19 March 2019

RYAN LEE CROSBY BAND - RiVER MUSiC - 2018


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"The title River Music refers to my experience of playing in the band which I feel is like riding on a rushing river. I see each of the songs as something like cups of water from the river of sound."


If blues musics are to survive this popno-tomorrow-is-already-boring-world it has to mutate and evolve, meander and stretch, and that's just what Ryan Lee Crosby does with his new album 
River Music by going forward into the past via India, and Malian desert music tones transmogrified via Mississippi hill country trance/drone vibes.

With a voice that travels a dusty road between the high nasal old-timey tenor of "old weird America" and the warm, cracked leather of Townes Van Zandt, Crosby is not merely an interesting and uncommon singer, but a skilled lyricist, as well. His lyrics for If You Are To Suffer, are far from your typical baby done left me blues trope,
If you are to suffer/ Know you’re not alone, No one in this world makes it on their own, Some are born to struggle, some are born to ease, Some are born to wealth, some to poverty, But one day each of us will be brought to our knees.”
Crosby's music is engaging and music for listening and traveling by audio. For example, the interplay between instruments on RL Burnside's Goin' Down South do well to represent Crosby's amalgam or mash-up of traditional blues with the intricate, fluid drone of Sahel desert music with non-western tones of droning raga music, but here he's added Stooges-like saxophone, played by Texan by way of Ethiopia (and no doubt making Stooge saxist Steve Mackay proud) Danny Mekonnen, comes burnished cherry-red and takes Burnside's hill country groove to a place unimagined by Burnside or anyone else for that matter. Brilliantly assisted by the great harmonicist Jay Scheffler, formerly of Boston's world-renowned Ten Foot Pole Cats, with 
Koushik Chakrabarty on tabla, Philip Kaplan on the Gui‘tarode (per Crosby, a fretless modified Stratocaster made to sound like an electric sarod) and Grant Smith on calabash and percussion, Crosby's outfit brushes the wear and tear off Burnside's well-worn classic making it delightfully dangerous and menacing again.

Remember the words of Crosby's fellow Bostonian Ted Drozdowski (now an ex-pat Nashvillian) as you listen:  "...authenticity without evolution isn't authenticity, but mimicry. And not terribly authentic or interesting at all."
 



**** Interview with Ryan Lee Crosby ****


RS: Your previous albums show your love of solo country blues. How did your embrace and study of classical Hindustani music and Malian desert music come about, and was there a lightbulb moment where you said, "A-ha!" It's all connected?

RLC: There was! in 2013, I had one of those "a-ha" moments while listening to
Michael Chapman's "Thank You PK" off his 1969 album Rainmaker. What he played on that song wasn't even really blues or raga, but it had a droning slide sound with a suggestion of eastern influences and hearing that was like being struck by lightning. Around that same time, I had also been listening to a lot of RL Burnside and Robert Belfour, alongside Sandy Bull and Robbie Basho. I was also starting to get into 12 string and tuning it down to C, which is where a lot of raga music is played. My 12 string has a wide neck, like a baseball bat, which made me think of a sitar the first time I picked it up... and because a lot of hill country music is played with a single chord, sometimes with bottleneck, I was thinking about modal sounds with slide and it just all came together from there. I started researching blues and raga alongside each other and discovered the Hindustani raga guitar tradition that way. I didn't get my first Indian slide guitar until a couple of years later, but soon after I found myself sitting at the feet of masters like the late Pandit Buddhadev DasGupta, Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya (my guitar guru who I'm fortunate to see once a year) and the great vocalist Warren Senders, who I study regularly with in Boston.

In 2014, I got to hear Robert Belfour play in front of the Cat Head shop in Clarksdale, MS and that was also very inspiring and educational. Seeing his fingers up close and hearing him in person was an unforgettable experience that directly inspired a number of songs on River Music.

Sometime after seeing Mr. Belfour, I became more curious about African music, which was something that I began to explore about two years ago. And while I have barely even begun to scratch the surface, I have spent a fair amount of time with the music of Boubacar Traoré and that really inspired the approach to River Music. His music is so beautiful and moving. The combination of syncopated rhythms with bittersweet melodies and a gentle, yet driving sound really spoke to me in a way that was like nothing I had ever heard before.

RS: That's fascinating to me, because I first heard Indian slide guitar around the same time you did and I could hear in that sound beautiful drone similarities to Junior Kimbrough and Robert Belfour, just as I heard the connection between them and Mali's Ali Farka Toure and other "desert music" artists like Tinariwen, and then hearing Robert Plant and his guitarist Justin Adam's performance from Mali's Festival in The Desert in 2003 really sent me down the rabbit hole.  

Ryan Lee Crosby with the great Jay Scheffler

RLC:: Those are all great connections! I really hear a lot of resonance between Indian slide guitar and Mississippi Fred McDowell's playing, too. With the droning chords, the slide and the forward sense of momentum, I find that some of his songs sound quite good on the chaturangui. Another piece that really has a foot in each world is "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground." That really has the qualities of an alap (the opening sequence of a raga) and sounds so natural on a chaturangui. And yes, I also hear overlap between artists like Junior Kimbrough, Robert Belfour, John Lee Hooker and Lightning Hopkins with Ali Farka Touré, Boubacar Traoré, and Tinariwen. There are many more great artists from Mali who have these qualities in their music, too. Have you heard "Mississippi to Sahara" by Faris Amine? He plays a number of American blues standards in the Tuareg style and plays all the instruments, too. Leo "Bud" Welch sings and plays on two tunes, as well. That record was one of my favorites of the last few years.

RS: How difficult has it been to cross between the techniques required to play raga's and blues, or do the mechanics of both styles just make sense to you as an accomplished guitarist and teacher?

Student Ryan Lee Crosby with Professor Jimmy Duck Holmes

RLC:: I have found it tremendously challenging and rewarding to explore the similarities and

differences between raga and blues, from multiple perspectives. As I didn't grow up with either tradition, on the one hand, I try to understand as best as I can from the outside in... and on the other, I have the opportunity to resonate with both traditions in ways that are really personal. I didn't play lap style at all when I first became interested in raga... and although there are guitarists out there who can play it with a bottleneck slide, most of my blues playing didn't involve slide at all, so I really was starting from scratch with the Indian slide guitar. Fortunately, I have had some great teachers in Warren Senders and Debashish Bhattacharya and my own ongoing instincts about what I aspire to achieve, which is something that I think is again very personal and something that is a distillation of all the music that moves me, within and outside of both traditions.


With a few years behind me now, I feel that I'm getting closer in some ways to the sound I hear in my mind, but I think it could take a few more years at least to express it fully as I imagine it now. And something that I love about both the raga and blues traditions is that they are both so deep, it will take more than one lifetime to develop a complete mastery of either tradition in a comprehensive way. So, there will always be something to work on.

For me, raga music has been an especially terrific exercise in patience and humility and in developing the capacity to be at peace in the face of uncertainty. It really requires a sense of faith and trust. But, that is one of many things that I find so appealing about the music - it is helping me to develop personally, as well as musically. I find the values within the music and the discipline that is required to play it as an embodiment of the kind of experience I want to have as a human being and as a spirit.

RS: Hindustani slide guitar as a relatively young history, having only become a thing, from what I can tell because the history is a bit vague, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, and as I understand springing from the same well as all slide guitar: Hawaii. The father or popularizer of the sound and scene, Brij Bhushan Kabra, first heard Hawaiian lap steel guitar and modifying the guitar with, much like a sitar, sympathetic and drone strings. Can you talk a bit about the differences in the instruments like the instrument you play- the Chaturangui, and the Mohan Veena, and the Hansa Veena, and what attracted you to one over the other?
RLC:: Yes, Brij Bhushan Kabra (the guru to both Debashish Bhattacharya and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt), was the pioneer behind Hindustani slide guitar. He modified a Gibson archtop to be played lap style with 3 melody strings and drone strings. I've heard Debashish ji talk about Tau Moe and his family as being the link to Hawaii when he came over to perform in India during WWII. And when Debashish ji started as a young guitarist at around 3 years old, he began by learning Hawaiian tunes. So that is still a part of his playing in some respects - he can really get that sound on Chaturangui and on a 6 string lap guitar.

The Mohan Veena also has 3 melody strings, 5 chikari (drone) strings and 12 sympathetic strings, which run underneath the melody strings, like a sitar. This was the instrument that I started with. I found, though, that although this arrangement can work quite well for raga music, it was limiting for the fingerpicking blues style I had already spent years developing,
as playing with alternating bass and monotonic bass lines is a big part of the way that I play. I missed hearing those notes in the lower octave (the Mohan Veena has the equivalent of 4th, 2nd and 1st strings on a 6 string guitar) and so I had mine modified to have all 6 strings typically found on the guitar and that left me with only 2 chikari instead of 5. It worked - the chikari could still be used as a rhythmic drone as it is in raga... but when I met Debashish ji in 2016, I was really impressed by some other differences in his design - he put the chikari strings (two notes an octave apart) in front of the melody strings with two other unison drone strings in the back. This allows for many more rhythmic possibilities in the jor and jhalla sections of a raga performance and it adds a lot to a blues sound, as well. It makes the guitar sound like an orchestra and to my ears, it has a lot in common with a 12 string guitar. The chaturangui also has it's sympathetics set back from the melody strings, which make them more accessible in performance.

I have never had any direct contact with the Hansa Veena, but I know it is made by Bhabasindhu Biswas, who also makes the Mohan Veena and other stringed instruments in India. And it seems there is an ever-growing list of musicians to discover who have modified guitars for raga music. I recently met Willy Schwarz in Germany, who is an excellent musician and player of the Vichitra Veena (a video of this meeting is on my Instagram pageDuring that time, he played us a rare record in which he played a modified electric guitar for raga in the 70s. He called it the "Roy Smeck Electric Glide Sitar." You can hear it in this video at around 13:30.

.

So that is pretty amazing! Part of what I think is so exciting about these developments with the guitar is the idea of the instrument's build being yet another extension of the artist's expression. And there are some really unique visions out there.

RS: You've recently returned from a European tour. Could you talk about the band you used on that tour, and how your blues hybrid went over with audiences. Did you have to take any steps to let an audience or bookers know that this might not be their standard blues fare, or is the famously open-minded European music fan willing, as opposed to perhaps the average fan in the U.S., to accept any permutation of blues music without question? Am I being unfair or generalizing about the U.S. blues fan or do you find there to be a difference?

RLC: The band featured Jay Scheffler on harmonica and Grant Smith on calabash and hand percussion. I sang and played 12 string guitar and a Stella 6 string converted for lap style playing. I was happy to let people know in advance that we were going to be presenting our own interpretation of the blues and it seemed that by the time we got there, at least some members of the audience in each city we went to were either expecting it or excited by it once we started playing. I found that pretty much everywhere we went, people listened with open ears and hearts and appreciated hearing something new. I can understand and appreciate the reputation that European audiences have for being great listeners, as that's generally always been the case for me when I've traveled there over the last five years. Most of the time I also find American audiences to be interested in something new and different, but I have found European audiences to be consistently respectful and engaged.

This is a big part of what keeps me going back year after year. It nourishes the soul. As to whether or not there is a difference between US and EU blues fans, I can't say for sure, but I can say that the tone of the experience for me has been at least a little bit different in each of the cities and towns that I've played in around the world, which include Clarksdale, Cambridge, Seattle, Berlin, New York, Amsterdam, Milan, Zürich, Paris, Leuven and Malmö, as well as in the numerous smaller towns in Germany, Belgium, Italy, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Coming from Boston, but being strongly influenced by music from Mississippi, what I have witnessed firsthand in MS is the naturalness with which the music is presented (and listened to) there, which is perhaps a different vibe from the reverence that the rest of us around the world feel for it. In MS, I have seen and heard it played with a relaxed approach, while everywhere else, most of the rest of us come to it with a more formal enthusiasm. But, again, I can't say for sure. I'm still learning.

RS:: Boston has had a longterm love affair with blues music, either as straight blues or as a base for other music, I'm thinking of artists like yourself, Peter Parcek, Ted Drozdowski, J. Geils Band, and yes, Aerosmith. Do you have any insight as to why that is, and can you tell me about any new Boston or New England-based blues artists that are making a name for themselves or pushing the blues envelope, or poking the blues bear with a stick, so to speak?

RLC: This list includes some fine players (Ted Drozdowski and Peter Parcek are musicians I love and respect both as artists and people), but there are two other names that come to mind - Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson also grew up here and got started performing in Cambridge in the 60s. And I have to mention the great guitarist Paul Rishell, who taught me songs by Skip James, Charley Patton, Tommy McClennan, John Hurt, Barbecue Bob, Robert Johnson, Robert Wilkins, and Son House, including some picking techniques that House showed Rishell personally. Paul was also quite active on the Cambridge/New England circuit and played with many of these artists and other greats when they came through town. He continues to gig to this day with the superb harmonica player Annie Raines. Cambridge
was a hotspot for the blues in the 60s and 70s. Club 47 (now Passim) was at the center of that and they carry on the tradition still with recent shows by Todd Albright and Blind Boy Paxton. And there are some really fine musicians that are based in the greater Boston area - Danielle Miraglia, Sonny Jim Clifford, Julie Rhodes, Erin Harpe, and Big Jon Short are a few who come to mind. I think roots music, in general, is part of Cambridge's DNA and there are some really talented folks who know and appreciate the music deeply. In addition, we should also acknowledge Dick Waterman, who was one of the folks who helped "re-discover" Son House and was a major part of the folk scene in 60s' Cambridge. He helped organize blues concerts here and after locating Son House, he also helped to manage him, along with John Hurt, Skip James, Lightnin' Hopkins and more. One of his missions was to make sure the artists were all fairly compensated for their work, which has previously not been in the case.

RS: Hey, Ryan! I'm coming over to your house tomorrow to borrow three books, and listen to five records. What will you loan me, and what do you want me to hear?

RLC:

Books:
The Mysticism of Sound and Music by Hazrat Inayat Khan
The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu
Zen Master Poems by Dick Allen
Albums:
1 & 2 - Kar Kar and Mbalimaou by Boubacar Traoré
3 - Calcutta Slide Guitar by Debashish Bhattacharya
4 - "Inde Du Nord" series Raga Jog performed by Gopal Krishan on vichitra veena
5 - 22 Strings by Seckou Keita

***********************************
RS: Thanks, Ryan! This was fun.

RLC: Thanks, Rick! I really enjoyed it.

01 February 2019

BORN FOR HARD LUCK (1976)


"A rare film for blues buffs.

Between the Civil War and World War II, many gifted and restless young black musicians found careers in the traveling patent-medicine shows, a favorite entertainment in the rural and small-town South. They sang and recited comic routines and danced to attract a crowd for the pitchman and his sales of wonder-cure "snake oil."

"Born for Hard Luck" includes highlights from Peg Leg Sam's performance at a North Carolina county fair in 1972, the only film record of a live medicine show. It gives excerpts from his comic routines, a mock chanted sermon, "toasts," folktales, three buck dances, and his brilliant harmonica playing and singing of "Reuben Train," "Greasy Greens," "Hand Me Down," "Who Left My Backdoor Running," and "Froggie Went A-Courting."

Peg Leg Sam seems most proud of his skill on the harmonica: "I've met a heap of good harp players, but they were scared of me when I came into town. I was a young fellow and could suck on a harp! I was playing two harps--one in my mouth and one in my nose." Other harp players could justifiably be scared of his tour-de-force "Fox Chase" (on both Flyright LP-505 and Trix 3302), performances probably unmatched on records. But Peg's incidental criticism of other musicians during a jam session at Chapel Hill in 1973 showed that he is also aware of his own superior sense of pitch and rhythm. And he is a master of vocal and instrumental tone color and phrasing. Jackson also shows great individuality and freedom in reworking older pieces. His "John Henry" (Flyright LP-507A) opens like a fairly stock version of the ballad, but the death of the hero gets lost amid intricate train imitations and demonstrations of Peg's ability to play the harmonica through his nose and without hands and to drop the instrument and catch it without losing a beat of the song. His two recordings of "Back Door" (Flyright 508B and Trix 3302) share few beyond their opening stanzas. Peg even stamps "Froggie Went A-Courting" with his signature in its final verses. Conversely, in his spoken narrative he makes an artistic performance of even accounts of his own experiences--establishing setting, mimicking voices, punctuating the accounts with his medicine-show refrains ("Funny things happen in this world!") and doubtless freely inventing grotesque episodes, as when he tells of scratching the old lady's nose with his claws when he left Buffalo." Via 
www.imdb.com






27 December 2018

MUSiCMEMORY.ORG via Your Friends at DUST-TO-DiGiTAL


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The Current State of Our Preservation Efforts via Your Friends at DUST-TO-DiGiTAL:

As 2018 draws to a close, we wanted to give you an update on the work our nonprofit Music Memory has been doing. So far, almost 50,000 recordings from 78 RPM records have been digitized and preserved for posterity.

Looking ahead to 2019, we are continuing our work with collectors whose records we plan to transfer digitally, and we are in discussions with several outlets that can assist us with building the database so that listeners and researchers will be able to access the recordings easily.

If you are in a position to make a donation, your contribution would be greatly appreciated! Music Memory is a 501(c)(3) organization, so any amount you give is tax deductible. If you would like to learn more about our mission, you can visit our website and watch our new video.
Music Memory’s mission is to preserve audio recordings for present and future generations. We are continuing the work started by the collectors and researchers in the 1950s and ’60s. We share their passion to keep the history of our musical heritage from being forgotten and are committed to preventing that from happening.

As of 2018, we have digitized more than 49,000 recordings on location at the homes of some of the world’s most prominent record collectors.

Our goal is to build a database complete with audio, discographical information, artist and composer biographies, song lyrics and notation. Our hope for this database is that it will serve as a musical Rosetta Stone for future generations by showing the links and cross-influences of the many musical styles captured on phonograph records in the first half of the 20th century. While the database is being constructed, we have been able to supply digital recordings to discographers, writers, and publishers such as Bear Family, Dust-to-Digital, Omnivore, and Oxford American.

In July 2011, Music Memory’s application for tax exempt status was granted by the Internal Revenue Service. Music Memory is exempt from Federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to Music Memory are deductible under section 170 of the Code.


14 November 2018

TAJ MAHAL, ROBERT FINLEY, DOM FLEMONS AND MORE ON MUSIC MAKER RELIEF FOUNDATION’s 25TH ANNIVERSARY COMPILATION ‘BLUE MUSE,’ OUT FEB. 1, 2019!


Tintype of Algia Mae Hinton by Timothy Duffy
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Music Maker Relief Foundation is celebrating twenty-five year of great works with the release of Blue Muse, a book of tintype photographs made by Music Maker Relief Foundation (MMRF) chief Tim Duffy, a terrific music CD featuring 21 tracks recorded by Music Maker Relief artists plus some guy named Eric Clapton and another guy named Taj Mahal, as well as the great Don Flemons, and a graphic novel on the origin story of MMRF written by Tim and Denise Duffy with art by Gary Dumm, all in honor of Music Maker Relief Foundation's Twenty-Fifth Anniversary, and several of the artists that, thanks to you, MMRF has been able to assist.
  

Music Maker has provided support for over 400 artists over the course of its 25 years. This fantastic collection of releases should go far in continuing that great work. MMRF has provided financial support via over eleven-thousand financial grants, nearly six-thousand live performances, and releasing 2,357 songs all supporting elderly and indigent musicians. 


Want a taste? Let's start with this exclusive Taj Mahal cut from this stellar, essential collection!


Music Maker Relief Foundation – the non-profit organization that helps traditional, southern musicians who live in poverty and has been featured on PBS News Hour, CBS News, and NPR – will release a compilation celebrating its 25th anniversary entitled ‘Blue Muse’ on February 1. The album features contributions from Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and 17-time GRAMMY winner Eric Clapton (in a previously unreleased track), Blues Hall of Famer, two-time GRAMMY winner, and Americana Music
Tintype of Captain Luke by Timothy Duffy
 Association Lifetime Achievement Award winner Taj Mahal, “more than convincing” (NY Times) soul man and Dan Auerbach favorite Robert Finley, and GRAMMY-winner founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops Dom Flemons. In keeping with Music Maker’s mission to preserve the musical traditional of the south by supporting the musicians who make it, the album spans a range of living southern music culture and fans will hear blues, folk, songster, jump blues, soul, Appalachian, garage blues, and gospel musics here.

The 21-track set features liner notes by Vogue and Guardian writer Rebecca Bengal
Big Legal Mess Records has signed several Music Maker artists such as Finley, Willie Farmer, Ironing Board Sam, Sam Frazier, Jr., and Theotis Taylor. Other highlights include top 20 Billboard hit “Route 66,” performed here by Atlanta’s pianist and World War II veteran Eddie Tigner. Sam is a veteran of several performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the 1970s and 2010s and at Lincoln Center. John Dee Holeman is a National Heritage Fellowship award winner. Boo Hanks has performed at Newport Folk Festival.

‘Blue Muse’ accompanies a photography book of the same name by Tim Duffy coming out February 25 on UNC press in association with the New Orleans Museum of Art; and an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art premiering April 25. 
Tintype of Alabama Slim by Timothy Duffy


Notable session musicians include guitar great Cool John Ferguson on Captain Luke’s “Old Black Buck,” Producer/artist Jimbo Mathus and former Al Green drummer Howard Grimes on “Age Don’t Mean a Thing” by Finley, GRAMMY-nominated bluesman Guy Davis on Flemons’ “Polly Put the Kettle On,” Mahal joining John Dee Holeman for “Hambone,” Will Sexton accompanying Farmer on “I Am The Lightnin,” and garage legend Jack Oblivian lends his guitar to Ironing Board Sam’s “Loose Diamonds.”

1. La Collegiale - The Grotto Sessions (featuring Guitar Gabriel, Ironing Board Sam, Etta Baker, Captain Luke, Alabama Slim, Neal Pattman)
2. Spike Driver Blues - Taj Mahal
3. Old Black Buck - Captain Luke
4. Route 66 - Eddie Tigner
5, I Got The Blues - Alabama Slim
6. Age Don’t Mean A Thing - Robert Finley
7. Polly Put The Kettle On - Dom Flemons
8. Hambone - John Dee Holeman
9. Snap Your Fingers - Algia Mae Hinton
10. I am the Lightning - Willie Farmer
11. D.O.C. Man - Dave McGrew
12. Sweet Valentine - Martha Spencer & Kelley Breiding
13. I Wanna Boogie - Boot Hanks w/ Dom Flemons
14. Mississippi Blues - Eric Clapton w/ Tim Duffy
15. Landlord Blues - Guitar Gabriel
16. Widow Woman - Drink Small
17. Cabbage Man - Sam Frazier, Jr.
18. Sing It Louder - Cary Morin
19. Loose Diamonds - Ironing Board Sam
20. I Know I’ve Been Changed - The Branchettes
21. Something Within Me - Theotis Taylor

For more information on Music Maker Relief Foundation, please contact Nick Loss-Eaton at nick.losseaton@gmail.com or 718.541.1130 or Cornelius Lewis at 919.643.2456.


11 October 2018

iLLiNOiS JOHN FEVER - Out Here Nobody Knows (2017)


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"You know the downward spiral is essentially a chain reaction. 
One thing begets the next. A man has a weakness, he's flawed. That flaw leads him to guilt. The guilt leads him to shame. The shame he compensates with pride and vanity. And when pride fails, despair takes over and they all lead to his destruction. It will become his fate... Something's gotta stop the flow. "

"If you like some gnarly country Rolling Stones and Dave Edmunds and crazy Iowa hillbilly rants from an overworked and underpaid blue collar psycho then this is your Exile on Main Street."
-Dale Beavers

Flowing like literate punk rock gospel medicine show shouters, Illinois John Fever (IJF) swangs and rolls, gees and haws, steps, stops and hollers words out of a dirty, yellowed, cloth-bound book of handwritten lies scrawled across the back of a '
Stones & Son House of Used Cars receipt, a stack of gold-embossed bar napkins, and a couple faded funeral programs.

Illinois John Fever play pre-war music, but they're not about to say just which war. Like an alt punk rock post-grad-student folk blues hymnal whittled out of Exile on Main Street, a turbo Corvair, and a lot of books
IJF make music for car crashes, for Saturday night knife-fighting -Mumblety-Peg or otherwise- or driving through the woods at night, or drinking in the big booth in the back of the bar by the jukebox, or for a good-timey literary society keg party out by the old round barn with the dextrous Gennell braying and bossing, and drummer Hall so in the pocket his beats sound drunk.

Illinois John Fever is Sean Preciado Gennell on guitar and vocals, and Bobber Hall on drums. Hailing from Iowa City, Iowa, Gennell and Hall make their own small town mid-west country blues, akin in theory to fellow Iowan Greg Brown's soulful storytelling folk blues, if only Brown was once a bookstore busking punk.

Below is an interview we did slowly over the last few months:


#### Interview w/ Illinois John Fever #####

RS:: (Rick Saunders) The first question that comes to mind is why the Hawkeye state, fellas?

SPG:: (Sean Preciado Grinnel) - Singer, songwriter, guitar player for IJF) I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, and never dreamed of moving here. I came because of the University’s writing program only to find out the undergrad program was kind of a racket for the graduate program, in that they only took kids from Iowa. So I went to graduate school in New York. Once I learned about the rackets out there, I moved back here.

RS:: Based on your lyrics and delivery I was wondering if perhaps you were in Iowa for its renowned writing program. It's amazing how many notable authors have come out of that scene. Your songs seem very character driven,  like rural, poetic short stories.

SPG: That’s not how we started out, but that’s where we’ve gotten to, or maybe back to. Before IJF, both my fiction and music festered and frothed with meaning, with very-important-shit, and I needed to break that off to go on living in the real world. When IJF started, we went for delivery over meaning, for spirit over substance, maybe, and with lots of hard to catch hollering. I took my early cues from Royal Trux, most likely. We wanted to sound raw and frantic, like the music played when a truck crashes off the freeway. Music for knife-fighting, or driveway fires. But we’ve grown a lot: The characters are all folks driven to mostly hard ends, and their stories are told so as to carry the weight for the delivery if that makes sense.

RS:: Case in point, your song Champ Jackie.

SPG:: I’d written a short story about a boxer whose life’s glory was having beat Champ Jackie in the ring. The name came out of the air and drew me in, making me interested in his story, the champ who was sure he could beat anybody, and lost. And while I didn’t base the song on anyone in particular, I’ve seen camps like the one he’s living in after prison. This was back when I was driving a cab. And I mean it like it sounds, just a weird pop-up of tents on a dead-end road and populated with drunks and other people with no place to go.

RS:: I hate to even spoil it but tell me about the opening line, which is you shouting a capella, Bring The Ghost Home Now!

SPG:: Oh that -- haha, that's Bobber's only line in our entire catalog. It was something he'd holler while we wrote the song, and it stuck. Like an incantation for calling the dead.

RS:: It's great. It fits the album so well, and makes one cognizant of the fact this ain't no old timey potpourri country blues whatever. You do bring the ghost home...I don't know what it's a ghost of but...

SPG:: I've pressed Bob on this and we both agree he's hollering up the ghost of Champ Jackie. But we also agree that the 'ghost' was always more than that, and that hollering it up is part of our ritual, and that bringing up the ghost is at the heart of our mission.


RS:: Let's talk influences.

The great Dale Beavers compared the album to Exile on Main Street? Are the 'Stones high in the playlist?

BH:: (Bobber Hall) - The Stones are imprinted in our DNA since early childhood, never really listened to them intentionally myself. I think Sean and I were both most influenced by early 80's to mid 90's punk rock, post-punk, and psychedelic. Sean?  My formative years influence playlist probably looks like The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Hendrix, Fear, Sex Pistols, Warsaw (more to come, need coffee 😉 )

SPG:: 
I’ll draw from any well that will quench a thirst, and I visit the Stones a lot. Especially their early 70s material. I like anything dirty and weird and dangerous. Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, for example, which turned me onto Pink Anderson, not coincidentally. DK is also in my list of punk favorites but I love Big Black, Circle Jerks, Naked Raygun, ST. Sometimes I admit I still listen to the Exploited. Growing up in Chicago, I was lucky to hang around WaxTrax and Medusa’s so got sucked in by industrial and techno. Of note, that droning, noisy, psychedelic machine-driven stuff is likely what later drew me to Fred McDowell’s style.

RS:: Do you hear a connection between them, industrial and Fred?

SPG::
 I hesitate to draw any direct connect between them. I mean, from intent to instrumentation the genres are far apart. That said, I do think there is a kinetic energy between the two. And I'm sure old purist farts from either sideline will call me a tourist for saying this, but here goes: 

Take "Headhunter" by Front 242, which uses mixed time signatures. The knifing bass line sticks to 4/4 and contrasts with an atmospheric twinkle dotting out a longer rhythm on top. At the chorus a deeper bass line drops in at 8/4 with lyrics also delivered in different time signatures. The mood is intense, the song is about a guy who captures other people and sells them, but the beat doesn't want to kill you. And it compliments yet refuses to match the bass riff, none of that dmp-dmp-dmp-dmp. (Is that how you spell "EDM?") 

Now take Fred McDowell's "Shake 'em on Down." Specifically the '64 version played with Johnny Woods, and recorded by Chris Strachwitz. Our pal Dusty Busch claims the greatest songs played never get recorded, but here's one that got caught. The fucker just hops like a spring-loaded machine. Fred nails the 1-2 bass line while working that slide, his shukka-shukka, and he's muting a bunch of notes that get expressed more like elements of rhythm. 

Meanwhile, Johnny's harmonica tone beautifully meshes with the jangle of the guitar. The rhythm pushes and drags, kind of shoving around but at a clip. They just sling it back and forth like they're on a wire all day, and never mind for how many measures. 

What appeals to me about both songs is that they use complimentary and contrasting rhythms from which the song emerges as something alive, like a confluence of rivers. So while I don't categorically think the genres of Hill Country blues and Industrial dance have much to do with each other, I do find them appealing for similar reasons. And producing that same confluence of rhythm and tone is something I think we've been chasing for as long as I can remember.

RS:: How'd you guys get started playing, both together, and personally?  Was there something or someone that locked it into place for you?


SPG
:: I picked up guitar 25 years ago, same year I moved to Iowa. I thought it was a good way to woo the ladies. So for a while I pushed out a lot of emo-driven, cafe-styled acoustic songster stuff, but soon as I put a band together we were rocking “Careful with that Axe, Eugene.” This scared the shit of my small circle of fans, and ultimately became the direction I’ve headed.


Ten years later, I met Bobber while driving cab. We’ve always been on the same spiritual wavelength, despite our differences in personality. There’s more to the story though suffice to say all good marriages start in friendship, not fucking as it were. I knew he played drums but we wouldn’t jam until 2006. And I wouldn’t learn until six months later that he was the first (and last) drummer for the Iowa Beef Experience. On a personal note, I was listening to IBE at 15 years old, and I abruptly realized I’d been playing with one of my heroes.

RS:: How do you write your songs? Does Sean bring in completed songs, or is it more of an organic team effort, or D. All of the above?

SPG: It’s about 50/50: I’ll write some songs head-to-toe. Other tunes are a mix, where I‘ll work up a riff and some changes, and then we arrange together, which I prefer. I steer away from the James Brown school and just let anybody play whatever they want to play, so long as it sounds right for the song.


RS::
Tell me about the band name. Is it a riff on WKRP's Johnny Fever...or...?

SPG: Our name was inspired by Fred McDowell telling how he was born in Tennessee but everybody calls him ‘Mississippi.’ I’m from Chicago, so there’s some of it. But it’s the dissonance that clicks for me. Kind of like how we’re white punks playing traditionally pre-electric black music. And music that traditionally marketed the skill of its artist on the basis of his wellsprings. Plus, you ever heard of Iowa John Fever? Me neither.

RS:: I'm coming over to your house tomorrow. You've got a five-disc cd player. What music will we listen to? Also, I'd like to borrow 3-4 books. What do you recommend?

SPG: Georgia Blues Today; John Jackson’s “Blues and Country Dance Tunes from Virginia”; T-Model’s “Pee-Wee Get My Gun;" this Joseph Spence mix tape I put together; Pussy Galore’s full cover of “Exile on Main Street.” 
And since that last record is fairly unlistenable, we can opt for any related Royal Trux records. (For books) “Manhattan Transfer,” John Dos Passos; “Play It As It Lays,” Joan Didion; “The Freelance Pallbearers,” Ishmael Reed; “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” Chester Himes; “Candide,” Voltaire.

RS:: What is The Museum of Jurassic Technology? 

SPG:: MJT is an art installation out in Century City, CA. Among it’s interesting exhibits is a miniature mobile home gallery and an entire wing dedicated to Athanasius Kircher, which includes a bell wheel that produces the most incredible natural sound I’ve ever heard.

RS:: How's the music scene in Iowa? Anybody good we should know about?
SPG::
Iowa City has always had a burgeoning music scene. Check out Closet Witch, Acoustic Guillotine, Middle Western.
RS:: Y'all play The Deep Blues Festival, America's premier fest for punk-infected and alt-blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi this weekend.

SPG:: 
We play Friday, October 12th at 11am at Cathead and Saturday, October 13th at 2pm at the Rock and Blues Museum.

Thanks, guys!