High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bluegrass and Yak Leather at the Top of the World: Robbie's Secret Country with Casey Driessen and L

After all the cheery martyrdom and mayhem on Saturday, M and I settled into the(once again freezing cold) auditorium at the OTSFM for Robbie's March Secret Country Show. But I learned an important lesson earlier that day: Bass is easier to play when you practice it.

Robbie seems to be on some kind of disturbing outfit mission. Not only was he wearing slacks and a blazer once again, this time he added a bow tie. Just to freak me out. Well, your plan backfired, Mr. Fulks: The bow tie was quirky enough to be "you."

He opened the show with a Secret Country parody of "The Christmas Song" and then talked a bit about the future of the Secret Country show in light of the merger between XM and Sirius. (Short answer: There's no real way to tell what will become of the show and its broadcasts after the merger, but there's not much reason to despair just yet.)

For the interview, he brought out Casey Driessen and Marshall Wilborn of Longview (sorry, but if Longview has a page, its location is hidden well enough to defeat my google-fu) at the same time. He used notes again this time, leading me to soothe my inner qualitative-data collector by inferring that his completely off-the-cuff interviews with Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin were an aberration and that he actually plans and organizes his interviews like the rest of us mere mortals.

Given this evidence of planning, I have to wonder if it was with malice aforethought that he began the interview by asking Marshall how he got into playing bass. He rather sheepishly admitted that his relationship with the bass was something of an arranged marriage: He'd been playing banjo with a group that had two banjo players (which is, perhaps, more remarkable than having two songs about horses dying when they fall through ice ). The assembled company assessed both players for talent, taste, and commitment to the instrument and gently suggested that Marshall take up bass. From there, he stuck with bass because he loved the music and found that bass opened a lot of doors to it, and only later did he come to love the bass for itself. Later, Robbie asked how Longview retained its spontaneous, in-the-moment sound. Marshall responded, in just as self-effacing a tone as he'd told the story of his protracted journey to loving the bass, that they don't play together that often, so not only is fond reunion ever present in their music, they've constantly got to re-work out the kinks.

Bouncing over to Casey, Robbie asked about his recent trip to Tibet/China. I can't really do justice to the story, which sounds like some kind of beautiful art!nerd dream: traveling to breathtaking (literally and figuratively) places for "work" (those are envious quote marks, not sarcastic ones); teaching others music about which you feel passionate; learning music completely foreign to you about which your teachers are passionate; collaborating, fusing two foreign brands of music into something entirely new; and carrying your rock star goggles in their own yak leather case. Unsurprisingly, Casey's journal does a much better job of describing the trip, and I'm over the moon to read in that very journal that there was a documentary film crew with them for some of the trip. (If only I were rich or knew rich potential investors, I would answer the call for funding therein.)

It's funny that he mentions not sleeping well at 13K feet. The closest I get to his beautiful dream is when I'm in the field and I don't have the million cares of my daily "real life" tugging at me. And whether the Pacific is in my front yard or living at 10K feet to the soundtrack of roosters, I have never slept so well in my life as I sleep in Peru.

Casey's set was up first. He was joined by the Colorfools. Although I gather that this is a floating collection of individuals, in our case, we had Tom Giampietro on drums (bass, floor tom, some cymbals, a djembe, and an Udu (a type of clay drum from India) and Matt Mangano on bass. Casey, of course, was on fiddle and vocals (which were sung into a an old-timey-looking mic that was deliciously echo-y and caused M to say "he's singin' into a cay-un" each and every time).

The music was fantastic on its own merits and particularly spine-tingling for me because it sidled up to some of the skulking loners in my music collection and started a jam. It's only right and proper that Many Hands would figure prominently in that session (my Best Mate D was with Many Hands for many years, and their music and ongoing story is another installment in the global, multicultural art!nerd dreamscape). But I also caught echoes of Los Pakines, Seu Jorge, and Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

And then some more central figures in my collection joined in the jam: Great Big Sea, all the artists on the Old Town School Songbook CD (in fact, they performed a song Casey's just recorded for a later volume of it). It was the best kind of musical experience, the kind that reminds you of things in your collection you've forgotten, evokes the warm fuzzies of often-heard favorites, and tacks a substantial, new, and exciting addition on to the house where your music lives. And on top of all that cockle-warming, ear-pleasing, horizon-broadening goodness, all three of them were fascinating to watch as they played.

As M noted, Casey's fiddle-playing style is evocative of Pat McLaughlin's percussive approach to the acoustic guitar. On his site, he calls this his "showcasing his signature rhythmic 'chop' style," which might give you a shadow of how the styles resemble one another, but really, they have to be seen to be believed. And I'd have to add that whereas Pat's guitar always looks like it's just about to make its bid for freedom, Casey and his fiddle are more like Holmes and Moriarity, each pushing the other to greater intellectual heights in a rivalry the fire and savagery of which are undiminished by the highly civilized confines in which it takes place. (Wow that was torturous even for me. Please excuse, this is the most exciting music I've come across of late. And we have goggles. In a yak leather case.)

Anything I say about Longview is going to sound like damning with faint praise, which is wholly unfair to them. They were an absolutely enjoyable, satisfying continuation of the bluegrass vibe started by Bobby Osborn in February. I found myself a little unsure of how Marshall ended up being the interviewee, as Longview is much more a collective with no obvious choice for a leader or spokesman. Moreover, Marshall himself was literally in the background of the performance: He and his electric upright were the sole occupants of the upstage area, he only sang on one of the songs in the encore, and he engaged in none of the patter during the set.

In addition to Marshall on bass, Longview features: James King on guitar, Chicago-style-hot-dog comedy (yes, I do mean comedy based almost exclusively on Chicago-style hot dogs), and vocals; Don Rigsby on mandolin, vocals, and exaggeratedly folksy comedy with acerbic undertones; Lou Reid on homonyms for punk icons, guitar, high tenor vocals, and straight-man lines; J. D. Crowe on distinguished silver pompadour, vocals, and banjo playing that approaches the speed of light; and Ron Stewart on fiddle and Indiana representation. True to Robbie's assessment, their sound is complex, fresh, and very present-sounding, no matter how venerable the tune (their rendition of "High Lonesome," in particular, raised my goose bumps).

One of the nicest, most understated moments in Walk the Line is when June explains to Johnny that she's not much of a singer, so she learned to be funny. Of course, Reese Witherspoon's performance in that movie is full of superstar snippets, but that one is one of my favorites. She manages, in a very understated way, to channel June, a shadow artist if there ever was one; but she also sneaks in a wink and a nod to the audience as if to say, "Can you even believe that June freakin' Carter went to her grave thinking of herself as an also ran?"

Longview's set reminded me of that, not because I got any sense that anyone thought of themselves as second fiddle (sorry, sorry, SORRY!), but because the comedy was absolutely nonstop. Seriously, James had seen a vendor with Chicago-style hot dogs earlier in the day and apparently just couldn't get over the experience. Don and Lou got in on the act and had the technology to rebuild the six-million-dollar joke, better, faster, and stronger than the Billy Crystal/Jack Palance one-armed-push-up Oscar bit. And you have to love the work ethic of what is essentially a bluegrass supergroup that still feels like the audience deserves a free comedy gift with purchase.

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