Noreen Mola is Old Fashioned–in the Nicest Possible Way

At La Zingara restaurant in Bethel, Connecticut, home to an ongoing jazz series, vocalist Noreen Mola kept the audience spellbound with a relentless program of material from the Great American Songbook. She sailed through “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “Autumn Leaves,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “No Moon at All” and a Dave Frishberg tongue-twister I hadn’t heard before, “A Little Taste.” She concluded the evening in rousing fashion with “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Take the A Train.”

Mola, who has been an animal rights activist and a painter of pet portraits, came late to jazz singing, but it’s as if she has been doing it her whole life. She’s not a scatter like Ella Fitzgerald, or a daring experimenter messing with time and space like Betty Carter, but as a straight-ahead, swinging interpreter of the Songbook she’s as good as it gets. And a charismatic performer, too.

 Nearly all of Mola’s repertoire comes from that precious body of work created by mostly Jewish songwriters, working as teams (music and lyrics) in New York between about 1925 and 1950. They wrote for Broadway plays, for Hollywood, and—early on—for sheet music. These denizens of Tin Pan Alley didn’t realize they were creating songs that would stand the test of time and serve as the core of countless jazz and cabaret set lists, but that’s what happened. This sophisticated music is timeless, full of romantic yearning and fools either in love or wistful about the lack of it.

It happens that I’ve just been reading The B Sides by Ben Yagoda, which chronicles how Tin Pan Alley evolved, and how it all fell apart in the early 50s. It’s chief villain is the affable Mitch Miller, then A&R man for popular music at Columbia. Yagoda calls him “The Beard,” and there was a certain resemblance to cartoon depictions of the devil. Certainly, he was the nemesis of singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, all of whom were made to sing novelty songs by The Beard.

The fact that they had the biggest hits of their career with this doggerel didn’t change their opinion. They didn’t Sing Along with Mitch. Miles Davis ran into Miller on a New York sidewalk years after their time at Columbia and said only, “Keep walking.” When Sinatra encountered him in Vegas, he said, “Get lost, creep.” Tony Bennett is too polite to really go after Miller in his autobiography, but he details the hitmaker’s attempts to get him to stop singing jazz.

Miller’s success with novelty material didn’t go unnoticed. So for a while, as Yagoda chronicles, the great songwriters—most of them still vigorous—couldn’t get arrested, in Hollywood or New York. Their response was to turn on the emerging rock and roll as music made by “cretinous goons” (Sinatra’s phrase). Their failure to see that rock and R&B could be great, too, is perhaps understandable. But Mitch wasn’t actually peddling rock and roll, just a kind of dumbed-down treacle that could be hummed in the supermarket.

Now the Songbook is enjoying a great renaissance, as even pop performers like Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Boz Scaggs and Linda Ronstadt are embracing standards. Numerous albums drawing upon that bottomless well are released every week. And there’s a huge trove of undiscovered songs lurking in musicals that quickly opened and closed. Richard Rodgers, Yip Harburg, George and Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen, Oscar Hammerstein II, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, they were all workaholics. Kudos to singers like John Pizzarelli and Catherine Russell for unearthing some of the hidden gems.

Back on the bandstand, Mola was nice enough to do my request, for “I’m Old Fashioned.” This wonderful old chestnut from 1942 has music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire danced to it in the otherwise forgotten film You Were Never Lovelier. Hayworth couldn’t sing, so Nan Wynn dubbed the vocals.

Here’s Mercer on working with the older Kern: “We hit it off right away. I was in such awe of him, I think he must have sensed that. He was very kind to me, treated me more like a son than a collaborator. And when he thought I had a great lyric he said, ‘Eva, Eva, come down here,’ and he kissed me on the cheek and he said, ‘Eva, I want you to hear this lyric.’ Well, of course I was thrilled that he liked it that much, you know. ‘I’m Old Fashioned,’ that one was.” Today, collaborating as those songwriting teams did seems to be coming back. Musicians are talking about how they get energized by bouncing their ideas off someone else. There’s not a false line in “I’m Old Fashioned,” and maybe that’s because Mercer and Kern ditched each other’s bad ideas.

With Mola in her quartet were Bill Lance on piano (sounding a bit like Errol Garner crossed with Red Garland), the snappy drummer Dave Reynolds, and ace acoustic bassist Eric Van Laer. The Bethel Jazz Series is ongoing, with lots of interesting acts coming up. Thanks to producer Tom Carruthers for the oasis of jazz in Fairfield County.

Samara Joy, Jazz Singer, at Queens College

QUEENS, NEW YORK—To celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Queens College put together a compelling program that combined a very to-the-point speech from Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for The New Yorker, with a marvelous performance by the rising jazz singer of the moment, 24-year-old Samara Joy.

Cobb noted King’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” but added that it doesn’t bend by itself—it takes a lot of hard work. He talked about attending the multi-cultural Jamaica High School (and playing on its firmly integrated baseball team), but also being called the “n” word on a Queens street, and living through the 1986 Howard Beach tragedy. Three African-American men were attacked by a group of white youths outside a Queens pizza parlor—resulting in the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith. Spike Lee made a movie about it. Progress has been made, he said, but much remains to be done.

MLK’s important legacy was invoked by numerous speakers (including the Queens borough president and the speaker of the City Council), all before an intermission. Since tickets only cost $20, this was a rare occasion to see an affordable first-class jazz performance in an ideal venue. And this was no ordinary performer—Joy is on an escalator to musical stardom, records for Verve, appears on late night TV shows, and is soon off to Europe. She won the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019, and was the Best New Artist for Jazz Times in 2021. The New Yorker says she “has all the goods to hold a room spellbound.”

And that’s just what she did at the Kupferberg Center for the Arts, with a trio featuring Luther Allison on piano and Evan Sherman on drums. Joy, who performed a program of mostly new (to her) songs, has range, taste, power, dynamic control, and lots and lots of drama. She is, simply, the most exciting jazz singer (of either gender) to appear in the last 20 years. Actually, should we go back further?

Watching Bronx-born Joy conjures an amalgam of the standard-singing mastery of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn with the more experimental bop vocalizing of Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. With the latter (and Cassandra Wilson), she shares an ultra-low bottom range and rapid-fire tempo changes.

Joy performed only two songs from her Verve album, Linger Awhile—which is mostly standards. Instead, the repertoire was representative of her recent listening. A singer who mostly listened to R&B in high school– Kendrick Lamar, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross—has spent the time since catching up on the history of jazz singing. She did two songs by Abbey Lincoln, “Straight Ahead” and “Retribution,” both from the classic 1961 Straight Ahead album; and “Tight,” from The Audience with Betty Carter (1980).  

I’ve listened to a lot of Monk, but never before encountered his 1959 “San Francisco Holiday,” which had lyrics put to it by Margo Guryan—a Queens native! Now it’s called “Worry Later.” Samara Joy could make it into a standard. From the album we got “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which is most often associated with Nancy Wilson, though Carmen McRae (another source for Joy) sang it first. A highlight was a version of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” accompanied only by Allison’s piano. She concluded with a blues.

Like Lincoln, Joy is an actress who, as they used to say, “knows how to put a song across.” She radiates intense, well, joy, about just being on stage. She tells stories about the songs, introduces the musicians, points them out when they take an especially audacious solo, and switches seamlessly into vocalese. On the album, she sings a vocal version of Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew).” Her study of the form, nodding to the greatness of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, grew from school assignments. “Over time, it became a style that I’ve enjoyed exploring and playing around with,” she said.

There is no trajectory but up for this singer. Of course, she could realize there’s more money in R&B and ride that wave. Other jazz singers did it—Dee Dee Bridgewater (who later came back), Al Jarreau, Jean Carn (a/k/a Jean Carne). But let’s not stir things up. For now, Samara Joy is firmly committed to jazz. She loves jazz, and it loves her back.

The Brooklyn Folk Festival and the Black Rose of Texas Band, Shimmying Like My Sister Kate

NEW YORK CITY—What do the Black Rose of Texas band, playing at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola in Manhattan October 16, and the Brooklyn Folk Festival, October 21 to 23, have in common? How about the song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”?

The Black Rose of Texas band at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola–with all the singers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Officially, this song was written by Armand J. Piron and published in 1922. Louis Armstrong claimed he wrote it, sold it for $10 but never got the money. In any case, it was a big hit. Fats Waller did it, Dave Van Ronk, and even the Beatles (live in 1962).

Another thing these two events had in common is guitarist Justin Poindexter, who is in the Black Rose of Texas band and played pedal steel with Meg Farrell’s honky-tonk group in Brooklyn. Let’s see what went on at these two venues.

In Brooklyn, an absolute highlight was the last act encountered, the Lovestruck Balladeers, virtuosos who play ramped-up ragtime and other great old American styles, as well as global sounds “seldom heard beyond the walls of low-lit dance halls at the edge of the known world.”) Aaron Jonah Lewis is a phenomenon not to be missed on fiddle, but he’s also a master of very early banjo playing. The other band members are Jake Sanders (guitar), Dennis Lichtman (clarinet), Sean Cronin (bass) and Dalton Ridenhour (piano). Switching instruments is common. Lichtman also plays incredible mandolin and does a twin-fiddle thing with Lewis.

The Lovestruck Balladeers in full cry. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Words fail me in trying to describe how great this group is, but fortunately I shot some video. This is their version of Scott Joplin’s famous “Maple Leaf Rag”:

And here’s an original by the Lovestruck Balladeers:

Nora Brown, playing as she does often with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman, was in especially fine form in Brooklyn. At 15, she’s coming into her mature voice, and singing more confidently, and she continues to absorb tunes and banjo tricks from a wide variety of in-person influences. “Wild Bill Jones,” I don’t think I’ve heard her sing that before.

Nora Brown, with her new maturing voice. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“Rose Connelly,” a murder ballad if ever there was one, is also known as “Down in the Willow Garden,” and Brown gave it the proper drama. “Jenny, Put the Kettle On” was nearer to its original source and closer to the bone than versions by, say, Burl Ives. Brown and Coleman went all the way to the reaches of Quebec to meet members of the legendary Foghorn String Band. That’s dedication.

I liked Amethyst Kiah best singing covers. She has a rich, forceful singing voice, heard to good advantage on “Sugar,” a Tori Amos B-side. The highlight, though, was her take on “Trouble So Hard,” originally recorded by one Vera Hall in an Alan Lomax recording, then acquired by Moby for his hit album Play. But you need the whole song, not a sample.

Connecticut’s own Jacob Wysocki was a find on Saturday morning. He’s from a rural town called Norwich, and he appears to have done deep study on the Internet and the Cecil Sharp archives to arrive at his unique approach to old-time music. He’s a very good guitar player and singer, with added value from the pan pipes that, he told me, exist in every culture.

Wysocki, who looks sort of like a countercultural version of Michael J. Pollard, had a funny line of patter. He said his mother warned him to watch out, because they were stealing milk crates down at the Cumberland Farms in Norwich. To make his guitar sound like a snare drum, he inserted a folded Pokemon card under the strings. Altogether a unique performer and one to watch.

Bill Carney’s Jug Addicts had to start without their bass player, but he showed up later. The group performed a spirited version of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now.” That’s a really old song, and Jimmie Rodgers recorded it in 1928.

The Jug Addicts are blessed with a number of good singers, including the rub board player, who emulates the florid style of the 1920s or even earlier. They’re the group that played “Sister Kate,” and the old-timey feel made a good complement to multi-instrumentalist Clifton Davis. He also loves that era—and the piano music of Jelly Roll Morton, which he has transposed to the guitar. The San Diego resident also plays in string bands, including Skillet Licorice.

The late John Cohen, a mainstay of the New Lost City Ramblers, was a Renaissance Man who also took photographs, did field recordings, helped organize the legendary Friends of Old-Time Music shows that brought Roscoe Holcomb and others to New York, and, in his later years, played in the Downhill Strugglers with Jackson Lynch and festival organizer Eli Smith. So it was natural that there’d be a tribute to Cohen at this year’s festival. It was heartfelt, with many performers, including Smith, Lynch, Brown, Tim Eriksen, Peter K. Siegel, Brett Ratliff and others. Siegel, a fellow Friends organizer, said he’s worked with Cohen “on projects and off for half a century.”

Eriksen is a national folk treasure, even though he often played punk rock in his band Cordelia’s Dad. His is an early singing style, out of the shape notes and often unaccompanied—though he is a gifted guitar and fiddle player. Most affecting was “The Blackest Crow” and a long Irish ballad about a jolly tinker that somehow led to some Tuvan throat singing. He’s a historian, too, and told us about “The Great Disappointment” when William Miller’s prophesies about the end of the world in 1844 did not come true. Gabriel did not blow his horn, but at least Eriksen got a ballad out of it. Here’s a video of “Pumpkintown”:

The Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band, from Canada, is a male/female team that writes original songs in the jug tradition. Good songs too.

Minnie Heart has a vintage voice that reminds me of Maria Muldaur. “Oh Boy” was about getting really high. Here’s the video evidence:

Stillhouse Serenade was an interesting mix, sort of a jazz/folk combo. Material included a song from the jazzier side of Ray Charles repertoire and Ramsey Lewis’ “The In Crowd.” I wanted to hear the harmonica player, Trip Henderson, sing more. Guitarist Mary Olive Smith got to do a couple numbers, including Gillian Welch’s “Tear That Stillhouse Down.” Piano player Charles Giordano, a regular with Bruce Springsteen, was a treat to hear.

Stillhouse Serenade was an interesting folk/jazz mix. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Lovestruck Balladeers I’ve already mentioned. They had a field day with some Scott Joplin rags, essayed some originals, and even tackled Erik Satie. And don’t let me forget Ukrainian Village Voices, who sounded stirringly Kyiv but are from the East Village, and the Ban Chinese Music Society, whose pipa player was amazing—and a good MC, too.

The Ban Chinese Music Society. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Brooklyn Folk Festival is held at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, which opened in 1847. The self-taught artisan William Jay Bolton made the 54 stained-glass windows (one is lost). I hadn’t noticed before a brass plate in the floor of the aisle that read, “Thomas Messenger, To the Glory of God, 1883.”

Queen Esther fronts the Black Rose of Texas band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Over to Dizzy’s Club in midtown Manhattan. The Black Rose of Texas band was set up for country swing, but was very eclectic, with great singers on hand. Queen Esther asked why she never saw people who looked like her in the old Gunsmoke reruns, although there were lots of African-Americans in the Wild West. (See my book, The Real Dirt on America’s Frontier Outlaws.)

The band with Poindexter on guitar included Minnie Jordan on fiddle, Jeff DeMaio on pedal steel, Jarrett Engel on bass and Steve Williams on drums, and together they tore in an instrumental named “Speedin’ West” that highlighted DeMaio’s steel guitar.

Poindexter, who has a fine tenor voice, sang a rousing version of his great-grandfather’s favorite song, Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again.” For “Time Changes Everything,” a Bob Wills favorite, DeMaio offered serviceable vocals.

Then it was time for the women. Queen Esther took us traveling down Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Lonesome Road.” She sounded great in front of a country band. Sister Tharpe, a mean guitarist, is said to have invented rock and roll—“Elvis copied her, Chuck Berry copied her,” Esther said—but she works in country, too.

Then out came the incomparable Kat Edmonson. She’s a jazz singer through and through, but for this show she donned cowboy duds and sang “Don’t Fence Me In.” But it’s OK because it was written by Cole Porter for a failed Broadway show, and that music is the essence of the Great American Songbook.

Esther’s version of Wanda Jackson’s “Big Iron Skillet” was a female empowerment anthem that echoed the late Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Then out came Synead Cidney Nichols, the evening’s third singer, to rock out on “Cow Cow Boogie.” She’s new to me, comes to New York by way of Trinidad and Tobago, and will make her mark soon. She said she didn’t know much about cowboys, but on stage she got the gist.

“I Had Someone Else Before I Had You,” from 1946, was another great take from Kat Edmonson. She pointed out what I already knew, that bluegrass, jazz and blues all went into the country-swing mix, but then added that polka was in there, too. That I didn’t know.

And they did “Sister Kate,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Stay a Little Longer” with the four singers in combinations, and another Wills feature, “Faded Love” (as an instrumental). Sad to say, after that it was over. Too short! This multi-colored country-swing thing in repertoire has some legs. Let’s hope Black Star gets together again.

A Balmy Caffeine and Carburetors

As MC Peter Bush, my partner in the WPKN Old Cars in the Driveway podcast, regularly puts it, nobody gets an award, and nobody is in charge–it’s the perfect formula for a successful auto show. Caffeine and Carburetors, in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut, brings together 1,400 or so cars of every possible description, from million-dollar supercars to handmade whimsy.

For instance, there was some kind of tacked-together car built on a Chrysler chassis for a Daughter of Bonnie and Clyde movie that was never released, McLarens. Rolls-Royces, Minis, art cars, a turqoise-and-white Metropolitan convertible with modern Mazda power, and anything else you could imagine. There are Porsche 911s for miles. Here’s a few highlights from the September 18, 2022 event:

This is a Ford GT, a descendant of the GT40 that famously won Le Mans. A guy standing next to it was telling the owner, “When I sold my Generation Five Viper….”
This Mercedes-Benz art car drew a lot of interest.
Parked next to the Benz was this over-the-top Buick Skylark. The owner has been working on it for 18 years–will it ever be finished?
The Kaiser Darrin, with doors that slide into the bodywork, sold in tiny numbers and are rarely seen. This example was beautifully restored.
A gorgeous Maserati 3500 GT convertible fronts a pair of Rolls-Royces. (You can’t see the Corniche, but it’s there.)
This Morris Mini Cooper had such go-faster accoutrements as wire headlight covers, leather bonnet hold-downs, and Minilite wheels.
The 1963 Dodge Polara had 426-cubic-inch Ramcharger power. I owned a 1963 Dodge, too, but it had a Slant Six that was half the size.
The only Saab I saw was this very nice 99 GL.

This is an ultra-rare Toyota Century, a Japanese-market-only executive car. They came with lace draperies for the seats.

This Valiant wagon from…1962? was on the move. The action starts early–and starts to break up early, too, around 10:30 a.m. or so.
The place was mobbed.

The next Caffeine and Carburetors is in Waveny Park in New Canaan, Connecticut October 23. It’s worth a trip from anywhere.

Upstate New York Meets New Orleans at Oldtone Lite 2022

HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—Every music festival has its discoveries, and at Oldtone Lite in Hillsdale, New York—an elegiac end-of-season gathering—it was one JP Harris. He’s not a new artist, and I’d already heard his first old-time album—but live he was a revelation.

Sophie Wellington on fiddle and JP Harris on homemade banjo at Oldtone Lite. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harris was billed as offering a honky-tonk set as the closer on Friday night. Before that I’d seen him and four banjos in a delightful duo with Sophie Wellington (fiddle and dancing). The repertoire was much of Harris’ Don’t You Marry No Railway Man album, which is mostly another duo with Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show).

Although Harris is relatively new to old-time, he’s already a master performer in the genre. He gets the blood and guts at the core of it. Old-time, at its best, is about as far from the cleaned-up college folk of the Kingston Trio and Burl Ives as you can get—it’s murder ballads, songs of tragedy, misfortune and hard times.

Wellington and Harris were magic together. Here’s proof:

Not convinced? Here’s more proof:

And even more:

I didn’t get any photos or video of Harris’ honky-tonk set, mainly because I was freezing. But also mesmerized. With an all-star band of fiddle, pedal steel, piano, guitar and bass, Harris, an Alabama native, ripped through a bunch of hard country music (the kind Merle Haggard, George Jones and Porter Waggoner used to play), most of it about drinking and lost love—and often the combination of the two. Harris, who will tour Europe next March, has made three fine albums in this vein. Especially check out I’ll Keep Calling.

Ferd! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ferd, a beard-and-baseball-cap New Orleans band out the Hackensaw Boys featuring fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Ferd Moyse, played a rousing set, then came back and played on the between-set “Tweener Stage.” It’s a brilliant idea, because it means the music never lets up. But bathroom breaks are hard. “It’s All on Account of You” and “I Found My Own Today” were highlights of the Ferd set; at their best, they are reminiscent of the Holy Modal Rounders.  

The Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were good times personified. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The also New Orleans-based Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were simply wonderful, featuring Matt Bell and Joy Patterson of Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings—a perennial Oldtone favorite and at the earlier 2022 Oldtone show. Like Roochie Toochie, the emphasis is on early jazz—really early, like 1915 to 1920 early. This band isn’t quite as theatrical—no fezzes—but Patterson, also a fine singer, made great sounds on her little instruments. Highlights were “Nobody but My Baby” and a Jimmie Rodgers song, “Any Old Time.” How far back does “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” go? Apparently at least to a recording by Guy Lombardo in 1936.

Here are the Bad Pennies on video:

And again:

Also from New Orleans, and featuring some of the same musicians, was Tuba Skinny.

Tuba Skinny are New Orleans institutions, with more than 10 albums out. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Like the Pennies, the repertoire is trad jazz, Clarence Williams to King Oliver, but also jug band music, spirituals, country blues, string band music, ragtime, and New Orleans R&B. They are exemplars of the styles, and kudos to them for making the old 78s come alive. Here they are on video:

Moonshine Holler was heard in old-time duo and trio formats, playing ancient stuff like “Hop High the Ladies” and “Coming Across Texas.”

Moonshine Holler with Paula Bradley and Pete Killeen. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Leader Paula Bradley was an MVP at Oldtone, also playing piano in JP Harris’ country band. Like him, she’s a scholar of the old music, and will tell you just which 78 was scoured for the song she’s going to do. But like Harris she also plays the honky tonks. Accompanist Pete Killeen is a very versatile musician.

The Downhill Strugglers were Jackson Lynch and Walker Shepard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Like the festival, it was Downhill Strugglers Lite, with banjo player Eli Smith missing—he was probably off organizing the upcoming Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is October 20 to 23 this year. Never mind, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch were fine as a duo, offering oldies like “Big Ball in Memphis,” “Short Life of Trouble,” “Old Aunt Betsy,” “Utah Carol.” The latter, which Marty Robbins also recorded, is a fine tale about a cowboy saving a ranch owner’s daughter from a cattle stampede. “It’s sad and action-packed,” Lynch said.

The Lucky Five were the Lucky Four. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Lucky Five are another regular old-time jazz act at Oldtone, with the sound of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli as the base. Guitarist Kip Beacco is to be thanked as a main organizer of this peerless event. The Five were the Four at Oldtone, and not even on the bill, but they managed to get in a few numbers at the Tweener stage. Including this version of “Cuckoo,” captured on video:

Jesse Legé—another Oldtone regular—brought more of New Orleans to the Hillsdale stage, with the event’s only cajun music.

Jesse Lege and his mostly female band brought cajun music to the party. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the uncharacterizable Dumpster Debbie, featuring fiddling savant Wellington.

Dumpster Debbie! (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Debbies don’t sing much: the fare is mostly fiddle-based instrumental material, but it moved out.

The Tom Petty Project rocked my local park in Fairfield, Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

After the show my wife and I returned to Connecticut, where an exuberant Lincoln Parkapalooza was in progress, featuring music on my neighbors’ porches and an evening performance by the Tom Petty Project. It’s all music, isn’t it?

Rhythm & Roots is Back!

CHARLESTOWN, RHODE ISLAND—For a while, it looked like the illness of founding producer Chuck Wentworth was going to kill the much-loved Rhythm & Roots Festival in Rhode Island forever. Wentworth started the festival in 1998, and I’ve been attending since my kids were tiny.

Fortunately at the last minute Tyler Grill and GoodWorks Entertainment swooped in like Mighty Mouse to save the day. Grill, who started out booking big mainstream artists like Alicia Keys and 50 Cent, got into the Americana business in my home town of Fairfield, Connecticut, saving another institution in need—the Fairfield Theatre Company. The company also books shows at the Infinity Theaters in Hartford and Norfolk, Connecticut.

I interviewed Grill on WPKN before the festival, and asked what was changed from the Wentworth era. “Nothing,” he said, and that proved to be true. The setting, down to the precise placement of the banners and tents, was exactly the same as always. And the music mostly followed suit.

Rosie Newton and Paul Martin up front with Rose and the Bros. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The highlight for me wasn’t a headliner—it was Rose and Bros from Ithaca, New York, first encountered last year at Rhythm and Roots. Rose Newton, also half of the folk duo Richie (Stearns) And Rosie, is a musical force. She plays accordion and fiddle with equal assurance, and also sings beautifully—mostly cover songs and originals by her life and bandmate, Paul Martin (who’s also a farmer, owner of Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, New York (near Ithaca).

There’s an Ithaca sound, I think. It’s a relentless folk/cajun-inflected boogie groove. Accordions and fiddles and guitars in the front line. Ithaca-based Donna the Buffalo—who’ve had that sound for decades, and have built an audience through being great and relentless touring—were also at Rhythm and Roots, playing not once but twice.

Rose gets the groove going on accordion, Greg Evans kicks in on drums and Angelo Peters on bass, backed by Sally Freund on rubboard and triangle. Martin sings some, Newton sings some, and then they have these furious instrumental rave-ups—sometimes on twin fiddles. Steve Selin is the regular fiddle player, but with Newton doubling it’s an angelic noise.

Donna the Buffalo in full cry at Rhythm and Roots. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Donna was equally inspired in Rhode Island, honed on the road and with a lot of fine new songs to showcase. I’m sure they’ll show up on records soon. Tara Nevins—like Newton—often drives the band with her unusual electric fiddle or accordion. The last few times I’ve seen them, an extended fiddle solo—the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Vassar Clements—was a real crowd pleaser. Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear come out of old-time music, and its’ spirit is alive in their music—no matter how hard-driving it gets. I’d love to see the Buffalo and the Bros touring together. ‘’

Here’s Rose and Bros on “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”:

And here’s Rose and the Bros doing Michael Hurley’s “Blue Driver,” an old one:

Cajun and zydeco music are king at Rhythm and Roots, centered on the dance stage. Cedric Watson, an erudite Cajun accordion and fiddle player, led his band Bijou Creole. Watson is a veteran of Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers and Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, as well as another ubiquitous act at Rhythm and Roots, the Pine Leaf Boys. The songs ranged from antique Cajun songs from the earliest days of recording in the 1920s to “I’ve Got a Rag on Top of My Head” (he did, too) and “Lazy John.”

The versatile Cedric Watson knows his Cajun music history. (Jim Motavalli photo)

From a fiddle workshop with Watson and Pine Leaf Boy Chris Segura, I learned that when the accordion came into Cajun music it’s more basic abilities changed the sound forever—in some cases simplifying it. C and D accordions made it into Cajun music by 1925, just as the music was first being recorded.

This is critical: “The Cajun Dennis McGee and the Creole Amedé Ardoin traveled together to New Orleans, recording together in 1929 and 1930, and in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934. ”Ardoin [accordion] was Black, McGee [fiddle] white—a highly significant meeting in that time and place.

The Pine Leaf Boys are another Louisiana-based band with great respect for the music’s traditions. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Wilson Savoy (son of famous Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy), the Pine Leaf Boys are inheritors of the tradition laid down by Ardoin and Iry Lejeune, among others. But there’s nothing academic about ‘em—a good time band.

The Sweet Willy Band, with Wilson Savoy on piano. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Savoy, in his capacity as Sweet Willy Allen, also led a swinging big band on piano, performing old rock, rockabilly and R&B classics. It was a first-time thing, he said, but they sure sounded rehearsed in a program that embraced Jerry Lee Lewis (a Savoy fave), Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Scott Newman was a standout on the tenor sax.

And speaking of musical blends, Los Texmaniacs managed to fuse the Sir Douglas Quintet with Los Lobos for a rocking time at the Texas-Mexico border. Songs in Spanish or English, it didn’t matter to them.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas all the way from New Orleans. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And don’t let me forget Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, who’ve I’ve seen both in Rhode Island and in their native New Orleans. Nathan is a great front man and accordion player, which is best demonstrated on video here:

Bands that didn’t click with me for various reasons included Grace Potter, Willie J. Laws Band, the Superchief Trio, the Honey Island Swamp Band and the New Orleans Suspects. Sometimes too many ingredients don’t add up to successful stew.

So all in all it was a great time in Rhode Island, and I’m very grateful that this festival lives on.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: A Test of Bridgestone’s DriveGuard Run-Flat Tires

During most of the automobile’s recorded history, cars carried spare tires—sometimes in the early days, several of them (because of frequent punctures) in twin sidemounts or out back. Along with the tires as standard equipment was a jack (often in several pieces) and a jack handle. Part of driver’s ed was learning how to change a tire—don’t forget to use the approved jacking points!

Bridgestone DriveGuard Plus tires are standard equipment on certain BMW models. (Bridgestone photo)

I mention all of this because spare tires and jacks may soon become part of history. Not only are today’s cars being shipped with temporary spares (good for 50 miles or so) but the jack has been largely jettisoned. These steps are being taken to save weight—which is particularly important in heavy electric cars. Many cars today have no spare or jack, and come with small air compressors that work in concert with spray sealant to temporarily repair a flat. Or that’s what is supposed to happen—I’ve never successfully used that combination.

And another reason why jacks will soon be seen only in thrift shops is the run-flat tire. As the name implies, run-flats resist deflation and can keep you on the road after a puncture. The idea goes back to 1934, when Michelin introduced a tire for commuter trains and trolleys that had a “safety rim” inside that could run on a foam lining after a puncture.

Passenger cars got run-flats in 1958, when Chrysler and Goodyear teamed up on Captive Air tires. In 1972, Dunlop introduced the Total Mobility Tire and it became standard on certain Rover models. In a typical self-supporting run-flat today, the reinforced sidewall stays rigid without air pressure—and (as with compact spares) you have 50 miles of safe driving ahead before they should be removed and repaired.

Ko Denhamer’s 2003 Saab 9-5 Linear wagon with DriveGuards installed. (Ko Denhamer photo)

Ian McKenney, a spokesman for Bridgestone, said in an interview that the DriveGuard line was launched in 2014 as the company’s first run-flat line, and has now been updated as DriveGuard Plus touring tires. Run-flats are generally 20 to 40 percent heavier, but McKenney said that running them eliminates the need to carry a spare—providing a 50-pound weight saving, plus the jack.

McKenney said that when a tire is punctured and goes to zero pounds per square inch inflation, rubber inserts in the tire keep its shape and stay on the wheel. “You can drive 50 miles at up to 50 mph,” he said. “It will get you home or to the tire shop. Driving any further than that is not recommended, because as the tire rolls it compresses and that compression generates heat—the enemy of rubber. The tire will lose its chemical integrity and soften.” Certain types of damage to run-flats—as in sidewall punctures—may not be repairable.

The DriveGuards ready to be installed. (Ko Denhamer photo)

Not many new cars come with run-flats, but Bridgestone has an arrangement with BMW, most of whose models are so-equipped. Cars that come with run-flat tires also have Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) because otherwise you might not even know the tire was impaired.

The DriveGuards, with a 65,000-mile wear warranty, come in 19 sizes. “They’re an excellent touring tire that just happens to be run-flat,” McKenney said. Curiosity about Bridgestone’s DriveGuard run-flats led to this test. I have old cars with smaller tires, so the test DriveGuards went to my friend Ko Denhamer near Philadelphia, to try out on his 122,000-mile 2003 Saab 9-5 Linear wagon with manual transmission.

Ko reports putting close to 1,000 miles on the DriveGuards during the extra-hot July and August weather. The tires were inflated to 35 psi front and 32 psi rear, as per the Saab manual. Ko compares them to the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3 tires that were on the wagon previously.

“I’ve run the Bridgestones on a mix of running errands around town and twisty winding backroads as well as highway driving at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 80 mph,” Ko said. “We’re in a drought, so the roads were mostly dry, though there was occasional light rain. Some rough road surfaces were encountered.”

Ko says the tires are similar to the Michelins in providing a comfortable ride, as well as the same quiet operation. “Good cornering, and I think the Bridgestone DriveGuard Pluses may actually feel slightly more planted and solid. All in all, great handling and comfort I really wouldn’t know they’re run-flat tires if I hadn’t mounted them myself. There’s not a trace of hard handling or stiffness. They’re really a good all-around tire with the benefit of run-flat safety built in.”

Ko also notes that when he removed the Saab’s now-unnecessary spare “it had zero tire pressure. The valve stem had failed. With run-flats I won’t have to worry about that.”

Run-flat tires won’t be for everyone, but in an auto environment where weight is critical they’re likely to have a future. The next step is solid tires with no air in them at all—Michelin showed such a VISION tire at its Movin’ On event in Montreal in 2019, but actual commercial production is still in the future.

Great Music Around Connecticut

If you’re alert and pay attention to the calendar, there’s lots of great music around—and much of it is free! I would have gone to even more long-form events—very sorry to have missed the Oldtone Festival this year—but COVID reared its ugly head.

But both before and after getting the virus I saw three fine shows, detailed here.

I never miss an opportunity to see Bill and the Belles, a unique country music ensemble, now a trio consisting of singer/songwriter/musical historian Kris Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle and banjo/banjo-uke player Aidan VanSuetendael. On August 2, they were at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport—free! The venue has 60 free shows a year.

Bill is Kris Truelsen (center) with Kalia Yeagle (left) and Aidan VanSuetendael.

Truelsen is a scholar of early country music, and hosts shows at Radio Bristol—based at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tennessee. He and the band are also the hosts of Farm and Fun Time, a television show that celebrates the music and agricultural heritage of the South. It’s been on PBS stations in just the Southeast, but it’s going nationwide—stay tuned for more information.

Ridgefield, Connecticut is home to the (also free) CHIRP concerts, a creation of the redoubtable Barbara Manners—who has excellent taste in music. A lot of the shows are on Tuesdays, when I have my WPKN show, so I don’t get to as many shows as I’d like. But I did make it to see Slade Cleaves—on my birthday, August 4.

Slaid Cleaves.

Slade is an heir of Merle Haggard, if the latter played at folk venues. He celebrates the working-class blues. He writes devastating songs, often set in bars, about despair. “I’m not an innovator. I’m more of a keeper of the flame,” he says. Here’s a bit of the lyrics of “Broke Down”:

Sherry had a pawn shop band of gold
A sink full of dishes and a love grown cold
Along came a boy, pretty as the devil
She took his hand, the whole thing unraveled

There’s no turnin’ round, it’s broke down

Billy took the ring, jammed it in his pocket
Drove down town and tried to hock it
Down at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain
There’s a love note carved inside a wedding ring

Here’s the video:

I also went to an excellent jazz show at the Torrington Historical Society. In the garden of an old mansion, we listened to a one-off group consisting of leader Adam Nussbaum (a Connecticut native) on drums, saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, Larry Ham on piano and Dave Santoro on bass. They played one standard—“Alone Together”—and then mostly Santoro’s tunes.

Jerry Bergonzi in Torrington. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Nussbaum and Bergonzi are old friends, and both celebrated jazz musicians. They both played with consummate authority. Nussbaum—who’s on hundreds of records—is a fount of energy, and Bergonzi creates his own thing from the legacies of bebop, post-bop and swing. It was fun. Pianist Ham was perhaps a bit subdued for the company but he really added to the ballads.

Bergonzi will be on my WPKN radio show August 23 at 9 p.m.

Tatiana Eva-Marie with guitarist Dennis Pol in Westport. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And finally I saw, August 14, Tatiana Eva-Marie and her Avalon Jazz Band, again at Levitt Pavilion. Fascinating band, channeling the music of Django Reinhardt, but with Eva-Marie adding vocals and her own lyrics to a lot of the tunes. Mostly, she sang in French (she is originally from Switzerland, now in Brooklyn) but English for songs like Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and the Gershwins’ “Lady be Good.”

She’s a fine, expressive singer and a lively MC who acts out her songs with spirited hand gestures. And the band was stellar—Dan Rosenbloom was on accordion and Dennis Pol (who has his own acoustic quartet) on guitar. Berklee grad Seoyeon Im was on violin (Stephane Grappelli’s part) and she was superb, as was bassist Wallace Stelzer. It was the first time Eva-Marie has played with Im, but you’d never know. More will be heard from her. Here’s Tatiana with a completely different band–she gets around:

Paul is a fine guitarist, but comes out of more modern players like Wes Montgomery as much as Django himself. No harm done there. Classics such as “Nuages” and “Djangology” were played, as well as obscurities such as “Sweet Chorus”—now with new lyrics.

Eva-Marie is soon to appear in a new movie, Swing Rendez-Vous, which she co-wrote with French director Gérome Barry. It’s coming out in February 2023. So she and Truelsen have something in common—they do well on screen.

In Search of Parse Nelson

At the Friends of the Jacksonville [Florida] Library resale bookstore recently, I bought for $2 Tennessee Traditional Singers: Tom Ashley, Sam McGee and Bukka White (University of Tennessee Press, 1981, edited by Thomas G. Burton).  It’s a very good book, undoubtedly hard to find now. But Amazon, which has five million more popular books, will sell it to you for $9.45.  

The story of three legends.

All three profiles are worth reading, but I was struck by a passage in Sam McGee’s story. He was born around 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee, on a farm near the town of Franklin. It was a rural upbringing in the days before recorded music, but there was still plenty of it around. I.

n later years, McGee—half of the McGee brothers, composer of “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and a noted guitar accompanist of the great comic banjo player Uncle Dave Macon—knew hundreds of songs, but one he half remembered dogged at him.

McGee’s early teacher, maybe around 1905 or earlier, was a local man. “Tom Hood taught me a lot, taught me songs, too,” McGee said. “One of his numbers was an old song called ‘Parse Nelson,’ which started out:

Parse Nelson was a bully;

He bullied all his life.

He bullied all over the wide world

With a ten-cent Barlow knife.

I don’t remember any more of it. I can’t even find anyone that knows anything about that song, and I ask everyone about it. It must be about 150 years old.”

OK, so a song that’s now more than 200 years old the (the book was published in 1981, and McGee died in a freak tractor accident in 1975) is hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads. I tried Googling the song “Parse Nelson” and got only the Burton book.

But another U of Tennessee book, Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee by the late Charles K. Wolfe (who also wrote the McGee section of the other volume), opines that “Parse Nelson” could be a version of a song called “Leslie the Gambler” that “may have been reasonably well known in Middle Tennessee around the turn of the century.” If so, the song doesn’t have much of a paper trail now.

But we do have lyrics to “Leslie the Gambler”:

Leslie was a gambler,

And dead up to the times,

‘Twas him that killed Parson Nelson,

And didn’t have to pay no fine.


Told you once, told you twice,

Told you if I told you the third time,

I’d be bound to take your life.

Oh my baby,

Why don’t you come home?

Hmmm, now Parse (obviously short for Parson) Nelson is a murder victim, and no one was too sad about it. Leslie the gambler did him in. Goes with the bullying, don’t you think? It’s impossible to tell where or when this murder occurred, or even if it did. Ample research shows us that many murder ballads, such as “Knoxville Girl,” originated in England and then changed locations once they made it across the Atlantic.

This appears to be about as far as I can go, because I can’t find a record of a long-ago murder of a Parson Nelson. But at least now if you Google “Parse Nelson,” more things will come up! And maybe Sam McGee is resting a little easier in his grave. Here’s Sam and Kirk McGee playing “Buck Dancer’s Choice”:

Two Summer Festivals, Caramoor and Green River 2022

KATONAH, NEW YORK and GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—When you go to two Americana festivals in two days you hear quite a lot of music. And that was certainly the case for me at the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival in Katonah and Signature Sounds’ Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. But two performances were so luminous I have to lead with them. 

Brennen Leigh was glorious. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Molly Tuttle has been making a lot of waves, and rightly so. Guitarists lined up to see her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” because the fingerpicking is amazing. More than one million views! But it took until her new album Crooked Tree that the full range of her songwriting, singing and guitar playing came together on disc.

Leigh’s solo set was joined by members of Asleep at the Wheel. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On that new record, Tuttle writes songs in the bluegrass tradition, very suited to her band’s virtuosity. Her biggest influence here is probably Gillian Welch, but that’s not a problem! Songs like “Dooley’s Farm” definitely tap into her well. What’s interesting here is that Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, far from those bluegrass hills. But that’s true of Gillian Welch (born in New York City!) also.

Molly Tuttle with bassist Shelby Means–who sings, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

 Crooked Tree is amazing, but it pales in comparison to Tuttle live at Caramoor’s open-air Venetian Theater. The energy level was incredibly high—imagine a metal band plugged into a towering Marshall stack. There wasn’t much room for balladry, but a huge amount of did-they-really-just-play-that wizardry. On “Sleepy-Eyed John” alone I thought the room would levitate, or at least the instruments catch fire. The group deserves to be identified by name: Molly on guitar and lead vocals, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo and Shelby Means on bass and occasional vocals. 

Molly Tuttle and killer band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s not enough just to buy the album. This group really needs to be heard live.

Over at Green River, I was eagerly anticipating the Brennen Leigh set on the strength of her last two albums, and she did not disappoint. Just out is Obsessed with the West, which is a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel. Given that group’s predilection and 50-year commitment to the music of Bob Wills, it’s safe to say that the album is country swing. But instead of rehashing the overly familiar—but brilliant!—Wills repertoire, Leigh had the effrontery to write an entire album of songs in that vein.

It would have been wasted effort if the music didn’t measure up, but it does! At Green River, Asleep at the Wheel was also on the bill. Leigh’s own set was backed by Wheel’s rhythm section and one of the two fiddle players, and they did a great job of interpreting mostly songs from Prairie Love Letter, the album before Obsessed.

What’s fascinating is that Tuttle does a great job with a tradition from hills that are a long way from where she grew up, but Leigh revisits her youth in North Dakota farm country with cinematic clarity and great poignancy. “John Deere H” is seen through her father’s eyes, when he was eight year old and got to drive the family’s 1943 tractor for the first time. “He listened to it, and said it sounded like he talked,” Leigh said. “Billy and Beau” is about a chaste same-sex obsession that takes place around a 4-H farm competition.

Later that day, Leigh got on stage with the Wheel and did her “Texas with a Band.” The video is above. Ray Benson, the group’s leader, was in fine form. I’m sure he’d agree with her song “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice was Booze (I’d Stay Drunk All the Time).” Tommy Duncan was the Wills’ vocalist, though many people thought it was Wills himself hootin’ and hollerin’.

Leigh is a powerhouse singer and guitarist, too. Check her out. Asleep on their own were damned good, too. The pedal steel guitarist is from Rome, though you’d never know it. Like jazz, country is a universal language.

These were music festivals, so there were a lot more performers than just those two. Here are a few highlights:

Black Opry Revue was a huge hit at Caramoor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Black Opry describes itself as “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music.” The Black Opry Revue came to Caramoor with four of its members doing a concert in the round. I was especially taken with Riki Stevens (from Norwalk, CT, where I was born) and Tae Lewis. The latter played a separate show in the sunken garden, where Lewis unveiled his song “We’ve Got a Lot to Drink About.” It’s a goodtime party song for hard times, and Lewis—with a deeply soulful voice—is a Bill Withers for our time. Stevens has both strongly emotive songs and a really flexible, expressive voice. Roberta Lea did a very warm family song about introducing kids to genius—in the car with fried chicken, “Dinner, Sunset ad Nina Simone.”

Suitcase Junket’s reunion tour at Caramoor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The motor-mouthed one-man band Suitcase Junket is always fun to see. He writes darkly quirky and rootsy songs with bluesy guitar grooves. “Just Another Human Disaster” was one. I think I heard him singing about “black holes and overdoses.” He said that band arguments sometimes escalate, and that he was on “the reunion tour.”

Kittel and Co. go for diversity. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kittel & Co. are a three-piece folk-classical ensemble led by violin player Jeremy Kittel. Their music was inventive and well-crafted, albeit not very emotionally involving. The material ranged from Bach interpretations to a Django/Grappelli-adjacent version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with some Tom Petty thrown in.

Rebecca Haviland and Whiskey Heart didn’t make much of an impression. Her strongest song was “Black Dog,” a Led Zeppelin cover. Over at Green River, the Green Sisters got by on their sibling harmony, and some good covers of Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” Dustbowl Revival was a bit spotty, but the highs were fairly high.

Matthew Fowler and his horn section at Green River. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Florida-based Matthew Fowler is new to me, but I liked his voice and songs, and his two female accompanists who doubled as the horn section (clarinet and oboe).

Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield). Is folk-rock ok? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield) was punchy and compelling onstage. Her expressive voice glided over the strong folk-rock arrangements, which featured a killer drummer. My guess is she’d reject the folk-rock tag (in favor of something punkier), but maybe not—she’s a big Lucinda Williams fan, and covered one of her songs (“Fruits of My Labor”) onstage.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for Allison Russell. I like her solo albums, and her work with Birds of Chicago. At Green River she seemed to be talking and speechifying as much as singing. Deva Mahal was best when singing covers. She has a powerful voice like Odetta’s, and is Taj Mahal’s daughter.

Deva Mahal in full cry. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the Young@Heart Chorus, who had a prime-time slot. You have to be 75 or older to join. My wife was reduced to tears by their version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” But all their material isn’t so folkie. They do the Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated.”

Many other festival weekends coming up. Stay tuned.