Isaw two bands play last week — three if you count a year-old webcast of a band from New Orleans that I watched on my computer the other night on the advice of a friend. On the surface of it, the three bands don't seem to have that much in common. Though they all play about the same size and type of venues, they play different styles of music and also come from three different generations of musicians. What they do share, however, is the (possibly quixotic) drive to put a band together — keep a band together — and take that band out into the public sphere and put on a show.
Earlier this month, I saw a group from Santa Rosa, Calif., called the Oddjob Ensemble play Paddy Brannan's Irish Pub in Ashland. Paddy's is an intimate venue — which is to say, small. It's part of its charm. Whenever I've been in there to see music it feels like a real event, and that night was no different. I stood just inside the door, shoulder-to-shoulder with other members of the audience and looked down the rectangular room at a group of five young-looking musicians with an eclectic assemblage of instruments.
There was a girl with a violin and an alto saxophone; a guy in a white straw hat with a clarinet and a guitar; a kid on a percussion rig that looked like it was pieced together from the remains of several defunct drum kits; an upright bass player in a porkpie hat; and a guy in a newsboy cap who played resonator guitar, accordion and trombone. The drummer did most of the singing, and the band charged through a fantastic selection of upbeat numbers that varied between Django-esque Gypsy jazz and a clarinet-driven, klezmer style of music.
Earlier that same day, I drove up Highway 66 to Green Springs Inn to watch local stalwarts LEFT play a rock 'n' roll show outside under towering fir trees. The band was christening a new stage built behind the inn earlier that week from trees that were felled and milled into lumber right there on the property. The stage sits on the edge of a grassy area where there were eight or 10 large, round folding tables set up that could each comfortably accommodate a dozen or more audience members.
The band started at 3:30 p.m. and was still playing when I headed back down the hill two hours later. The crowd was a mix of local Greensprings residents and folks who'd been out hiking, fishing or boating all morning and stopped in for a drink or a meal and to listen to the band before heading home.
LEFT sounded great. There are few things in the world of live music better than listening to a good band play outdoors on a nice day. The sky was blue, it wasn't too hot and the band alternated between original songs and well-chosen covers (from the "Sweet Virginia" end of the classic rock spectrum in general and the Rolling Stones catalog specifically). In addition to the four founding members who's last-name initials give the band its name — Bret Levick on guitar, Bob Evoniuk on lap-steel guitar, Greg Frederick on bass and Matt Terreri on drums — the band also featured Don Harriss on keys.
The band that I watched on my computer is called Hurray for the Riff Raff, and the performance was on a lawn in front of a small community art center somewhere in New Orleans. They don't seem to be famous, and I have no reason to believe that Southern Oregon will ever be on their touring schedule. Alhough I would be first in line for a ticket if they were to show up.
I mention them in this column only because watching their set — which was originally presented as a live webcast and now exists for all posterity via the magic of YouTube — put a nice cap on a great weekend of music. In LEFT, I saw a group of veteran musicians who have played a lot of big shows over the course of their various careers and who put on just as good a show for a small crowd as they do for a big one. They clearly play for the love of music.
The Oddjob Ensemble came through town as a group of college-age kids touring on no budget and playing their hearts out every night. I bought one of their records for $5. It was a burned disk with the title written on it with a black marker, packaged in a brown paper sandwich bag with the song titles written out by hand in ballpoint pen.
I watched both of these bands play in my town and then I saw Hurray for the Riff Raff reflect the same spirit of non-financially-motivated artistic and cultural expression from 3,000 miles away in an entirely different region of the country.
The experience left me feeling proud to be a part of a local live music community.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.