At Union Pool, 75 Dollar Bill and the Condo Fucks

WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN—The first act was the Condo Fucks, which meant that you had to be a hip music person to want to go to this gig.  Yo La Tengo, in my Top Ten for rock groups, made the album Fuckbook (a nod to their earlier Fakebook) as the Condo Fucks, celebrating garage rock with some fairly obscure covers.

75 Dollar Bill

75 Dollar Bill in full flight. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At Union Pool, Condo Fucks was the entire Yo La Tengo, intact, and—after taking the stage late—they burned through an ultra-compact set of vintage rockers, separated only by waves of feedback. I recognized the Small Faces and (not so obscure) the Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey.” I’m not as ardent about garage rock as most critics, but I liked the high energy of the Fucks’ approach.

After they played, the stage was cleared for 75 Dollar Bill. Rick Brown, the group’s percussionist, sat in (on vocals!) for one of the Fucks’ songs, a Kinks cover, so there was obviously some affinity there. Bill doesn’t play garage rock, far from it, but there are parallels with some of Yo La Tengo’s long, improvisational, guitar-led pieces.

75 Dollar Bill

Ira Kaplan on alto sax celebrating the music of Ornette Coleman! (Jim Motavalli photo)

From the first note, 75 Dollar Bill’s set was magical. The core is just Brown and the affable young guitarist Che Chen, but performing was the expanded band that’s on their latest album, I Was Real: Brown on plywood crate, percussion and homemade horns; Chen on guitars (and violin on one song we’ll get to later); Sue Garner (in a Shaggs t-shirt) on bass; Cheryl Kingan on alto and baritone saxophones; the indispensible Steve Maing on second guitars; and Karen Waltuch (channeling John Cale from admitted influence the Velvet Underground) on viola.

75 Dollar Bill is a college radio station/rock critic/record store geek’s dream because of the way they combine disparate influences—from VU to Ali Farka Toure, Fela to Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley to Phillip Glass, Robert Johnson to avant-garde collective improvisation. The bonus is that it’s completely coherent, ear-worm catchy, and incredibly exciting.

There were no solos. Come to think of it, the Condo Fucks left them out, too. It was all about adding to the pulse, hypnotizing through creative repetition, exploring the implications of simple phrases. Kingan, for example, played like no saxophonist I’ve heard before, blowing long lines (especially on her baritone) that put a deep bottom end on the compositions.

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Cheryl Kingan, looking ready to join Sun Ra’s Arkestra. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And though there is spontaneous creation here, the music is very deliberately composed. It begins quietly, as the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s songs did, builds inexorably to a full-band theme, then explores the groove upside and down (often taking 10 minutes or more to do it). This is just it for me. I can’t remember being so happy at a show.

75 Dollar Bill

It’s about the pulse. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is from the band’s bio: “Brown is a clerical worker at a law school in NYC. Che Chen was born in New Haven, CT and works for a cancer diagnostics company in Stonybrook, NY. They met via myspace and started playing together as 75 Dollar Bill approximately eight years later. Brown plays percussion and homemade horns and Chen plays electric guitar.”

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Che Chen manning the merch table. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The band, while hardly mainstream, seems to be getting noticed. Pitchfork and Mojo raved. The people who were lucky to be there in Brooklyn will be 75 Dollar Bill fans for life. I didn’t think they could top what they’d already done, but Brown said they had one more song, and brought up some “friends”—all of Yo La Tengo again, with Ira Kaplan on alto sax, Georgia Hubley on drums and James McNew on, well, more drums.

And the song was Ornette Coleman’s “Friends and Neighbors,” from Live at Prince Street. A perfect closer, because it’s both childlike and challenging. The performance reminded me of seeing Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the old Five Spot—the same mix of joyous, chanted vocals and wonderful cacophonous noise.

Check out 75 Dollar Bill here, and the Condo Fucks here.

Here’s a sweaty video I shot of 75 Dollar Bill in action that day:

Oh, and here’s Ornette’s “Friends and Neighbors”:

Hot Stuff at the Green River Festival 2019

GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—Why is always so hot on festival weekends? It could have been worse—I’ve done Green River in the pouring rain. And it was still worth it! I’d have to say, though, that this is one festival that prepares for the heat. There were cool-off tents, misting areas, and lots of water stations provided by Klean Kanteen. The community college site also has some welcome shady areas, refuges to avoid sunstroke.

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Rhiannon Giddens, commanding the stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The music was hot, too. I got there on Friday night, just in time to see Lucinda Williams. She was personally in fine form, but I continue to have problems with the volume of her Buick 6 backing band, which can drown out the subtleties baked into the songs. Other artists, including Courtney Barnett, have disappointed in that way. Stuart Mathis, who tours with Williams (and plays on her records) is a fine player, but he belongs in a rock band.

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Eilen Jewell: one of the best singer/songwriters we have, with great stage presence too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Saturday dawned clear and hot. I made it onto the field in time to see a short set by Little Roots, a local duo of Annie Stevenson and Maggie Shar. I loved them—the guitar and banjo combination, the sweet harmonies. And the repertoire of “Train on the Island,” “Green Leafy Garden” (which they said was derived from “Ida Red”), a Dolly Parton song named “Applejack” and the redoubtable “Jenny Jenkins.” But why, since there were two of them, didn’t they split up the vocal duties? It’s a call and response.

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Little Roots are music teachers when theiy’re not performing around the Pioneer Valley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A trio of duds on the main stage: Pamela Means, a supposed jazz singer who was earnest but tuneless; the Record Company, which produced an ear-piercing blare without much coherence; and the Philadelphia-based Low Cut Connie, who were loud and aggressively awful, without a memorable song to call their own. Frontman Adam Weiner said he “loved” us after every song. That alone was a bad sign.

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Charlie Hunter with frontwoman Lucy Woodward. (Jim Motavalli photo)

That morning, in our Airbnb, I had enjoyed the owner’s collection of country vinyl. I put on a Porter Wagoner live album, which reproduced their stage show circa 1964. It had it all: Fast instrumentals, comedy (from the colorfully dressed bass player), female vocals (from the “lovely Norma Jean”), solid singing and hosting from the front man—and songs, lots of very good songs. There was quality control in those days. Vigilantly weeding out bad songs is the duty of every band and solo act.

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Mammas Marmalade had their bluegrass roots showing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Equilibrium was restored with a performance by Mamma’s Marmalade, a Northampton bluegrass-based band with strong original songs, instrumental prowess and charisma. Fiddle player and singer Lily Sexton is a good front person. The new album is Rockabee Fields.

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Suitcase Junket has graduated to an almost drum kit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Suitcase Junket is always fun. One-man band Matt Lorenz has insane energy, and sweats buckets to put his songs over (now there’s a concept). He seems to have evolved from banging on his suitcase to an actual drum kit of sorts, and in Greenfield he brought out his sister, Kate, to sing harmonies. Not all his songs connect, but most of them do—especially the ones with singable choruses. The new album is Mean Dog, Trampoline.

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Gaslight Tinkers: You came for the dreadlocks, but stayed for the songs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Well-known axeman Charlie Hunter has a duo (plus a Japanese drummer) with singer Lucy Woodward. She’s has a big soul voice, Etta James meets Janis Joplin, and really puts everything into her songs, conviction plus body English. She was so forceful it almost overshadowed the beaming Hunter, who nonetheless got in some slinky solos.

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Tyler Childers alternated a classic country sound (and good songwriting) with rock-influenced bombast. Guess which I liked better? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Tyler Childers played old-school country, which segued into pounding rockers in the modern Nashville manner. At his best, he’s a very good singer and songwriter.

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Red Baraat putting out the energy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Red Baraat, return visitors to Green River, almost levitated off the stage. Whatever the source material—some are originals, one was “an old Punjabi song”—it’s performed with rhythmic intensity, pounding drums and a tuba for bass. What, it wasn’t a tuba but a sousaphone? The Lowdown Brass Band are similar, if with a New Orleans flavor, and were equally intense—with two excellent singers, R&B and rapper—to the fore.

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Chapel Hill’s Mipso bears further exploration. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The East Pointers, from Prince Edward Island, had both instrumental prowess (including fiddle-led rave-ups) and good songs, plus funny patter about PEI. They quoted from the local paper: “Rogue Beavers Invade Town” was one headline. This was my wife’s favorite festival band.

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Jerry Miller, the one and only. No, not the Moby Grape guy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Festivals are best when they introduce you to bands you’ve never heard before, and the Brattleboro-based Gaslight Tinkers was one of them this year. My impressions: dreadlocks, congas, electric bass, jigs, a tragic kids’ song, Emerald Rae’s fiddle. The Spanish song wasn’t their best. Cedric Burnside was solo, a bit stark but effective. He’s not as raw as granddad RL, but still did a song whose lyrics included, “Isn’t it just like a woman/they’ll do it every time.”

The major highlight of the festival for me was the performance by Eilen Jewell, promoting her new album, Gypsy, out in August. This is one of the best singer-songwriters performing today, and if you don’t know her music you owe it to yourself to change that fact. Jewell is an ace interpreter of classic songs—bringing them to live the same way a Carmen McRae or Anita O’Day would—but she’s also a wordsmith who can take your breath away. A highlight for me was the moody “Santa Fe” from Queen of the Minor Key.

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The Lowdown Brass Band had both R&B and hip-hop vocalists. Bases covered. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jewell has long worked with husband Jason Beek ably holding down the drum chair, and wild man “Stone Cold” Jerry Miller on guitar. Miller is, for my money, one of the best guitarists in any genre working today. His playing encapsulates every rockabilly, country, bluegrass and roots style—sometimes in the course of a concise one-minute solo. He has his own album out, New Road Under My Wheels. Jerry says, “These are players that I remember slowing down the record to figure out: Grady Martin, Leon Rhodes, Roy Nichols, Billy Kirchen, Joe Maphis, Les Paul. Also Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup.”

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Cedric Burnside was spare but effective. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Next up was Rhiannon Giddens, who was just as good, performing –as on her latest, 2019 album, There is No Other—with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. I wrote down, “She was always good, but now she’s commanding the stage.” If the festival was just those two women, I would have gone away happy. Giddens’ talent on fiddle and banjo sometimes gets overshadowed in large-band settings, but Turrisi (leaping from accordion to piano to Persian hand drums) was just perfect for her. She said their collaboration is “just getting started.” Good. He was funny, too. As she is.

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Angelique Kidjo promised all of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I caught a few songs from Chapel Hill’s Mipso, including a lithe cover of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” and liked what I heard very much. There are three good singers, and fine original songs. Their most recent album is Edges Run from 2018.

I’d have liked to hear more of Angelique Kidjo’s performance. She’s an African export worth hearing, and delivered a strong empowerment message. I wanted to hear more of Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” but caught only one song. Her next album (after the Heads tribute) salutes singer Celia Cruz.

Artists that sounded interesting that I missed: The Devil Makes Three (liked them in the past), Heather Maloney (didn’t like her in the past), Mapache, Phillip B. Price, Parsonfield, Samantha Fish, Spanglish Fly, Fantastic Negrito, The Suffers, Dez Roy, Moving Day, Zoki, the Stone Coyotes, Home Body.

Allan Harris: All Blues

NEW YORK CITY–For one reason or another, I’d never been to Dizzy’s Club, which is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, hard by the shops at Columbus Circle. (That’s one way of saying it’s in kind of a mall.)

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Allan Harris at Dizzy’s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I couldn’t have picked a better act to see there than Allan Harris, a jazz singer I’ve admired for a long time (but never seen). The New York Times calls him “a “protean talent” who “is best known for his takes on jazz standards,” and adds, “Mr. Harris flaunts his musical showmanship for the stage.” Here’s my interview with Harris in New York City Jazz Record. Go to page 6.

I’m fascinated by Harris’ musical, Cross That River, which was produced to sold-out acclaim on Broadway and still gets performed. Harris and I are both interested in America’s frontier, and his musical and my new book, The Real Dirt About America’s Frontier Legends, point out that African-American and Hispanic cowboys rode the West. At Dizzy’s, he pointed out that a very high percentage of such range riders were “people of color,” but it’s rarely dealt with in the history books.

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Harris picks up his guitar now and then. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harris is extremely relaxed on stage; probably because as a constant tourer, he’s on them a lot. Joking with the audience, calling out old friends, asking about a new baby, it’s all part of the plan. His wife is his manager.

In New York, Harris performed an excerpt from Cross That River, but he also offered his deep insights into those standards, including “I Remember You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I Wish You Love” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” I particularly enjoyed hearing the 1941 Johnny Mercer tune “Remember,” because I heard Chet Baker singing it on the way in to the city. Harris’ less wistful but still emotionally full version was just as good or better.

Harris also did some of his tribute to Eddie Jefferson music, including takes on Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” He’s right that Jefferson’s lyrics and vocalese for classic jazz tunes should be better known, and he’s a perfect interpreter of the material.

When he picked up his guitar and performed some of his own songs, Harris was more in the mode of a smooth blues belter, Jimmy Witherspoon, maybe, or B.B. King.

Kudos to Harris for hiring women (in the piano and drum chairs), and for taking the crack band on the road for an extended tour–to Italy, Sardinia, Turkey, Russia, London and Berlin, among others. And the group had just gotten back from Australia.

The protean Allan Harris deserves to be heard by a wider audience–and not just in the four corners of the world. Here’s a little bit of Cross That River on video:

Caramoor’s Bucolic Americana 2019

KATONAH, NEW YORK–Cellist Kaitlyn Raitz (half of Oliver the Crow with fiddler Ben Plotnick) went to SUNY Purchase, which is just down the road from Caramoor and just as bucolic, so she must have felt totally at home playing outdoors as part of the American Roots Music Festival at Caramoor June 22.

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Oliver the Crow: The day’s pick hit. But it was all good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is a festival that (like the similar jazz event coming up July 20) uses all of Caramoor’s beautiful groves and clearings in the woods for unamplified sets that merge with bird song and the sighing of the wind. If you want it loud, stay close to the main stage.

Oliver the Crow were wonderful, combining really strong singing and songwriting with virtuoso work on their instruments that never grandstanded and complemented all of the above. That’s the key to great music right there. The debut CD Oliver the Crow is out now. Plotnick quipped that Raitz, who has a Master of Music Performance degree from McGill University, “is wildly overqualified to play with me.” But in fact they’re evenly matched—and about to get married.

At Caramoor, OtC (now based in Nashville) combined original songs with traditional material such as “Bury Me Underneath the Willow Tree.” Almost all of the performers did that, in fact, and it’s a winning combination. OtC also played some very credible songs from people they know in Nashville, where every Uber driver is trying to make it as a musician.

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Porch Stomp Revue was a teaser for the big event on Governor’s Island the next day. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Porch Stomp Revue featured artists from the event of that name, which took place on Governor’s Island the day after the Americana festival. I haven’t been to that one, but I loved the Porch Stomp we had closer to home here in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Black Rock section. What’s not to like about free music (singer songwriters and Americana bands) in the neighborhood, in people’s yards and on their porches?

The New York version of Porch Stomp featured Matheus Verardino on harmonica, vocals and foot stomps, plus the Nick and Luke duo (better on covers than on originals) and fiddler Cleek Schrey. There were dancers, too.

Youth in a Roman Field

Youth in a Roman Field featured three singers, one songwriter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Youth in a Roman Field (New York by way of Chicago) is new to me, a vehicle for ambitious songwriter Claire Wellin. The songs, which were nicely arranged by a well-rehearsed band (with three female singers), lacked hooks and catchy choruses and were somewhat obscure lyrically, but still went down easily. Wellin is a good frontwoman. She described one song, “Town Hall,” as written in Cleveland “about life cycles I hope don’t continue to be life cycles.”

I loved the Bumper Jacksons, featuring the big voice of Jess Eliot Myhre and banjo player Chris Ousley. Myhre herself plays clarinet, and she hooked up with trumpet player Joseph Brotherton for a rough-and-ready horn section that gave their Americana music some meat on its bones. Decent originals, well-chosen covers. A good time.

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Our Band was an international travelogue, with hot guitar and accordion, plus duo harmonies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our Band, heard in one of the glens, features snappy singer/guitarist Justin Poindexter and singer/accordionist Sasha Papernik. The band does State Department tours (and Poindexter works at global outreach for Jazz at Lincoln Center) so its sound is understandably eclectic. It ranged from nice duo harmonies on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to a Leonard Cohen cover (beautifully sung by Papernik) and songs from Brazil. In Poland, Our Band got urgent requests for Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” so they did that one, too. Their very sweet original song “Bright as You” is online with a stop-motion animation video:

California’s Rainbow Girls have been together eight years and have a shambolic chemistry onstage. Unplugged, they essayed lovely three-part harmony on “Tennessee Waltz” and more aggressive delivery for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’” I caught only a little bit of Damned Tall Buildings, both on stage and in a glen, and liked what I heard. Lots of energy there.

Rainbow Girls

Rainbow Girls, a California import, had a shambolic charm. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bethlehem and Sad Patrick stood out for the former’s huge voice and assured delivery. Patrick’s guitar was somewhat rudimentary. Maybe he adds more in other contexts. Bethlehem is going places, though.

Amethyst Kiah

Amethyst Kiah’s songs didn’t quite match the power of her voice, but she couldn’t be stopped on the covers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A tribute to Odetta was a fine excuse for a rousing sing-a-long featuring all the performers. Standouts: “Jack of Diamonds” by Damned Tall Buildings; “Cotton Fields” by Rainbow Girls; “Careless Love” by Youth in a Roman Field; “Make Me a Pallet” by Bumper Jacksons. The MC, as always, was an (uncredited) Mark Miller of the Spuyten Duyvil band.

But that wasn’t the end, just the pause before the headlining evening concert. At these events, I sometimes find the unknowns better than the big names, but both Milk Carton Kids and Amythyst Kiah were credible. The latter doesn’t write songs that fully exploit her incredible voice (they’re somewhat formless), but she really connects on covers like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Darling Corey.”

I’m eager to hear the album Kiah made with Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russel (of Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla, Songs of Our Native Daughters. The one original she did from it was powerful.

Milk Carton Kids

Milk Carton Kids combined sharp songwriting, intricate harmonies and dry wit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Milk Carton Kids were not what I expected. I thought they had techno elements, but maybe that’s only on record. Instead their live show had beautiful Simon and Garfunkel-style vocal harmonies on often-dreamy songs, extremely good guitar playing and really wry deadpan wit. It was like an updating of the Smothers Brothers.

By the way, if you like hearing Americana outside this summer, check out the continuing CHIRP series in Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, curated by the knows-what-she’s-doing Barbara Manners. What a great series of free Tuesday and Thursday night shows! I’m marking my calendar for C.J. Chenier (July 9), Hot Club of Cowtown (July 25), the Brother Brothers (August 1), Sam Reider and the Human Hands (August 6) and, again, Damn Tall Buildings (August 8).

Hot Jazz at Caramoor in Katonah

KATONAH, NEW YORK—Vince Giordano is about the same age as me, but his perspective goes much further back—long before either of us were born, in fact. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra are the leading band in the U.S. that is keeping the music of the 1920s and 1930s alive with loving recreations of period arrangements.

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Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks honor the composer’s intent. No disco versions. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano is a stickler for authenticity. When he was five (this was in 1957, mind you) he heard 20s music on a wind-up Victrola, and has never been the same. Instead of Elvis, he was listening to Paul Whiteman. He’s a music collector as well as a sax player, and reportedly owns more than 60,000 scores.

It’s a treat to hear this music live, in good fidelity, instead of on beat-up low-fi 78s. I had exactly that pleasure at Caramoor’s “Hot Jazz Age Frolic” June 16, which featured Giordano’s band with singer Kat Edmonson and the great trumpet player/vocalist Bria Skonberg. Oh, and crowd-pleasing tap dancer DeWitt Fleming, Jr., too.

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Bria Skonberg (with sax player Evan Arntzen ) blows hot. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Skonberg’s first set was for kids, many of whom were darting around the music tent. It was distracting, but it didn’t last long. Skonberg is a committed educator, and took the time to explain jazz history and context. “Jazz was born in New Orleans,” she said. “And it came with rhythms from around the world, including Habanera from Cuba and Clave [originally from Africa but then] from the Caribbean.”

Skonberg’s Hot Five was in good form. Clarinet/sax player Evan Arntzen (also in the Giordano orchestra) was inventive, especially on clarinet, ad he was complemented by Devin Starks on bass, Chris Patishall on piano and drummer Darrian Douglas. They played material like “Joe Avery’s Blues” and “Stomping at the Savoy,” the latter a showcase for a great “conversation” between Skonberg and Arntzen. “Music is a language,” Skonberg told the kids. “The call-and-response makes it like a conversation.”

Skonberg is a double threat. She has a big brassy trumpet sound, out of Louis Armstrong mostly, and is also a strong singer. Her albums, particularly lately, have been getting more experimental, but in Katonah she was exploring the same 20-year-period as Giordano.

Even if it was for kids, the music was uncompromising and a lot of fun—Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing”).

Skonberg came out later for the adults, and got even hotter on numbers like, well, “Hotter Than That” (lots of nice blowing from Skonberg) and “When You’re Smiling…” (featuring inspired piano from Patishall). Arntzen can sing, too, and he did it particularly well on a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River.” Skonberg showed off her compositional side on the eerie and haunting “Down in the Deep.” Here it is in a studio version:

At intermission, we got to hear recorded 78s on Michael Cumella’s twin vintage wind-up Victrolas. They changed needles a lot. Cumella hosts a program of music taken from his extensive collection of 78s on WFMU in New Jersey.

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The kids loved Michael Cumella’s Victrolas. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano gave us an ambitious “Rhapsody in Blue,” and also talked about the music. Have you ever heard of James Reese Europe? Serving in France as a lieutenant, he brought jazz to Europe during the First World War. Europe survived the war unscathed, but then got stabbed to death by his drummer in 1919.

Giordano’s music can be heard in Woody Allen’s Café Society film, and for five years on the Boardwalk Empire series. In Katonah, he had outstanding vocalist Kat Edmonson with him for a few numbers, as well as Fleming on such dance numbers as “Castle House Rag.”

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Kat Edmonson got into the period flavor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Poor “Putting on the Ritz.” Irving Berlin’s 1927 song had to survive both a disco version by Taco (a hit in 1982) and being sung by the monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. It was much closer to the composer’s intent at Caramoor. “West End Blues” featured some fine solo work from trumpet player Jon Kelso.

The show was a prelude to Caramoor’s Jazz Festival, which is July 20 and features, among others, Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, Willie Jones III Quintet: Celebrating Roy Hargrove, Sammy Miller and The Congregation, Marquis Hill Quartet, Brianna Thomas & Danny Mixon, Lakecia Benjamin Quartet Plays Coltrane, Andrea Motis Quintet, Michela Marino Lerman’s Love Movement and the Isaiah J. Thompson Quartet. Jazz at Lincoln Center is a joint presenter.

Bill and the Belles: Their Old-Time Radio Show Heads for PBS

JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE—Some American cities have come back, and others are still dominated by boarded-up storefronts and memories of former glories. Johnson City is somewhere in between, with sprouts of new life dotting Main Street.

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Kalia Yeagle (left) and Kris Truelsen of Bill and the Belles are steeped in tradition. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Willow Street Café is one such sprout, a funky, comfortable coffeehouse with live music, including—on the night we attended, Abby the Spoon Lady and her one-man-band accompanist, Chris Rodrigues. When not on stage, she can often be found busking on the streets of nearby Asheville, North Carolina.

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Ralph Peer went looking for talent in Bristol, Tennessee–and found Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family at the same session in 1927.

Willow Street was the perfect place to rendezvous with Kris Truelsen and Kalia Yeager, core members of Johnson City-based Bill and the Belles. The group is one-of-a-kind, deftly combining old-time country (as performed in the place where it was born) with the pop sensibilities of the 1920s and 1930s. Truelsen is convinced, and I heartily concur, that period pop (a/k/a The Great American Songbook or Tin Pan Alley) sat side by side in the repertoire of local and regional musicians.

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The Radio Bristol home of “Farm & Fun Time.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

Due to the rigidity of record companies (then and now) they stayed within their chosen genres on disc, hence our conviction today that it was all they played. In reality, musicians had to eat, so they were only to happy to play the hits of the day for paying audience.

The group’s name comes from Bill and the great singer/songwriter Ollabelle Reed, who recorded in Johnson City. (The group Ollabelle was also named after her.) After some personnel changes, it now features Truelsen on guitar and vocals, Yeagle on fiddle and voice, Helena Hunt on banjo and vocal, and Andrew Small on bass.

Bill and the Belles

The Willow Tree is part of the rebirth of Johnson City, and musicians like Truelsen and Yeagle are helping make it happen. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Truelsen is from Colorado and Yeagle from Alaska. They came together in the mountains of Tennessee, where both studied Appalachian music at East Tennessee State University. Yeagle, who also played with the New Reeltime Travelers, is an educator with a geography degree from Vassar and a graduate certificate from ETSU.

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The Carter Family, in their original glory.

Truelsen was the first person to get a master’s in Appalachian Studies at ETSU, and is the producer and music director of Radio Bristol, housed at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in nearby Bristol, Tennessee. That’s where Ralph Peer’s historic recording session was held circa 1927, producing country’s first two major stars—Jimmie Rodgers (“The Singing Brakeman”) and the Carter Family.

The museum is great fun—go if you can. I didn’t realize that the so-called Bristol Sessions were one of the first recording dates to be electrically recorded. That meant vastly better sound, and great sales of country records—at least until the Depression put a damper on things.

The central radio show on Radio Bristol is the monthly “Farm & Fun Time,” an hour-long homage to the original show (launched in the 1940s), which featured such artists as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman and Jim and Jesse. Now it’s back with a new format, broadcast on Radio Bristol from a studio at the Bristol museum. A pair of musical guests are complemented with heirloom recipes, farming segments and Truelsen’s original ad jingles.

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Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman.”

The big news is that “Farm and Fun Time” is headed for TV, at first regionally on Southeast PBS stations, but maybe later it will go national. The program’s burgeoning success recalls another old-time radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” first heard back in 1974.

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Truth in advertising. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Before we go to the interview, let me add that a month or so after the rendezvous in Tennessee I caught Bill and the Belles right close to home, in a barn close to home in Newtown, Connecticut. It was an ideal place to see them, congenial, rural and relaxed. The audience was relaxed, anyway; the band was on fire, and tore through dozens of tunes, including some very hot fiddle tunes led by Yeagle. This band is just so darned good. Catch them now before the crowds get huge.

bill and the belles newtown 2019 whole group

Bill and the Belles, with a borrowed (very good) bass player, heat up the barn in Newtown, Connecticut. It was hot, in both senses of the word. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kris Truelsen: Radio Bristol started with folks at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The whole point of the station was to celebrate all the great regional artists we have here in central Appalachia. Radio is such a prominent part of country music history, yet there hasn’t been a community station in our region for some time that really celebrates local and regional artists.

Jim Motavalli: The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville actually started the year before the Bristol Sessions, in 1926.

And it had quite a long reach; it made it up to here. “Farm & Fun Time” is one of our flagship shows at Radio Bristol now. The original Farm & Fun Time was on WCYB out of Bristol, with pretty heavy wattage, and it hit a five-state region. It was a noontime show and had a huge following. A lot of the farmers would take a break at lunchtime and come in and listen. Many of the first-generation bluegrass artists started their careers on that show, folks such as the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse. There was a revolving cast of house bands.

There were many artists in southwest Virginia who were doing tour routes throughout the area, and they would come through, using “Farm & Fun Time” as a way to push ticket sales for their events. We brought the show back, knowing the impact it had on our region. We put a contemporary spin on it—performing in front of a live audience at the museum. The reception has been amazing. It’s monthly and it sells out every month. People are really happy we brought it back. It’s also becoming a TV show. It’s been picked up by PBS. It’s going to start out syndicated throughout the Southeast, and after six months hopefully it will become national.

Bill and the Belles is the house band, and we play a lot of jingles that we write for our sponsors. We have a food segment coming up, and I have to write a song about morel mushrooms.

Kalia Yeagle: Kris is a jingle-writing machine.

Will the TV filming change how you do “Farm & Fun Time”?

Kris: I’m hoping it’s not going to change a thing. We’ll film it in the museum, and we’ll also have another studio we’ll shoot in for larger shows. At the core, our mission is to keep “Farm & Fun Time” as a radio show. So it will be a 58-minute radio show on TV. We have two featured artists every month, with Bill and the Belles as the house band. We have our heirloom recipe storyteller, and we have a visit to a farm. Tomorrow I’m going up to a state park and we’re going to be foraging for medicinals. We’ll be working with a lady who puts together packages of medicinal herbs for cancer patients at St. Jude’s in Memphis.

Your show obviously brings to mind “Prairie Home Companion.” They at least played around with the conceit of being an old-time radio show—with the commercials and such.

Kris: What an influential show. It’s impacted my work tremendously. As a kid I listened to “Prairie Home Companion” for years. My parents loved it. I snuck into a “Prairie Home Companion” show in Philadelphia once, and saw Garrison Keillor rehearsing. It was inspiring to me, seeing 20 or so people working together on the show.

Considering how much you tour, it must be difficult to fit everything in.

Kris: The radio is a full-time job, but the band is also a full-time commitment. We do 100-plus dates a year.

I’ve seen you at several festivals in the Northeast. Which ones are you playing in 2019?

Kalia: We’re doing our favorite hometown event, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Revival, in September. We do a live “Farm & Fun Time” from the festival, which is always a lot of fun. We’re also doing a UK tour in August and September.

bill and the belles newtown 2019

Bill (Kris) and the current Belles, Kalia Yeagle (left) and Helena Hunt, in Newtown. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kris: In June and July we’re playing some arts centers in the Northeast. We’ll also be out west and in Canada.

Kalia: We did a month-long tour in Germany last winter, and it was really interesting to hear the reactions of international audiences. They really seemed to dig it, the Americana sound.

Kris: For traditional American music, there are pockets around the world where there are real subcultures of people who are 100 percent invested in it. Not only do they bring American bands over, but they also learn to pick and sing like those bands from the 1930s and 40s. It’s pretty wild.

When I first heard Bill and the Belles, I was struck not only by Kalia’s great fiddle playing and singing, which is a constant in your band, but also by the way you sing, Kris, which is unlike anyone I’ve ever heard singing old-time or bluegrass. You sound a lot more like the contemporary crooners, who would be singing Tin Pan Alley songs. I’m sure if you heard some of the old singers back then, they would have included some of that repertoire, but it didn’t get recorded. The record companies wanted to keep you in your niche.

Kris: You’re picking up on some of the focal points where Bill and the Belles started. The pop music of the 1920s and 30s was huge here in our region of eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. But like you said, when the A&R guys came down to record, they wanted authentic “hillbilly music,” with fiddles. It didn’t fit into their aesthetic. But many of the artists were very open to playing what was then the modern music.

That being said, there are a few examples of country musicians from this region who did record and had a repertoire of pop music. And for us we find that very interesting. I love the chord progressions of what you might call more uptown hillbilly music. The melodies have quite a bit of depth to them. And for my voice, it really is very fitting. I like to see myself as kind of a hillbilly crooner.

The songs you write have the feel of Tin Pan Alley, too.

Kris: We want our songs to have a timeless quality to them. Tin Pan Alley really stretched for decades, and the songs don’t hearken back to a specific era. We pull from a lot of eras. We combine music of the 1920s and 30s with the 50s and 60s. And we get into today, too, and inevitably that becomes the Bill and the Belles sound. It’s an amalgam of all these different eras of American music, because that’s what we like.

My theory is that Bill Monroe heard jazz, the popular music of the time, and it influenced him to add solos to old-time country and create bluegrass. I think both bluegrass and country swing are reactions to hearing jazz.

Kalia: I think you’re on to something there. I think that’s a great theory. There are pivotal moments of crossover and collaboration. People get exposed to new sounds and try to fit them in within their own existing voices. It’s those moments that really excite us as a band, and it’s what has stayed true for us. We like to hear sounds that arose from two seemingly disparate sources that somehow found a way to work together.

Kris: Jazz crossover, for us it’s incredibly inspiring. Not only was Bill Monroe very aware of jazz, but a bunch of other musicians—Clayton McMichen, for instance, who was in the Skillet Lickers, a world-class fiddler—

Kalia: One of my favorites, he’s still an influence on me, definitely.

Kris: The Skillet Lickers hearkened back to the 19th century, and McMichen has been quoted as saying playing only old music drove him crazy, and he wanted to push the boundaries. He started a band called the Georgia Wildcats, which was hillbilly jazz. He went forward with that and left the old-time field behind, but the DNA was still in there.

There’s a lot of jazz in your playing, Kalia. Who were influences on you besides Clayton McMichen?

Kalia: I grew up in a pretty diverse musical situation, in and around Anchorage, Alaska. There’s a really thriving musical community up there. My dad was a bluegrass musician growing up. But so many people have moved there from so many places that the music scene really reflects that. So if you grow up learning fiddle you’re going to get some folk music, bluegrass and swing, as well as some French-Canadian tunes and old-time too.

David Grisman was the catalog of my youth for sure. That Dawg Music is burned into my memory. I moved to upstate New York for college and got into playing music there, a bit more on the swing side of bluegrass and old-time fiddling. I met Kris when I came down to Tennessee for graduate school, and that’s when I really started digging into old-time music.

I have the sense you’re quite an historian, Kris.

Kris: There’s been a lot of study, a lot of listening to old records, for sure. Early country music is part of my lifeblood. I did get my masters in country music studies. I wrote a thesis on early country music history. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the old folks and what they did.

Ralph Peer actually came back to Bristol several times, looking for talent. And he was the catalyst to get A&R men from other labels to come down. It made sense, because they saw the record sales that were happening from the Bristol Sessions. Once the music was electrically recorded, the sales took off because the sound was so clear. With records made before 1927, there’s some amazing music on them, but you have to listen through the scratches and the noise. So they’re a little bit more inaccessible for a lot of folks.

I saw you first at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is a great event that grew out of the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

Our latest record, DreamSongs Etc., is on Jalopy Records. They’re a great organization—the Brooklyn Folk Festival to me is one of the great festivals in the U.S. Curator Eli Smith is really good at finding people who are dedicated to their art. He brings in artists you aren’t going to see at any other festivals. And then they get recorded for Jalopy Records. It was an honor to be part of that.

Because of the Jalopy Theater and the folk festival, Brooklyn has a very developed old-time scene.

And it has been for a very long time. We’ve been fortunate to be friends with John Cohen, who lives in the Hudson area and started the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the important figures to help the folk revival become what it became. He has been incredibly inspiring to us as musicians and artists. It amazes me to see the impact he continues to have in his life today.

Mike Seeger in that group was a real catalyst, too. It’s interesting that the Ramblers’ music still sounds authentic, but the popular groups of the period—The Kingston Trio, the Limeliters—which had a real tinge of Tin Pan Alley and sophisticated harmonies in their music, sound more ersatz. It’s funny, the repertoire of old-time country is completely different from what those groups drew from. Those groups were college-influenced folk.

Kris: Mike Seeger and John Cohen, they were coming down south, they were making field recordings with amazing artists. They weren’t interested in commercial recordings, and it’s reflected in the music they played, which has great depth.

 Tell me about your personnel changes.

Kris: We’ve been working with Helena for about a year now. I met her through ETSU—I was teaching there and she was one of my students. She’s from Waynesville, North Carolina and has been playing banjo her whole life. And an incredible singer too. When we started looking for a new banjo player it was a no-brainer to go to her first.

Andrew Small of Floyd, Virginia is our new bass player. He’s the manager of the big old-time country music store County Sales and a world-class musician. The band is hitting the road a lot more and doing more touring in far-off places. And the group we have is really ideal for that.

“Farm and Fun Time” airs from 7 to 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month. Here it here. Keep an eye on local listings for the PBS show. And here’s a show from 2018:

Dena DeRose, Home From Europe

It was another stellar night at Sarah’s Wine Bar/Bernard’s Restaurant in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the Jazz Masters Series comes out once a month courtesy of the husband-and-wife team of Marcia and Ken Needleman. The Dena DeRose trio (Martin Wind, bass, and John Wikan, drums) was joined by veteran trumpet player Marvin Stamm (Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Duke Pearson, Thad Jones, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine).

Dena DeRose

Dena DeRose meets the media at Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, CT. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Not many places in Connecticut let you dine splendidly while listening to top-rank jazz through a clear-as-a-bell sound system. And the audience is quiet, too.

In Ridgefield, DeRose was in good form, and sailed through a repertoire that included tributes to the late Mark Murphy and Bob Dorough, standards such as “It Could Happen to You” and “Get Out of Town,” and a Martin Wind original with DeRose’s lyrics, “Simple Song.”

Dena is a cool vocalist, sort of like Patricia Barber but warmer. And she’s a hell of a vibrant pianist, slamming those keys with exuberance. As you’ll read below, she got into the vocalizing late, and almost by accident–just like Nat Cole.

I’ve written about Dena before, but this time I sat down with her and conducted a Q&A interview (after we missed each other on WPKN the week before).

Marvin Stamm

Marvin Stamm made an album of duets with DeRose called “The Nearness of Two.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

You’ve been teaching in Europe. How do you like living there?

I love living in Europe! I moved to Graz, Austria about 13 years ago. I accepted a professorship for jazz voice at one of the oldest institutions for the music in Europe, started around 1965 or 1966. They didn’t really have jazz voice until Sheila Jordan started the program in the late 1980s.

It wasn’t really a university then, more like one of our community colleges. But in 2004 it became a university, which meant they wanted to have one professor for voice long term. Before that, Sheila would bring over Mark Murphy, Michelle Hendricks, Andy Bey, Jay Clayton and people like that. They’d go over for a semester or even a year and teach, workshops and private lessons, the jazz choir.

Martin Wind

The hard-working Martin Wind is DeRose’s go-to bass player. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I got called and told there was an audition for the professorship, much different than it would be in the States. I taught at NYU, Purchase, Hartt School in Hartford, and they just ask you—“Do you want to come and teach here?” It was nerve-wracking to go over to Europe and audition—I had never had to do that. But I got offered the job, and in a month’s time had to move my life over there after 16 years in New York. It felt like the right time.

You still come back regularly, once a year.

Well, I love New York. I just played Birdland for four nights, and we had bassist Martin Wind, plus Steve Williams on drums, and guests that included saxophonist Houston Person and trumpet players Ingrid Jensen and Jeremy Pelt. I love Ingrid, and Jeremy was on the cover of Downbeat this month. He’s a deep cat for a young guy.

I had a thought while listening to you play “Joy Spring” with Marvin Stamm. Maybe if the 1950s hadn’t been what they were, and you were born back then instead of now, you’d have been one of those Blue Note pianists–Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock—who played on a million albums. It was mostly men on those sessions.

It was a man’s world, and times have changed a little bit. Now we have people like Ingrid Jensen, Virginia Mayhew, Sue Terry, Grace Kelly, Tia Fuller, Sherry Maracle with the Diva band. It’s finally getting more equal in the reviews and in the magazines. There were a lot of great women players back in the day—Marian McPartland, for one—but of course there weren’t as many. These days when I do workshops and clinics, at high schools and universities, there are a lot more women instrumentalists—it’s not just singers, but saxophonists, trumpet players, flautists, trombonists. We’re more in the forefront.

I was listening to the new Norah Jones album, and her piano playing is more in the background than it used to be. That’s also true of one of my favorite artists in the old-time country field, Rhiannon Giddens, who is an instrumental virtuoso but is concentrating more on being a singer. One of the things I love about your records is that the piano is so upfront.

Thanks, I was first a piano player. My singing came out of having some operations on my hand when I was younger, so I couldn’t play. I had to pay the doctor’s bills, so I took some voice lessons and studied technique and started working in my hometown with a trio. And when my hand healed, I was still singing. It just happened.

Nat Cole didn’t sing at first.

I didn’t either. When I first got into jazz it was just piano. They used to tell me when I was younger that I had the Nat Cole syndrome. He was playing in a place regularly, and one night the manager comes up and says, “Hey, your piano is great, but how about you sing a tune?” And Cole replied, “I don’t sing.” This happened a bunch of times, and finally, he did sing. And then he became Nat King Cole.

Back then, it really helped if you could sing. These days, you can pretty much do what you want to do.

Tell us about your most recent record, United [HighNote, 2016].

It has Ingrid Jensen, Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, Peter Bernstein. We were all in New York, and we’re all about the same age. We were in New York together learning the music. That was my school—I didn’t go to a university. New York was it. If you were on the bandstand you had to know the tunes.

When you record in Europe, can you find musicians of the same caliber as those in New York?

I made a duo album in Europe, the Nearness of Two, with Marvin Stamm. It was a live concert and they didn’t tell us it was going to be a CD. But there are great players everywhere. I travel through Europe constantly, at least two or three weekends every month. And I have the Spanish band, the Italian band, the Danish band. Bands in Germany and Austria.

You’d be great with the WDR Big Band in Germany. There’s a new album with Fred Hersch, and arrangements by Vince Mendoza.

I had the opportunity four or five years ago to do a project with the Frankfurt Radio Band. Ed Partyka did the arrangements around my Shirley Horn homage CD. And that was really fun. But it wasn’t released as an album. At the end of May I go to Portugal to be with Benny Golson and the big band of the Algarve region. All of Benny’s songs have been arranged for big band. I’ll probably be mostly playing piano on that, and doing some of my own big band arrangements. Benny is 90.

So is Tony Bennett. He’s also 90.

Next month in the Jazz Masters Series is violin player Jason Anick and his trio, Sunday May 26.