Thursday, August 26, 2021

Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

Rolling Stone drummer Charlie Watts died on Tuesday at age 80. Along with bass guitarist Bill Wyman, were the “quiet” members of the group, laying down a solid rhythm for frontmen Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. From the beginning he was a Stone apart—married, an artist, gainfully employed, a very sharp dresser, more jazz than rock and roll and always a first-rate drummer. As a teenage Rolling Stones fan my attention was easily drawn to the more flamboyant members of the group but something about Charlie Watts always caught my eye. He didn’t seem to quite fit into the rock and roll lifestyle. He simply played drums well in what he called his “day job” and pursued his other interests, particularly jazz, as time and the touring schedule allowed. Somehow, he managed to ignore the trappings of celebrity and fame.

Even so, Watts wasn’t entirely able to escape the dangers of his work environment. He developed a heroin addiction in the 1980s that threatened to cost him his career and family. His addiction was bad enough that Keith Richards(!) told him he needed to get help. He did just that and continued to play with the band for the rest of his life. Funny thing about Watts’ drumming is that it stands out without being over dramatic. Listening to the Rolling Stones songs I don’t focus on the drumming—it’s part of a complete package that makes up the song but it’s also essential to the to the song. I’m not well-versed in all of the intricacies that define good drumming but I do know that Watts added heft and authority to the group’s music over six decades.

My interest in the Rolling Stones waned in the 70s and beyond as they became more of an institution and a large scale touring act. I think the last Stones album in my collection is 1973’s “Goat’s Head Soup”. I was much more drawn to their earlier, more hardscrabble music and thought their later music was more derivative than original. Even so, I was aware that the group never lost its appeal and, as the decades rolled on, continued to make outstanding music, completely reinventing the role of aging rockers and never simply falling back on their greatest hits of yesteryear. Those hits remained part of the act but never exclusively so and the Rolling Stones were always contemporary. Mick and Keith may have been out front gathering attention but Charlie was always behind them with a solid, creative beat.

Godspeed, Charlie. It’s been one helluva ride.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

21st Subdued Stringband Jamboree

If I were a journalist I would be way behind on deadline but I’m not a journalist and can write on whatever deadline I want. So here’s my report on the 21st  Subdued Stringband Jamboree that took place August 12-14, 2021 at the Deming Logging Show Fairgrounds east of Bellingham, Washington. This was my second Jamboree—I attended previously in 2018 and always planned to return. I skipped in 2019 and the pandemic forced the event to go virtual in 2020 so I was definitely primed to go when organizers announced that 2021 would be a live event, although considerably reduced in attendance due to the continuing Covid threat. Attending any large event is still risky these days but the reduced crowd size and vaccination requirement seemed like a reasonable accommodation to reality. Besides, I was really craving to hear some live music.

The line-up included more than 20 performers and the music ranged from solo singer-songwriters to classic rock and roll , jug bands, Tejano/Conjunto, Celtic, and reggae. Amplified performances ran throughout the three days on two stages and when the stages shut down around 11:00 pm or so, acoustic music continued well into the night at smaller venues. Many of the acts performed at all three venues so attendees had the chance to catch different versions of each. If that were not enough, workshops offered the opportunity for attendees to play and smaller informal sessions occurred throughout the three days of the Jamboree. Music was literally everywhere.


So much music, that I could not catch it all. It did not help that the event took place during one of 2021’s severe heat waves in the Pacific Northwest. Shade was at a premium during the day so attending an afternoon performance required some endurance. I’m sure even more was required of the performers. Evenings were somewhat better but even then warm temperatures persisted until the later acts came on stage when it got noticeably chilly. That’s when I realized that the t-shirt ans shorts that were so comfortable earlier were inadequate.

I did not make note of all the performances I attended—I’m just not that much of a journalist. I can say that I heard only one act that did not particularly appeal to me. A few really grabbed my attention. On Thursday night John Elliot, a singer-songwriter, performed heartfelt songs that addressed topical issues with passion and humor. He introduced one song as a ten minute piece about public transportation which cleverly recounted the history of our addiction to fossil fuel. Another song, “It’s Bad But It Gets Better” lifted our spirits at a time when we could all use a lift. Hot Damn Scandal, a seven- member combo that included trombone, saxophone and saw, played music that ranged from rock to R&B and jazz. I couldn’t make out many of their lyrics but their energy engaged me fully. 


On Friday the Yogoman Burning Band, led by drummer Jordan Rains, played an eclectic mix of rock, reggae and R&B. Their set was very lively with much dancing in front of the stage. The Dusty 45s, a four man rock and roll band , performed a set that covered all of the bases—cars, women and one song that asked “why America never stops to think and wonder why”. They finished their set with an encore mash-up of surf music that segued into a cover of “Secret Agent Man” and ended with the lead singer playing a flaming trumpet while perched on the bass man’s upright bass. Saturday’s line-up included Jolie Holland singing her original songs. I couldn’t make out many of her lyrics but I loved the sound of her voice and music. Winston Jarrett, an 80 year-old reggae legend wrapped up the evening with a lively set accompanied by the Yogoman Burning Band. 


In addition to the music, the Bellingham Circus Guild performed a variety of acts on Saturday morning, everything from aerial performances, to silly mime acts, object manipulating and juggling. The Brasscadia Circus Band provided musical accompaniment and sound effects The final act was a juggler who juggled flaming batons while balancing a flaming scythe on his head. It was a fun way to begin the final day’s performances.


The many other performers were no doubt equally talented but with the volume of music available I either could not manage to catch them all or remember the details . Aside from the amount of energy required to attend all performances and the blazing heat during the afternoon performances, I missed many of the Saturday afternoon performances while serving as a volunteer in the kitchen washing a never-ending parade of pots and pans as the kitchen crew finished up lunch and prepared dinner. The Jamboree is powered by volunteers who attend for free. In past years that required two four-hour shifts but this year, in order to keep numbers down in response to Covid, volunteers worked three shifts. When I attended in 2018, I worked my two shifts on Sunday doing take-down and grounds clearing and did not miss any music. I couldn’t pull that off this year.

You might think that spending four hours in a hot kitchen on a very hot day would be unpleasant but it wasn’t for me. The work was fast-paced, and I was largely in charge of how I did it. The other kitchen volunteers were helpful when I had a question but otherwise left me on my own. A second volunteer joined me for much of the time which gave me the chance to meet someone whom I would not otherwise meet. We made a good team and coordinated the work fairly efficiently. She also alerted me to the availability of free beer in the walk-in cooler. The beer was nice but just spending time in that cooler was a welcome relief. When I finished my shift and walked into the heat of the day I caught the tail end of Gallowglass performing acoustic Irish music. As hot and tired as I was I stood at the edge of the crowd for their final two songs.

At that point all I wanted to do was lie down in dark of my air-conditioned trailer but the Tejano music of Epi and CruzMartinez was easily audible from my campsite. A slight breeze was blowing and the site was nicely shaded so I ended up sitting outside, enjoying the late afternoon and the music. And the generosity of my next door neighbor who noticed my broken 20 year-old camp chair (it collapsed during the previous night’s performances) and offered me one of their extras.

Getting to meet the neighbors was also a fun part of the event. We were flanked on each side by folks from Bellingham. The neighbor who loaned me the chair had a large trailer (28 feet?) and a pretty sophisticated outside kitchen. On the other side was a small retro trailer that had been substantially rebuilt by its owner. I was particularly impressed with the creative plumbing for their water hook-up. Their campsite was set up as a theme, complete with patio furniture, an inflatable kiddie pool and a faux cardboard campfire. My Sunday volunteer shift was also a chance to meet other Stringband fans, all of whom were from Bellingham and regular attendees. We spent the day dismantling tents, removing signage, loading gear into trailers and doing general clean-up. Temperatures were lower that day but it was still hot work in the sun. Our crew leader wisely set up under the shade of a large cedar and we sheltered in that (relative) coolness whenever we could. Like the previous day’s shift, it was tiring work but in good company. Putting in the volunteer hours gave me a greater sense of connection to the Jamboree, more so than if I had just shown up, listened to the music and left. The free admission and three meals in the Canteen were a bonus but the connection with other attendees and organizers made the whole event that much more fun.

By Sunday night the 21st Subdued Stringband Jamboree was gone. Only a few tents and campers remained. What had been a lively community full of people and energy seemed to have simply disappeared. Without the crowd, the Deming Logging Show Fairgrounds was a vast empty space. Although I was part of the crew that helped dismantle the whole affair, I was still surprised at the emptiness. Still, sitting in the evening coolness under a partly cloudy sky I could fill that emptiness with the images, sounds and experiences of the previous three days. Those images, sounds and experiences will fade over time but will remain alive in memory for a long time to come.