Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Burning Up the West with Martha...

Originally uploaded by brotherphilwilder.
I guess we first heard about the recording session in the spring of 2005. We had just arrived in Louisiana and were setting up in Dirk Powell's studio to record what would become our "Throw Down" cd. Dirk had just returned from Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY- where he had recorded the basic tracks for Martha Scanlan's debut cd, and he was psyched. I have to say, I was a little jealous to hear him say that, not only was Martha branching out from the safety of old time instrumentation (using pedal steel guitar and other electric gadgets), but she actually got Levon Helm to play drums on several tunes. Levon, for the uninitiated, was a major creative force-and the drummer for The Band. We listened intently as Dirk described the experience, and I could only imagine the sounds he must had heard...

August, 2006: We were kicking back with some Vietnamese food and a few beers at our booking agent, Mary Brabec's house in Seattle, Washington. I was snooping around a stack of cd's on her desk and came across one with the words, "Martha Scanlan- New CD", scrawled on it in black Sharpie. I freaked and got confirmation from Mary that this indeed was a rough mix of the Woodstock sessions. I stuck it in her computer and started it up, I tried to focus, but It was a beautiful day in Seattle and everyone was sitting outside talking. It was hard to appreciate what I was hearing over the conversation. One thing was for sure, it was a ROUGH mix. The songs didn't seem to be in any order and the volume of each song was wildly inconsistent. The next morning, (as usual) I was up before anybody and, without really thinking about it, I made a copy of the cd (along with copies of Mary's entire Reggae collection) and stuck it in my backpack.

October 2006: I was hanging out with Betse at the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Nashville, TN. We had just eaten lunch, and she asked me if I wanted to go watch Martha Scanlan's showcase on the Roots and Branches stage. Martha was already on when we arrived. We slipped in and found seats near the back. Almost immediately, I was transfixed by the sound coming from the stage. Martha stood center, flanked by Travis Stuart on string bass and Trevor Stuart on fiddle. The sound of this simple instrumentation, combined with Martha's idiosyncratic voice ( I mean that in the best possible way...) was mesmerizing. The smallish crowd, most of whom were familiar with Martha from her days as guitarist with The Reeltime Travelers, were quiet and respectful, drinking in the sound, but Betse and I were excited and whooped it up in the back at the end each tune.

At once point, Martha sheepishly told the audience that her new record was, "almost done"...
"Right ON!" I yelled.
Then she told them hesitantly, " And it's going to be kinda different for some of you"...
"WHOOOHOOO!", I whooped from the back.
"It's going to have some drums on it"...
Several people looked back at me and scowled.
"But we got Levon Helm to play the drums, so that's ok, right?"

On the way home from IBMA, I dug through my backpack and grabbed the copy of Martha's new cd I had secretly burned in Seattle. Everyone was completely shagged from the conference, so this time there was no conversation to distract me. Although the mixes were rough, the purity of the sound came through loud and clear. I don't think a word was said, but when it was over, we all agreed that this was the sort of album WE would like to make someday.

November, 2006: We were back at Dirk's, recording our new cd. The long, long sessions stretched into the early morning hours. When we returned to the house where we were staying, I was always too keyed-up to go right to sleep. So I listened to Martha's cd on my iPod for inspiration before collapsing into unconsciousness.

January 12th, 2007: It was my birthday. I don't generally like my birthday much, and this year was no exception. Basically, it makes me uncomfortable for people to treat me different just because it's my birthday. However, this year, I was bummed out because no one treated me any different than they ever do. Yes folks, I am a gigantic 41-year-old baby! Anyway, I was hanging out backstage at The Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC feeling sorry for myself, when Martha Scanlan walked through the door. I guess I knew she lived fairly close to Asheville, but still I was shocked to see her in person. Without my usual conversational restraint, I began to babble and gush to her about how much her record had impacted me. Later in the evening, I saw her again and told her that if she ever needed somebody to play dobro, she could give me a call. I gave her my email and I felt good about the the interchange, but doubted (with The Wilders intense schedule) that it would ever actually happen.

February, 2007: I got an email from Martha asking me if I might be interested in playing some dates in Colorado in April. She told me that Travis and Trevor Stuart would be in England teaching old time music classes, and she was scrambling to get a band together for the tour. I was flabbergasted. I searched our schedule and realized that at least four of the shows were possible. Then I really started to think about it. I imagined the sounds that I had grown to love on Martha's cd coming to life. I imagined myself playing dobro on some of her tunes. I imagine myself playing steel guitar and electric guitar on others. Then I began to imagine other things. I imagined Nate playing electric bass and Betse covering Dirk Powell's fiddle parts. But the final piece was drums. Of course, we know a lot of really great drummers. But still, I was bummed that Ike would be left out. Then I tried to imagine Ike sitting behind a set of drums. It wasn't so far-fetched. I'd seen him fool around on a kit before, and he wasn't half bad. So I called everybody up, and asked them if they would be interested in becoming Martha's band. Not surprisingly, everyone (including Ike) was thrilled at the prospect. Then I wrote Martha back to offer her not one musician, but four. I'm sure she was shocked at my proposal, but she agreed to give it a try anyway.

Monday, April 9th: Ike and I picked Martha up from the Kansas City airport and immediately got her in the KC spirit by forcing her to eat Arthur Bryant's Bar-B-Que and share a pitcher of Budwieser. As she finished half of her mountainous sandwich, she said, "wow, the streets of Kansas City are paved with MEAT." Then we checked her into a Best Western on the Boulevard, and went off to ready things for the tour. We had invited her to play as our special guest at the Rural Grit Happy Hour that night, and there was a larger-than-normal crowd assembled to greet her there. Although we had never played with her before, the four of us decided to "wing it" with Martha on about 6 tunes. Don Carrick, legendary Rural Grit drummer yelled out to Ike at one point, "you are doing great, you just need to RELAX!" It was somewhat of a train wreck, but there was a strong scent of something musically wonderful floating around the bar by the time we had finished.

The next morning we all met at an honest-to-goodness, real-deal practice space located above the all-ages punk rock club, El Torreon, in midtown KC. I had acquired access to this jewel-in-the-rough, through the generosity and diligence of our pal David Regnier who hooked us up with The Pink Socks (the band that rents the space). We lugged all our gear up the stairs and started plugging stuff in, while Martha made notes on a legal pad. After plugging in mics and making some adjustments, we tentatively began a practice session, which begat a song swap/jam session that stretched late into the night. The next day, we scrambled to get all our stuff together, packed up the trailer, stopped by The Pink Socks practice space to leave a case of PBR for our rent, and hit the city limits by 7pm. After only an hour of driving, I was burnt out. I stopped for gas, and when I returned, Martha had plopped herself in the driver's seat. Obviously quite comfortable with the strange ways of the road, she drove our Brown Clown halfway across Kansas stopping for the night around 1am at our favorite Motel 6 in Colby.

We were up-and-at 'em the next morning, passing into Colorado for our first hump over the Rockies this year. Our van handled the high mountain passes like a champ, and within a few hours, we arrived in Carbondale, CO at Steve's Guitars- the site of our first gig. Steve was there to greet us, and helped to load in our gear, move amps, drums and mic stands around in an effort to squeeze our huge band onto the tiny stage. We got everything plugged up and used the sound check to rehearse the material one last time. Our band pals from Paonia, CO, Sweet Sunny South, arrived during the rehearsal and gave us some much-needed feedback on our relative volumes and sound. It didn't seem like any time passed before the tiny music store was packed for the sold out show. In Kansas City, the fire marshall would have shut it down immediately, but in Carbondale, it appears things are a little more relaxed. We took the stage around 9:30am and, as Martha strummed the first chord, I said a silent prayer, "please, please don't let us screw up..."

My prayers must have been answered, because the audience was electrified. During the next two hours, we played most of the songs off Martha's album. Betse, of course, played her fiddle, but also got to add her tenor guitar and a harmony vocal to the mix on several tunes. Nate mostly hung in the back making sure Ike was staying on the beat. To save space in the van, he had decided back in Kansas City to only play his electric bass on this tour. He sounded great- especially when he stepped up to sing harmony with Martha even taking a lead verse on the song "Hallelujah". To change it up, Ike and Martha swapped positions on the drums so that he could lead our band on a few honky tonk numbers. In addition to being a great songwriter and singer, Martha Scanlan is a very fine old time guitar player, and I could tell she really enjoyed herself, when she got to bear down on some of Betse's fiddle tunes. I sat over in my corner truly fulfilling the "jack of all trades" role. I played electric guitar, electric lap steel guitar, dobro, clawhammer banjo and mandolin. On the outside (due to my concentration level), my face must have appeared to be made of stone. But on the inside I was grinning ear-to-ear. To quote Wilders mentor Dale Frazier, "it was a pretty good deal, I guess..." The evening seemed over almost before it started. I talked to several people after the show and everyone was pretty much blown away by the sound.

It took a long time to get all the equipment packed back into the van and trailer, and it was soon after midnight when we set out on a two-hour drive over McClure pass to Paonia, CO. Our Sweet Sunny South pals agreed to not only let us stay in their homes that night, but also to wait for us slowpokes and lead us over the mountains. I realized how tired I was when we started winding up the pass. I was sure glad I had their tail lights to follow. We arrived safely and everyone collapsed for the short night. The next morning we hauled a stripped-down version of all our junk into the studios of KVNF in downtown Paonia. Our pal, Rob Miller was hosting the "Talking Music" program there, and we were able to do about 4 of Martha's tunes, a couple of Wilders originals, and a fiddle tune during the show. Then, after wolfing down some very fine burgers at Sweet Sunny South HQ (thanks Bill and Shel!), we high-tailed it up the road to Montrose, CO to load in at La Cabana. Yes, our gig this evening was to be at the downtown Montrose Italian/Mexican Restaurant. I LOVE the west because of weird combinations like this. Say you don't have a population in your town that can support an italian restaurant AND a Mexican Restaurant? No problem, COMBINE THE CUISINE. We all had a good laugh on the drive up, imagining fettucini burritos and chips and marinara. Oh, if only they were just jokes. Later that evening, I actually saw a basket of bread sticks AND tortilla chips next to a bowl of salsa AND tomato sauce. I would not lie about this.

Our motel was across the street. It was one of those classic motor lodges from the 50's, and, after sound check, we walked over and checked in. We only had about an hour to kill before we had to head back over to the restaurant. The show was sold out, and it was packed to the rafters when we walked in. Most of Sweet Sunny South made it for the second night, accompanied by several of their friends. It felt good to see them right up front. Martha was cool as a cucumber, and smiled at everybody before hitting the first chords. We got through the first tune no problem, then on the second, I couldn't get any sound out of my guitar. I panicked and started checking connections, while Martha and the rest of the band waited. Then I realized that someone had come up and turned all the knobs on my amp down to -0-. I don't know if the sound crew had done it as a precaution, or if it was some kind of a bad practical joke, but I was livid. I pulled myself together to get through the song, but was pretty shaken. Of course, nobody ever turns down anything when I play with The Wilders. We have no knobs to turn.

I settled down and turned in a decent performance despite the mishap. Later in the evening, we had a few "guests"- one of the sound guys came up to play drums on one of Ike's honky tonk tunes. He wasn't bad, he was horrible. He kept trying to do drum fills without any sense of where the beat was. Nate, who was already used to staying right on top of Ike to keep him in time, was on this poor guy in a second. He yelled, "STOP DOING FILLS, JUST PLAY THE SNARE!!!" The poor befuddled guy finally got it together- sort of- but I was glad when the tune was over. Later in the evening, Rob Miller- guitarist with Sweet Sunny South, told me that this was the moment that made the whole evening worthwhile for him. I guess he must like to watch train wrecks. Martha sang great, and Betse played some killer solos. We had already got our nervous jitters out the night before, and I felt that everybody just did a fantastic job.

After the show, Betse was pooped out. She said her goodbyes to everyone, and then turned in for the night. I had very much the same intention, but about the time I got all my stuff packed up, Martha walked up and asked me if a friend of hers could borrow my mandolin. Of course, I agreed and got it out of the case while Ike and Martha pulled up a couple of chairs to play host to a post-show jam. I took the delay in my imminent sleep in stride though, and used the time to catch up with the Sweet Sunny South contingency. The befuddled drummer pulled up a chair and whipped out a case of harmonicas to join the party. This was definitely an instrument he could play, and he sang and blew his harp with indefatigability. Then the other sound man asked me if I would mind it if he played my dobro. At this point, I realized I wasn't going anywhere soon, and grabbed it out of the case for him. He plopped down on my amp, and joined into the ruckus. He was pretty dang good too. Everybody seemed like they were having fun, so I didn't really mind. Then the Sweet Sunny South crew had to leave- which left me and Nate sitting at the bar, drinking free beers, critiquing the noises coming from the corner. I guess an hour or more passed before it finally wound down. I jumped off the bar stool and started loading stuff out to the van. I was surprised when Ike and Martha, who had been the eye of the jam-icane, apologized to Nate and I for keeping us up so late for such a, "lame jam". I said, "you guys looked like you were having so much fun, though". I guess I didn't realize that they had felt as trapped as me. We loaded all the instruments into Martha's room, so as to not disturb Betse, and then retired to Ike and Nate's room for a nightcap. When I quietly entered the room I was sharing with Betse, I saw that it was almost 4am. We were due to leave by 9am the next morning to get back over the mountains for our next gig in Denver- a 6 hour drive. Uhhhhggg.

Everybody looked a little beat the next morning, but our "little band that could" took it in stride, as we chatted and laughed all the way up the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Soon, the conversation wound down, and so I DJ'd my iPod to keep everyone entertained- especially Ike, who was driving. We arrived with little time to spare in Denver, and spilled out of the van, delirious, but happy. The sound man at Swallow Hill, a nice 200+ seat theater in an older part of Denver, was waiting to help us get situated. We loaded in all our crap and began to plug everything up. The sound was great, and we all got a little excited to try our third night in a real concert space. Nate ran out to get us all burritos from a restaurant across the street, and I killed time by eating a chocolate cookie and drinking coffee. This was a mistake. I hadn't really had much to eat. and the sugar and caffeine made my heart race.

Just before we went on, Martha looked at all of us in the dressing room and confessed, "guys, I'm really nervous tonight, this is a folk crowd, and I'm afraid the drums and electric stuff is going to be too much for them." Even though I was about to pass out, I truthfully replied to her, "Don't worry about it Martha, we will do GREAT. These folks will LOVE it." I believed what I said, but something happened (I'll blame it on the sugar) when I walked out on stage. For some reason I forgot what instrument I played on the first tune and, by the time I realized what was going on, I had to scramble to get ready. This set off a domino effect for me that I did not recover from until almost the end of the first set. It seemed like no matter what song we were doing, my instruments were out of tune, my amp settings were wrong, or I just straight up forgot my parts, It was embarrassing and I felt terrible as I walked off stage for the break.

We reconvened in the dressing room and I apologized to Martha for screwing it up so bad. She was gracious and downplayed the whole thing. Then she said, "you know guys, screw it, let's just have FUN." This statement (along with the beer I gobbled down to counteract the sugar/caffiene) really seemed to help. We went back out and got through it with some skin still left on our teeth. After the show, Ike loaded up his drums and went to fall asleep in the van while we all chatted and ate our cold burritos. Then I went to pack up all my stuff, while Nate serenaded me on an old classical guitar he found lying in a back room. I'm not sure what it was called, but he played a lullaby he had written for his daughter Gretel. It was a great way to end a traumatic evening- Thanks Nate.

For the first and last time of our short tour, we checked into a really, really nice hotel for the night. Everybody was completely fried, and we only had about an hour to drive to the gig the next day. We all got in our rooms by midnight and crashed for a nice, long, comfortable night's sleep.

Martha had arranged for a late check out, and we all met in the lobby around 1pm to load up. We grabbed some lunch at a nice bar and grill in Denver before heading up I-25, just north of Ft. Collins to The Swing Station in Laporte. This is the current home-away-from-home of one of our best old road pals, Bradford Lee Folk. Brad was formerly the lead singer of the fabulous, but now-defunct bluegrass band, Open Road. He purchased the bar just over a year ago, and we had been wanting to visit him there for a long time. Now one thing I haven't addressed yet, is the fact that nobody was supposed to know that we were playing with Martha. We have several dates booked in Colorado later this year, and promoters take a dim view of bands barnstorming too close to their festivals for fear that, if somebody can see them at a bar, why would they pay to see them at a festival? So, even though Bradford knows us, he didn't know we were coming with Martha. The look on his face when we arrived carrying in our gear was priceless. I could literally see the blood drain out of his face when he realized that Martha was coming into Laporte with both barrels blazing. He quickly grabbed the bar phone and starting calling everybody on the front range.

Brad's business partner helped us get the sound going outside on the concrete pad/ beer garden, and we hit the first song while the sun was still blazing. The small crowd was in a great mood, and we just let all the tension of the last few days drain away. We even got Brad to come up and pick a couple of obscure old country numbers with us. It was a great way to end a great tour. Later that night, Brad invited us over for an after party at his home a mile up the road. We sat around his dining room table trading tunes and swapping stories late into the morning, before finally heading back to the doublewide trailer behind the bar to crash before the sun came up. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow and, after what only seemed like only a few minutes, Betse's alarm clock startled me awake. It was noon. We sluggishly got ourselves together and headed back over to Brad's to pick up Martha. I helped her load her suitcase in the trailer and took a quiet moment to thank her for the experience. I have to say, I got a little choked up. She gave me a hug and said, "we'll do it again soon, I promise."

It seemed like it took forever to get back to the Denver airport. We pulled up to the rental car area, and all bid Martha a very fond goodbye. As Ike pulled the van away from the airport terminal, I watched Martha disappear behind the glass doors lugging her gear behind her with confidence and grace.

It was 6pm. Now we had a 10-hour drive to get back home to KC. We were exhausted, but it was the best kind of tired.