June 22, 2006
It's a beautiful Tuesday morning and Jason Romero is sitting on his porch in the Arcata Bottom watching the cows. His dog sits at his feet panting loudly, waiting impatiently for Jason to throw his ball out into the field so he can fetch it and bound back with it to be thrown again. Jason might just be thinking about banjos, in fact he notes on the website for his business, J. Romero Banjos, that "As a player and a builder, I am always thinking of the banjo's design and sound."
Jason used to work at the Wildwood Banjos factory, but now he has a shop out of his own in the bottom where he handcrafts the instruments for banjo pickers all over the U.S. There are definitely fretboards that need finishing, but the dog is persistent, and then the phone is ringing — some pesky journalist on the line asking questions like, "Why the banjo?"
"Banjo players are an interesting bunch," he begins. "We like to tinker with our instruments a lot. They come apart and you can put new heads on 'em, put new tail pieces on 'em, put on new bridges and do all these things to change how they sound."
Jason got hooked on banjo when he was going to school at Chico State. "I walked into a bar and there was a guy playing a five-string banjo. I'd never seen one," he recalls, noting that he had not played music before that. "I had my phase when I loved Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, but I never played anything other than banjo."
In the beginning it was bluegrass that drew him in. "That was my main banjo outlet. I played with Compost [Mountain Boys, the local bluegrass stalwarts]. Then I got into old timey." (He still plays with C.M.B.) Jason and his fiddle-playing friend Colin Vance got together a while back to share their passion for pre-bluegrass mountain music. "We wanted to play these traditional Appalachian dance tunes, at first just fiddle and banjo." Eventually they recruited guitarist Brian Letts and stand-up bass player Cisco Haggerty and The Devil's Dream String Band was born.
"Old timey is different from bluegrass," Jason explains. "In the 20s it was all called old timey; now it's definitely two different: branches. In bluegrass, the approach to the tune is different. It's a lot more vocal oriented, and taking breaks is important — where you step up [to the microphone] and play a solo like in jazz — whereas in old timey the heart of it is based in fiddle and banjo dance tunes, songs that were developed for playing large dances.
"The only thing to do in rural areas was going to the big dance on Friday night. The tunes would be played over and over — it was all about the dancer. That's what appeals to me. The fiddle's laying down the melody while the banjo, guitar and bass lay down a solid rhythm track for the fiddle to ride on. It's all strong and steady for the dancers. You might play one tune for 10, 15 or 20 minutes. As far as playing in this area, we're realizing we need to break things up with some slower tunes and maybe an obscure banjo thing because not everybody has a tolerance for hearing one tune for 20 minutes — but we just love it. We eat the stuff up."
What does the Devil dream about? "Devil's Dream is the name of an old, old fiddle tune — we liked the name, and the fact that in a lot of areas [in the South] the fiddle was called 'the Devil's box.' It was a religious society and dance music wasn't really part of it. It was seen as bad when music made people want to kick up their heels. "I guess the Devil dreams about people dancing."
Ready to kick up you heels to some Devil music? Devil's Dream plays Saturday, June 24, at Humboldt Brews. They're also part of the massive, all-local line-up at the Humboldt Folklife Festival later this summer playing Old Timey Night (of course) on Friday, July 21, and on Saturday, July 22, at the all-day free fest, where they play on the main stage.
Also along old timey lines: The Pine Box Boys are back in town. Remember them? They're the guys with ZZ Top beards (some of them anyway) dressed like old west undertakers, singing dark, old time murder ballads and classics from the Southern mountain region like "Oh, Death." I caught part of their act in April at the Graves Museum (an appropriate venue for undertaker types) and was amazed to hear lead singer Lester T. Raww singing in the low rumbling growl of Tuvan throat singers — not on every song mind you, but it sounded real good, as did the band in general. The boys are about to head off to Europe on a summer tour, but first they're playing at Six Rivers Brewery on Thursday, June 22. They have a new album, Stab!, due out next week (they just might have copies with them). Opening the show: The Dave Hanley Band, an alt. old timey band from down in the Central Valley led by banjo/guitar pickin' Dave Hanley.
What else fills the Devil's dreams? I'm guessing he (or she) might dream of a nightclub painted with flames filled with headbangers moshing to the excruciating loud sounds of metal bands like Locust Furnace, Embryonic Devourment, Mummification, Exhausted Prayer and Noctuary — as in the five bands/five bucks show Thursday, June 22, at Brogi's Boiler Room.
Along similarly heavy lines, but probably not quite as Satanic, we have a pair of shows at the Alibi: Saturday night it's local psyche-metal band The Lord's Burning Rain plus, from San Diego, The Long and Short of It, with former Tourette's Lautrec vocalist Ben Johnson. Sunday at the Alibi catch the debut of Rock Shop, formerly (very briefly) known as That One New Local Rock Band, which includes members of The Hitch and Turbo 400, plus the Humboldt debut of San Jose-based neo-hair-metal band Diamond Lane, a hard-rockin' power trio in the Mötley Crüe/Metallica mold.
The brochure for the 2006-2007 CenterArts season mysteriously showed up at my house over the weekend. If you're a season subscriber yours should arrive by mail soon. As usual it offers an impressive array of must-see shows, big name talent aimed at a hip Baby Boomer crowd.
And as mentioned here earlier, it begins with "The Godfather of Soul" James Brown getting funky August 21. Then, in the space of a little more than a month, they have The Waifs (Aug. 28), Dave Brubeck (Sept. 13) Ani DiFranco (Sept. 15) Cheech Marin (Sept. 16), Taj Mahal (Sept. 21) and Mickey Hart with Planet Drum (Sept. 24). Still to come: on Oct. 4, Steve Earle (who also plays this weekend at the Kate Wolf Festival), Emmylou Harris (Oct. 5) who, BTW, has a great new album out with Mark Knopfler. Poet Maya Angelou comes Oct. 26; Lou Reed on Nov. 4, Randy Newman Nov. 10, Richard Thompson Dec. 1, Paula Poundstone on Dec. 9.
You're probably not thinking about shows you might see next year, but here's a few choices in a non-musical vein: Garrison Keillor on Jan. 24, Bill Cosby Jan. 28, Jane Goodall March 25 and Harry Shearer (of Le Show, The Simpsons, etc.) on March 30. Back to music we have Los Lobos (acoustic) Feb. 13, a double guitar deal with David Lindley and Bill Frisell Feb. 20, Angelique Kidjo Feb. 27, an Americana fest with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely on March 6, Altan March 8, a touring version of Cats April 2 & 3, Arlo Guthrie April 17 and Baaba Maal on April 24. Wow. Prices range from $75 for J.B. and Bill C. down to $25 for Lindley and Frisell, with most in the $35-$55 range.
By chance, Arlo and Baaba are both playing festivals in Mendo this weekend: Arlo and Family at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival at Black Oak Ranch and Baaba in Boonville at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, where he's part of a Friday lineup that also includes the amazing Amadou and Miriam. The Sierra Nevada folks just announced that they are selling single-day tickets, same deal at Kate Wolf, so an ambitious music lover could conceivably go to both festivals. Me? I'm not that ambitious. I'll see what's playing here in Humboldt. As you can see, we get some of the best. l
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