s Hospital pensioners betrayed by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, abetted by a stand-aside State of New York. The governor won’t even meet with these fraud victims. While these august institutions might wish for tRumpian teflon immunity, this stink sticks to them like white on rice.

Meanwhile, the NYS budget includes a $850 million Buffalo Bills boondoggle, further enriching a frack-gas billionaire and America’s richest sports league. 

Akin to that outrage, that same state budget allocates $10 million for a hockey arena in what should be riverside parkland along the Mohawk in Schenectady but which instead holds a casino and condos for our own oligarchs. Instead, this will replace a perfectly serviceable ice facility on the campus of Union College, a private institution.

Why pay public money for private facilities most taxpayers will never see nor use, and which would cost us money out of pocket if we tried to enter them?

Why?

Meanwhile, anyone who’s driven, bicycled or walked in Schenectady lately knows the crying need for road repairs. Anyone who’s watched Eastern Avenue and other roadways become rivers as water mains fail also knows there’s trouble under those same roads. Back on the cratered surface, how about protecting us from wild-west driving?

Spend our tax dollars on what we ALL need – rather than waste it on big-ticket toys for the few.

While paid media hypes these projects – and inexplicably wastes time reporting the travails of opening a Chick fil-A – really? – it’s gratifying to see retired newspaper people raising alarms.

Rex Smith, retired editor of the Albany Times Union, blogs persuasively and with clear reasoning and unerring moral compass at https://www.upstateamerican.com/.

Another retired editor, Ken Tingley of the Glens Falls Post-Star, similarly raises issues and comments knowledgeably at https://substack.com/profile/27639514-ken-tingley.

And Sara Foss – former reporter and columnist The Daily Gazette – offers lucid commentary at https://www.albanyproper.com/author/sarafoss/.

The Department of Hold It, Right There!

Just as Joe Biden could win every single electoral vote by enforcing the Do Not Call List, somebody could reap boomers’ billions by providing un-changing services and technology.

For us of a certain age, few upgrades ever improve things. Most innovations don’t, either.

So, how about keeping dependable, familiar systems and technology stable and understandable rather than racing to tinker, confuse and render obsolete the stuff we already have and – oh, yeah! – raise prices?

If it works, leave it alone.

Wise Ass Wednesday

Word Patrol Edition

Mini-splits: what?

“Mini” means small, or smaller than usual; and “split” means divided, usually in two parts.

So, bowling? A narrow split between pins left after the first ball?

HVAC supplier Fujitsu’s web-site says mini-splits are heating and cooling systems with separate temperature control outputs in different rooms. They’re heat pumps with outdoor compressor/condensers and indoor air-handling units.

Retire “mini-splits” – and “ATM machines.”

I mean, Automatic Teller Machine machines?

Similar Cranky Gripe

A great metropolitan newspaper announced recently that YMCA branch in downtown Schenectady to reopen May 1. The paper’s print edition erroneously illustrated this announcement with a photo of the building the YMCA vacated in 2013. 

The Schenectady Y at 13 State Street moved its residents to a renovated former factory at 845 Broadway and built new athletic facilities three blocks east at 433 State Street.

A Sad Note

Ralph Michael Spillenger died this week after surgery to repair an aortic aneurism. Albany-born, he became a California-based touring musician before returning homeward to launch twin careers in making and presenting music; along with drinks and New Orleans-style food. His restaurants the Bijou, the Bayou and Jillians were perhaps better known than his band the Students. But he loomed larger over the area’s music scene than those roles might suggest – a jam session stalwart and a familiar face at many, many concerts. He was one of my validators, discerning fans whose presence at shows confirm expectation of a high level of quality, seriousness or curiosity. I was always happy to see him and share our takes on the music.

Others have commented on Facebook – where Ralph had worried about the surgery – on his sometimes prickly personality. Comments suggested he was difficult. Not with me. He was always friendly, funny and very much in the know.

Sadly, we won’t see him at shows any more – like Greg “Sarge” Haymes (Blotto, Nippertown), Tony Markellis, Caroline “Motherjudge” Johnson, Dale Metzger (super fan), Tom D’Ambrose (Sharks), Mark Craig (Music Haven), Doug White (Units/Fear of Strangers), Keith “Cheese Blotto” Stephenson, Nick Brignola, Lee Shaw, Jack Fragomeni, Larry Jackson, Ernie Williams, Herb Chesbrough (SPAC), Lena Spencer (Caffe Lena), Jackie Alper (WRPI), Bill Spence (Old Songs, Fennig’s All-Star String Band), Richard “Doc Scanlon” Lainhart – and many others, including dozens of now-departed touring musicians who played here.

This isn’t to add more sadness to a time with way more of that than we need. 

Remembering, missing and honoring these musicians and presenters who have left the building, I feel, more than anything else, deep gratitude that they were here to help build our vibrant live music scene. 

Cowboy Junkies Go Deep, Dark, Beautiful

They tugged us through a long, dark tunnel, but lit from time to time with love or hope, and showed us the way.

Cowboy Junkies Sunday At The Egg’s Swyer Theatre; from left, Michael Timmins, guitar; Jeff Bird, mandolin; Margo Timmins, vocals; Pete Timmins, drums; Alan Anton, bass. Michael Hochanadel cellphone photo

Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins explained their roadmap Sunday at The Egg. She said she and her siblings (guitarist and main writer Michael and drummer Pete) would mourn their mother in songs from “Ghosts” (2020). “We’re a cover band,” she proclaimed, announcing they’d play selections from “Songs of the Recollection” – then would play “the songs you want to hear.”

So, somber stuff, surprises, then favorites – starting with the resurrection saga “Good Friday,” the BIG hope, right out of the box. Soft at the start, held in a somber groove with Jeff Bird’s harmonica in the creases, Margo’s voice lifted in power to belt in defiance. Next, she confessed confusion about life and death in the menacing drone of “I Don’t Get It,” again stretched by Bird’s harmonica.

Around him, and Margo, quietly rose the Canadian chamber-rock band’s understated strength: Alan Anton’s bass so sly and sparse and subtle he made Phil Lesh sound like Jaco, bridging Pete Timmins’s Ringo-simple beats with Michael Timmins’ wry rhythm guitar.

Margo then lightened the mood, sort of, noting, “Well, we’re back” but hedging her bet by noting nobody knows for how long – just as nobody knows the secrets of life and death framed in “I Don’t Get It.” 

“Sing Me a Song” acknowledged the possibility of joy, and summoned it, rocking under a wailing Bird electric mandolin solo.

Staking Margo’s cover-band claim, they slow-waltzed Waylon Jennings’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” proclaiming “I’d rather believe in love,” despite heartache.

Then things turned darker still; mourning their mother in the lament “Desire Lines” with an eloquent Bird lap slide solo, but then they underlined its stated intent to “celebrate life and the people we love” in a joined run through “Breathing” into “You Don’t Get to Do It Again” with its understated direction to do our best, all of it, now.

This suite surveyed loss as inevitable but somehow uplifting, in part through the sheer beauty of their sound. In “Desire Lines,” Anton’s bass probed through space like a lighthouse scanning a roiling sea, and it guided the upshift into “Breathing,” pushing the beat under Bird’s electric mandolin.

Bird’s lap slide linked beautifully with Michael’s guitar in the Rolling Stones’ slow “No Expectations,” Margo turning on her stool to watch Bird etch his solo.

Cover songs took over the second set, Neil Young’s consoling classic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” launching a full-band run that closed with an easy shuffle through Lightning Hopkins’s blues “Shining Moon.” In between, Michael uncorked a wild wah-wah guitar solo in “My Little Basquiat,” then Bird matched his fire in “Nose Before Ear,” going far outside in an electric mandolin break that brought the first applause all night for a solo. In “Shining Moon,” Bird slipped hot harmonica runs around Margo’s skat singing.

Young’s violent “Powderfinger” opened a three-song acoustic set as Pete and Anton left the stage to Margo’s voice, Michael’s guitar and Bird’s acoustic mandolin. Margo said she’d been too young to feel fully the theme of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake;” it’s about aging; but the now-silver-haired singer got all of this somber song on Sunday. Bird switched to harmonica in “S and their own “Something More Besides You,” another slow one – before Pete and Anton rejoined the trio for the set-closing sequence.

In “Bea’s Song,” they fatalistically warned “You can always see it coming but you can never stop it;” but then they served up their sweetest, most serene tune – a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” It started in glorious guitar noise – and Michael later soloed here, big and beefy – that framed Margo’s echoey wordless vocal. Then the lyrics took shape and the thing rocked and soared as Bird’s electric mandolin chimes strong. 

Their own serene “Misguided Angel” closed the set, and they harvested the applause quickly, returning efficiently for Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” – written by Alan Block and Donn Hecht, but Patsy’s until Cowboy Junkies borrowed it for a slowed down, sparse rendition full of understated soul.

They rubbed the same minimalist mojo on David Bowie’s “Five Years” with a strong Margo vocal and the same strong blend of Michael’s electric guitar with Bird’s electric mandolin that carried most songs.

Despite its often-somber feel, the music seemed to lift Margo’s mood over the two set show that entranced the three-quarters-full Swyer Theatre with full-on Cowboy Junkies hypnosis. While her movements seemed contained and casual, they helped sell the songs. The compact band’s sound soothed or seethed and their lyrics faced down fickle fate and death itself. They communicated powerfully as their restraint urged a hard-earned kind of serenity. Their elegance reached out, and drew us in.

A few songs seemed to end before they finished, notably “My Little Basquiat,” leaving me wanting more. When the band stretched a song with instrumental breaks, bursting a tune’s customary tasteful containment felt exhilarating. When Margo pushed her voice from a confiding murmur to defiant yell, when the guitars burst from mellow strums to amped howls, and when the beat blasted into punk-rock romps, Cowboy Junkies brought a thrilling sort of liberation, of lift-off.

By the end, they expressed deep gratitude for the crowd’s respectful listening. In fact a Facebook post by the band said, after the show, “The best night of the tour, no doubt. Thank you Albany. You helped us remember what this is all about.”

Back atcha.

Cowboy Junkies sound engineer Dev showed off the set list (abbreviated) Michael Hochanadel cellphone photo

SETLIST

Good Friday 

I Don’t Get It

Sing Me a Song

Dreaming My Dreams with You (Waylon Jennings)

Desire Lines

Breathing

(You Don’t Get to) Do It Again

No Expectations (Rolling Stones)

Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)

My Little Basquiat

Nose Before Ear

Shining Moon (Lightning Hopkins)

Powderfinger (Neil Young)

Rake (Townes Van Zandt)

Something More Besides You

Bea’s Song

Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground)

Misguided Angel

Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline)

EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT

AN INTERVIEW, RECALLED

Originally published as Jukebox for Friday, July 25, 2008 in the Daily Gazette¶

Space – the size and shape of space – has always shaped the Cowboy Junkies’ spectral sound, with space, for thought, between the notes.¶

Their cramped Toronto garage/rehearsal space encouraged them to play quietly, as did neighbors and police. Recording “The Trinity Session” in the acoustically warm space of Toronto’s Trinity Church expanded their sound to star-size in 1987, paradoxically allowing them to play in such grungy, loud spaces as Albany’s QE2. Returning to Trinity Church 20 years after their landmark album, they recently re-recorded its songs and filmed the performances for the DVD that accompanies the new “Trinity Revisited,” playing in a circular space that encloses the viewer. On Saturday, they will play in a very different space: Albany’s vast Empire State Plaza at the day-long, free-admission Plaza MusicFest.¶

“We’ll be playing some of the Trinity songs for sure,” predicted Cowboy Junkies’ guitarist and main songwriter Michael Timmins last week by phone from Toronto. The band has played those songs occasionally ever since, yet had forgotten how they sounded in the church until they returned. “Literally from the first couple of notes playing in there, it all came flooding back,” he said. “It’s an inspiring, inspiring sound,” he said, perfect to celebrate the original.¶

“We decided to invite some friends and guests (Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt) and re-approach those songs 20 years later and see what energy the guests bring.” They invited artists they admired and who admired their original “Trinity Session” album. They had never met Adams, for example, but knew from interviews that he saw the album as crucial to his coming of age as a musician. Merchant was an old friend and inspiration. “When we were just starting out, (Merchant’s band) 10,000 Maniacs would come through Toronto quite a bit and we used to go see them all the time. (His singing sister) Margo would really study Natalie,” said Timmins. Touring at times with Chesnutt they found that “Vic has such a unique style and way of approaching music, so he was an obvious choice.”¶

But would it work, would the pieces fit? “We admired their work and we knew that they had respect for what we did,” Timmins said. “But we didn’t know how the three of them would fit in individually or as a group.” Trusting their mutual admiration and their experience, they barely rehearsed one night then recorded the next. “We had to push them a bit,” Timmins recalled: “We want you to step up and put a bit more of your personality in there.” He said, “They were almost too deferential at times but once we got them singing and performing, then it flowed really, really naturally and easily.”¶

Some of that natural ease stems from the expertise of film-producers Francois and Pierre Lamoureux.  “They’re musicians, too; so they understood the music,” Timmins said. “They were very aware of making sure the cameras were not part of the music. They formed us in a circle and they kept all the cameras on the outside.” This draws the viewer inside that circle, surrounded by the band. You can see how the songs formed from shared intuitive knowledge and how the players listen to, enjoy, acknowledge and play off each other. “It all comes down to listening to the other musicians and how they’re expressing themselves and trying to complement that or feel your way into it,” said Timmins; neatly describing how the band formed and found its sound.¶

Inspired by Neil Young’s proto-punk noise, then by the sparseness of bluesmen Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, guitarist Timmins and bassist Alan Anton, with a similarly skeletal approach, had played together in bands since 1979, learning together. “For (drummer and brother) Peter (Timmins) and (singer and sister) Margo (Timmins), this is their first band,” said Michael Timmins. “So they developed their style around us, and the four of us in many ways really developed as a unit; that’s really and truly how we learned our instruments.” Apart from police interruptions in their rehearsal space, their quietness came from Margo. “She felt more comfortable with a quieter approach to her voice and in order for us to hear her and go with her voice, that influenced us,” said Timmins. Their sparseness came from bluesmen such as Hopkins and Hooker “who use very few notes,” as he said. “Every note they choose has personality to it.”¶

The musical personality that the original “Trinity Session” introduced to the world in 1988 is often quiet, slow and sparse, but it allowed them to give up their dayjobs (Timmins used the band’s van for courier runs) to tour rock clubs, including QE2. “That was a jam, jam-packed show,” said Timmins. “After ‘Trinity’ exploded, that was one of our first major club dates in the states where it was absolutely insanely packed.”¶

Empire State Plaza should be packed on Saturday, too, for the five-act free Plaza Music Fest, near the cozy Egg where Cowboy Junkies played their most recent local show several years ago. Some outdoor shows can feel like a Toronto church, but Timmins knows that most don’t. “Sometimes those shows are very beautiful,” he mused. “If it’s a nice night and people are sitting there quietly and they’re there to listen to music, then you can cast a certain spell.” However, he realistically acknowledged, “If it’s a certain type of crowd, we might not try and cast a spell.” He said, “We might just kind of rock out and have fun. We can push our music in a lot of different directions; there’s a lot of stuff in our repertoire that, if we need to rock out, we can rock out. We just feel the evening out.”¶