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Saturday, November 18, 2006

My Old Friend, The Bluesmen: Filisko & Noden Live, CD Release Party

Some of you may recall that the early summer saw unprecedented commitment to music on the part of the fundamentally lazy, night-owlish staff of Telecommuniculturey. The Oakton Community College four-part series on the History of the Blues (100% guaranteed deathless prose on these available: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV) did not disappoint, even if we did question what kind of malevolent deities would schedule this kind of thing on a Thursday morning in Skokie, well upstream of our Headquarters.

Our Blues-Fu failed us somewhat when we completely missed the performance by Joe Filisko and Eric Noden at the OTSFM's Folk and Roots Festival. We redeemed ourselves last night by making it up to Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston for the release party for their new "nonoriginals" CD Filisko & Noden: Live.

Although I've heard of Bill's Blues many times (they have a standing folk session on Sundays and a lot of OTSFM teachers end up performing there), but it's a bit of a haul from the Acres, so I'd never actually made it there. We got up there around 9, having not yet eaten. Although Bill's does offer sammiches, the emphasis is on beer. Fortunately, Evanston is a college town (and I assure you, the non-Northwestern population of it just felt a cold chill race down their collective spine as I typed that), so quick, cheap food is never far. We wound up on the corner at Gigio's for a slice and some cheese fries.

Although it had been relatively empty at 9, the not-overly-large space was packed by 9:30, when the show was scheduled to start. Bill's is a loooong, narrow venue. I suck at all things spatial, but it's probably 120 feet long and maybe 18 feet across at its widest point? The stage is at the front so the musicians set up with their backs to the window. The bar runs about 75% of the length of the whole building along the west wall. The east wall is exposed brick covered with a variety of interesting artwork. Probably 15 or so tables are with regular chairs are set up along this. Beyond the bar, there's a wall that, presumably, encloses the kitchen and cuts the narrow floor space about in half. There's a bar rail with stools that backs up into the bathrooms, and three or so high bar tables opposite them backing up into the sound board. Behind the sound board is a long, narrow walk of shame to the alley door with a last-chance cigarette machine right in front of it.

I am unsure of the current smoking status at Bill's. The lovely and talented Rita Ruby, who happens to be my Harmony teacher, has often noted that the Sunday folk sessions are nonsmoking, but everyone commences to smoking for the blues session immediately thereafter. All smokers were banished to the alley last night, and M claims that he saw a sign saying that the whole place is permanently nonsmoking, but we were unable to locate this figment of his imagination after the show.

We made our way to the very back of the bar rail where I at least found a lone chair on which to stow my duster and stuff. We wound up watching the first set from behind the sound guy where, if we bobbed and weaved a bit, we could occasionally see one of them. The opened with a Memphis Jug Band Tune, but I honestly can't remember if it was "You May Leave But This'll Bring You Back," which is on the CD, as we were still getting settled, obtaining libations and so forth.

In general, the first set was a mixture of stuff from the CD, their independent projects, and I'm sure stuff they do together regularly. The one thing missing from both sets was any of Eric's originals (I don't think Joe writes his own stuff, but I could certainly be wrong). And having just read through the liner notes for the CD, Much Becomes Clear. (And mostly what is clear is that I'm kind of dim.)

The CD, which was recorded live in front of a studio audience, is a musical history project. For each song on it, one of them provides brief notes on the person most strongly associated with it, the techniques employed, and the history of the recording. A lot of this is a more in-depth treatment of some of the things we got a taste of in the History of the Blues series, so that's gratifying for us, especially as their introductions to each number often included different information still.

But more importantly, what a fucking cool project: These aren't classic songs in the sense that the term is usually used. Many are little known, available only on obscure recordings, and not necessarily among the songs for which the artists are known. They've been chosen because they represent a breakthrough moment, for the artist, for a particular method, or for the genre. Furthermore, each represents an earnest effort to replicate those guitar and harmonica styles and techniques.

When I wrote about Joe's Blues session, I mentioned my fear for his memorabilia, as I couldn't help but imagine some kind of natural or unnatural disaster (see above re: supernatural malevolence) taking out a giant chunk of history. Having much of that codified and preserved on this CD will help my inner stage manager sleep better at night.

But as much as the CD is about committing history to polycarbonate, rather than putting their own personal styles forward, it's also a great Filisko/Noden collaboration. Naturally their vocals do a lot of work on that score. It's hard not to suspect that Eric bought a custom-designed old-timey blues voice, and their absolute comfort in and enjoyment of performing with one another comes through in every harmony. (However, I note that the CDDB lists Joe alone as the artist on all tracks. Could this be some kind of nefarious Yokoless overture to speed dissolution of the partnership?) But as a live recording, the CD also captures a lot of their banter, too, which is a large part of why they're such fun to watch.

Last night, Joe kept reminding the crowd that they were experiencing Eric Noden, the original, and they should accept no substitutes, an homage to the radiation of Sonny Boys, the Misters Johnson (way to punt on a blues legend, Lucinda), Blind incarnations of common names, and little and big versions of Walter, and so on. Eric left "Joliet Joe" as an exercise for the listener. When they introduced each song, each seemed eager that we should appreciate how amazing the other is and said so. Sure, their praise got funnier and funnier and turned into an escalating war of hyperbole, but the mutual admiration was frank and clear.

Unlike many of the girly denizens of Evanston, we stayed through the break and the entire second set. Not that leaving early entered our minds, but I'm thrilled we did. The place cleared out a great deal, and we actually got to see much more of them. We also were around for the full-crowd kazoo rendition of Happy Birthday to Eric (his birthday's actually Sunday the 19th) and the full complement of raffles.

They'd been distributing free tickets as a way of collecting e-mails, and they had four throughout the course of the evening. The winner of the first got a bottle of Bay Rum, which they were expressly forbidden from drinking (what? no sterno?); the second got Eric's 55 Highway CD (the fix was in for that! The winner was Steve the sound man); the third got a thematic 2L bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red, which they both signed (another fix! One of the folks working the merchandise table was the winner, although she got hers when she realized she had to lug it home); and finally, a non-Filisko harmonica went to the guy with the beautiful rock hair and leather vest who had admired my Kwak Belgian Ale (um, that's literal: it had cool hardware) earlier in the evening.

My personal musical highlights of the evening started after the first raffle with "Bay Rum Blues." Joe had warned that the harmonica part in this was flat out weird. It is. According to the liner notes, the high-pitched, birdlike character was a style invented by Gwen Foster. The notes also note that Foster is overlooked, and I can't help wondering if this downright chipper sound has just been unfairly deemed to be un-bluesy. In any case, for me, it strongly evokes June Carter's vocals on "Time's A-Wastin'," and that's never a bad thing. (Hey, I feel strongly enough about that song that I barely quirk an eyebrow anymore when it gets to the "you're full of sugar and I think I'm the booger to melt it" part.)

You've also got to love both "Cold-Hearted Woman" and "Kind-Hearted Woman," and I did so last night, accordingly. And not that I lack for opportunities to hear talented folks sing and play the hell out of traditionals (I am also the proud owner of the Old Town School Recordings - Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook: Volume One, after all), but theirs was no Zombie "Jesus on the Mainline." Not that I am not a fan of Zombie Jesus or Zombie anyone, but their interpretation made it an entirely new song.

One of my true must-haves of the evening (and fortunately it's on this CD and another of Eric's) was "I heard the Angels Singing." It sounds like an odd title for a blues song, as odd or odder than a Greg Brown song being called Lord I Have Made You a Place in My Heart, and as surprising or surprisinger (totally a word. shut it.) as that song turns out. The guitar creeps and skulks along on line full of staccato blue notes, then stumbles up to the repetition of the title, which is a surprise each and every time. The harmonica hovers ominously above, watching, following, then gathering itself out of the chord into sharply dissonant single notes. It is the least reassuring song about interaction with supernatural beings EVAR, and I'm including all of Wagner in that statement.

There was another Howlin' Wolf song they did that I was wild about. When I saw it wasn't on the new CD, I crept up to check out Eric's other CDs, which were for sale. I didn't see it on either of them, and in the process of actually checking, the information left my brain entirely. But although Mr. Wolf may have only triiiiiiiiiiiiied to do "Baby Please Don't Go," I must thank him if he's responsible for that song, whatever it was. Also on the premature senescence front, I cannot remember the ragtime song they played in which I'm pretty sure Eric was doing the piano part on his guitar just to make me, personally, feel inadequate. It was awesome, though, and I welcome the shame.

After the show, our slices were proving inadequate to stave off the hunger permanently. It being 1 AM, our thoughts turned naturally to breakfast. I learned the ugly truth that my spouse doubts my 24-hour-diner-fu. I showed him, though, by directing him to exit the Kennedy at California, where there just happened to be an old school 24-hour IHOP with multiflavored syrup cozies. No, I didn't know it was there and was, in fact, heading for the Clark and Addison IHOP, but I think that factoid pales in the face of the realization that I have flawless 24-hour-diner sonar. Boo YAH!

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