We have this saying in the Foghorn Stringband, “…the places old time music takes ya….”
We find a great many moments where this little adage seems to properly capture the strange and beautiful moments when we find ourselves in an unexpected little corner of the world, one we certainly would never have stumbled upon were it not for the fact that we are musicians that have chosen a pursuit of traditional music. Sometimes I look around in awe, “what luck to be here, and how unexpected!” Why is it notable that we are old time musicians? Well, it may not be, but there seems to be a lovely sort of community that centers itself around traditional music all ‘round the world, and these little pockets of community always seem to welcome us in and show us around their unique corners of the world. I often think how charmed I am (not just to ride the coat tails of the Foghorn Stringband legacy), but moreover, simply get to enjoy experiences and meet people that a typical tourist would not so easily find. It seems as much as we spend time traveling to far corners of our countries and beyond, here today, and somewhere else tomorrow, the hosts we find, in the places we perform, enjoy letting the a part of the world come to them and stir up ordinary life for a day.
It’s a privilege to have so many fine moments. And the trick is, to take each in fully, and to connect in each moment with presence and heart. My good friend, (also a performing musician) and I once spoke about this, and I think he hit the nail on the head when he said with great humility and appreciation, “…just as a rich man might be a glutton for rich food and hedonistic experiences, it is like we have been given a gluttony of experiences.” For when we are with those we visit and for whom we perform music, it is usually a party of some kind… a festival, a wedding, a bar gig, theater, someone’s Saturday night somewhere, and people are out for the evening to be entertained and relax, after a long day’s work. It might even be their biggest party of the year, and we know we must rise to each occasion and be the best party band we can be, even after the gig is through. Luckily, I think this comes with relative ease to everyone in this band. We genuinely enjoy meeting people, seeing old friends, socializing, and showing people a good time with our music, whether on or off stage. I think it is important to us all, and frankly makes life on the road more livable, to get to know folks along the way. And because we’re open to it, we get shown around, and are given a dose of local flavor, even when we least expect it.
Foghorn is just wrapping up a six week tour that began on the east coast of the US, and finished in rural western Wales. I’m already wondering how on earth to capture this tour without some kind of mundane description by the day… there were so many wonderful moments. Maybe I should just focus on the moments….
Part 1 The End of April
We had a great week teaching in the schools at the end of April in Rockport, Mass. a sleepy coastal town NE of Boston, thanks to an arts outreach program put on by Stephanie Woolf and the Shalin Liu Performing Arts Center. Stephanie is an understated woman, yet when we began to speak with her, we learned with intrigue that she had enjoyed a career as a session fiddler in Nashville. She had worked with many of our musical heroes that we will never get to meet… Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash…. And what’s more, in her quiet way, she goes about doing her own research to seek out an interesting and eclectic range of musicians to bring into the schools, giving the kids a wide scope of exposure. They are lucky to have her. Over the course of three days, we appeared in classes of all ages. Pre-K to high school. Those little kids were so sweet and innocent and free from all the cares they are about to encounter in what seems like a very strange time to grow up. We did brief presentations of our traditional music, telling of the history, with time to answer questions. With the young kids we usually offered a little quiz so they could guess what instruments we played. They were familiar for the most part, but it was mandolin that stumped them the most. I think my favorite guess was when one little boy raised his hand, and earnestly said, “is it a trombone?” We had a public show on the last night in the beautiful performing arts center. Shalin Liu is right on the water with enormous windows taking up the whole of the wall behind the stage, looking out to sea. It was one of the best sounding rooms I’ve played in. I could hear every subtlety, and the crowd was rowdy and engaged, just the way you’d want them to be.
Just prior to that, we had performed in Charleston, WV. Sammy had flown in from Sore Fingers music week over in UK, and Nadine from home, where they’d been madly remodeling the house that she and Sammy purchased and moved into less than a year ago in Pointe-à-la-Croix, Quebec, down the road from her family. Caleb and I flew in from Portland, OR after a duo tour in California. Foghorn’s first show of the tour was at the Performing Arts Center in Charleston for the Friends of Old Time Music and Dance. It was a great night there. We love being in the southern Appalachians where so much of this traditional music has been fostered. We are always welcomed, though we come from other parts of the continent. As Caleb always says, “the fiddle is small and it has always traveled, and the tunes with it.”
Part 2 Ireland
Oh Ireland, you’re always good to us with your unmatched keen humor, your cozy pub culture, your discriminating knack for never enduring bullshit or pretense, and your ever remarkable landscapes. Just keep things as they are, and don’t change. The slower pace of life, the appreciation for communing with fellow man, the love of tradition, and the treasuring of music, are all things unique in their expression in Ireland.
The Baltimore Fiddle Fair is, in our opinion, a pretty special festival, where many incredible musicians converge in a gorgeous and small village in SW Cork. The focus of the festival is plainly about the fiddle, and mostly in traditional and roots music. We were very happy to spend several days there this year, with a day or two off before and after the festival to enjoy Baltimore, a rare feat amidst a busy tour schedule. We were fortunate to encounter some unseasonable weather in the form of bright warm sunshine, and we used it well. We jumped into the sea, enjoyed pints and oysters in the sun on the square, and walked out to the ever iconic beacon, a tall hive-shape whitewashed stone structure marking the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. (Incidently, there is song in progress by the title, Sneakin’ Round the Beacon.) The Fiddle Fair is in its 25th year, and this year it was celebrated in many ways, one of which was the first ever at the festival square dance. Our good pal, Ava Honey, from Boise, Idaho was the caller, and the marquis was full to the brim with dancers. It was a big hit, and the word on the street was that it would become an annual tradition at Fiddle Fair. We had a concert set, and a kids show one morning for the local schools. There are always great pub sessions throughout the festival. The performances at Fiddle Fair are unfailing in might and quality, and I find myself enjoying rare moments sitting quietly, listening to the music and getting inspired. There is no overlooking the grassroots approach of Fiddle Fair. The McCarthy family puts on a great party, with Declan at the helm, booking and organizing, his mother Etna priming the artist housing larders with beautiful homemade breads, good Irish butter, her homemade preserves and pickles, and farm eggs, and sausages. His sisters run a tight ship, managing door and tickets at each festival event, along with the Fiddle Fair girls, a tight crew of ladies that sells the merchandise; and lets not forget Archie, a Baltimore boy who keeps a sharp eye on the door. The craic only seems to improve as the weekend goes on, as everyone grows more sleep deprived and partied out. I think they are all legends, and the more we get to nurture our friendships with this great family, the more we enjoy each visit we have with them. This year we had the added joy of luring some of our friends from back home over to the Fiddle Fair. Besides Ava Honey, there was a pack of Alaskan friends, and Ava’s sister & friend from Denmark, not to mention friends from around Ireland who were down for the fest. They all took to the scene like champions, leaning right into the fray. I think I saw daylight at the end of most nights there before making it into my bed. You know its good fun if you find yourself trading sleep for it, for sleep is a precious thing.
It is always sad to leave Baltimore. But this time it was eased by the jubilance of a promotor in Clonmel, Ireland, Gerry Lawless who hosts the Clonmel World Music concert series. He is the kind of person you wish you could clone and place in each town with a venue. He humbly exudes a kind of joy, appreciation, and energy for music, and has clearly become trusted by both his audience and performers alike. Gerry wrote us a beautiful email after the show, and I checked to see if it would be ok if I printed it here. I thought it was a sentiment worth sharing:
After thanking us for a great show he wrote… “What it is all about, in my opinion, is a collaboration between us all to produce a musical treat and it feeds the souls of all present, and gives us all a high and an escape from whatever our life struggles are at that time. It is a huge team effort between myself, you guys, Pat on sound, the Clonmel Music Crew, and the hotel staff, and most of all the audience who trust what we are all doing…. I am really proud of my part in it and am so grateful to you guys for responding to all the hard work in giving you the platform to perform, by giving your all in a really brilliant show….The most pleasure I get on these nights, apart from the joy of the music itself is seeing the happy smiling faces of the audience and the band who all contribute to two hours of bliss and joy. The happiness and massive smiles on peoples faces… as they headed home from the show was a massive buzz. Thanks so much. You guys have it really tough at times with all the thankless traveling, tough shows, hard work, bad audiences, shit promoters and venues. You also have it brilliant when it all comes together. I hope ye got a lot out of the show last Thursday night, and that it renews your faith and confidence in your ability, in your hard work, your songs, tunes and stories and your faith in what you do to lift peoples’ spirits and bring joy and happiness. I loved your own songs and tunes, and I especially loved your carrying on of the old songs and traditions, your respect for the musicians that came before you and your keeping the songs and tunes alive. Musicians are such an important part in bringing joy to the world, and it’s often not appreciated. You really do dish out healing in the key of C!” Thanks Gerry for all that you do and for your outlook.
From Clonmel we continued to a little tiny village hall north of Dublin. Here a promotor puts on a lovely small show, but the dinner before the show was the special treat. We walked into a houseful of smiling faces looking up at us. We didn’t know we were eating dinner with the whole extended family! Three sisters bustled around the kitchen putting out beautiful fresh salads and roasted potatoes, a leg of lamb, and cheeses. It was quite a spread! We were instantly made comfortable with all the chatter and teasing between the siblings and their husbands. The meal was delicious, everything made fresh from scratch.
They were all from right there in that village, and the family bonds seemed strong and full of friendship. They loved the music, and so we felt we had returned something for their hospitality.
Part 3 Germany
We had a very early morning flight to Germany for three days, an adventure all its own. A few years ago, Foghorn Stringband toured Germany, and along the way, stumbled into one of those “the places old time music takes you” moments. We were to play a show for a promoter in his wine shop. When we arrived he had cleared all the shop contents to the side, and filled the room with as many chairs as he could. We were sat down to platters piled high with paper thin slices of charcuterie and cheeses with good bread and wine. The show was a great success with his band opening, (we found out he’s a fine old time fiddler) and at the end of the night he informed us we’d be staying at an inn in a nearby village, owned by some friends of his. The inn turned out to be charming and cozy, and when we met our hosts the next morning, what followed was one of those fast friend situations. We happened to have a day off, and were invited to stay over another night. In spite of our lack of German (though Sammy speaks a little), and their half decent English, we found kindred spirits. The inn and adjoining barns had been in the family a long time, and are beautiful old buildings dating back many centuries. The courtyard in between the barns was the perfect spot to enjoy the local beer in the sun. Scherdel. My dad who happened to be on tour with us at the time said it best after a long day of travel: “Ah… Scherdel! It’s like an angel pissing on my tongue!” As our friendship blossomed, (in no small way due to Silke’s home cooking, wild boar sausage, and cute little spring house filled with flowers and veggies, where we could fill our glasses from the cool stone trough), we learned that there was a hall up above one of the barns. though it was dusty and unused, it was a charming little hall with a stage and wood floor. Silke’s father, Conrad, now in his eighties, carried kegs of beer on his shoulder like it was no big deal, up the steep stone stairs into the hall a week or so later when we returned to put on an impromptu show on a day off. They rallied the locals and with short notice had a hall full of good beer drinking Germans to see a night of music. Anyhow, you get the idea.
So when we returned this time, it had been three years since we last saw our friends. You can imagine what a joyful reunion it was, and in no time it felt like we had never been apart. Conrad was still up early doing chores around the place as though he was 20 years younger than he is. And though my dad wasn’t there to say it, our first sip of Scherdel in the sun tasted heavenly. This time they went big for the show. They rented a renovated barn across the street… one that had been standing there since the 1200s, and had more space than their own hall. And Scherdel Brewery provided all the accoutrements necessary to set up a good beer hall, including wooden tables and benches, and a massive beer truck with a fold down bar balcony on the side, and a copper tap. They rounded up a couple hundred attendees, and we had a big old party.
The next evening as we sat with them out back in the little hunter’s cottage near the field, and had a BBQ on our night off, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate we are to meet such good people along our way. If you open your eyes a little past your own little world, there are good people all over the place. They are like family now, and I look forward to the next time we get to visit Germany. Who could wait to get back to Silke’s home cooking? Her family inn is a special place, and they work very hard to keep it up and running. Gatshof Rotes Ross is where it’s at! Hurray for Höchstadt!
Part 4 England and Wales, with a short venture into Denmark
Onto the UK. We had many special moments during our two weeks there that are worth mentioning… once we finally got past customs! We had a roundabout tour of England and some amazing forays into Wales also.
We finally got to collaborate with some promoters that we’ve been in touch with for years. We played in Leeds at the Brudenell. And the next day for our buddy Michael McGoldrich, legendary pipe and flute player from Manchester, who hosts a great series called the Carousel Sessions over at the Chorleton Irish Center, a family owned pub and hall. We had a great night there sharing the bill with John Doyle, followed by a late night session in the pub. John puts on a stellar solo show in case you were wondering. Stories and songs woven into one another with riotous guitar tunes mixed in. And of course we had the joy of sharing the stage with John and “Goldie”, as we call him, at the end of our set. Talk about lifting and separating! The Reverend PT Grover used to say of the Key of A, “It’s the people’s key. The key that lifts and separates!” It’s difficult to explain, but perhaps you know just what he meant. Anyhow, I would apply the same adage to John and Goldie. They have an electrifying musical presence, and the tunes we played together really did lift to another level.
We had a special night in Richmond, playing a square dance and concert for the Richmond Old Time Music and Dance Club at a nifty sporting club overlooking vast rugby fields and the famous Kew Gardens, the largest botanical garden in the world. Quite a lot of Londoners braved the city’s traffic to come across town for the evening. The next morning our pal and host Julian took us to the Kew Gardens, and we got to wander about the vast expanse admiring that astonishing collection of plants and trees.
Down at Lewes the next night, in the south of England, we were hosted by the Cajun Barn, a couple who have been promoting great Cajun and roots music for almost 20 years! Their crowd is a rowdy one, and you would’ve thought you were up in Liverpool or something, a compliment in my opinion, since Liverpool has a love and joy of music that is rarely rivaled. We played in a little club, and folks were up dancing from start to finish.
We were met at the airport by our friend and liaison, Lee West from Virginia, who was in Copenhagen for work. He escorted us to the venue by taxi. It was a sunny afternoon, and the Danes were out and about. They said it was one of their first good weather days all spring, and the cabin fever was being aired! We were met as we stepped out of the taxi by a mysterious fan who had photos and papers ready for autographing… I’m not sure how she knew we would be there at that early hour, but she barely said a word, or made eye contact, got the autographs, then disappeared. I don’t recall seeing her again that night, but hopefully she made it to the show.
Danish people seem to be out and about no matter what the weather, but they seemed especially festive that day with all the sunshine. Copenhagen just has a nice feeling as you walk through it, with lots of people outdoors, sitting by the river drinking wine, or walking or biking somewhere. The first time I went to Copenhagen, I was startled by the bicycling culture there. They have dedicated bike lanes, that are completely separate from pedestrian walkways, which you will quickly find out if you should be walking in a bike lane! Watch out or you’ll get run over! Or at least yelled at by a chiding Dane. I wish every place had such a strong bicycle culture. We flew to Copenhagen for just one day, to perform a concert at a venue called Global. Caleb and I played there as a duo a few years ago, and it was just as fun then as it was this time. Global is a great venue, and my favorite part is that for dinner before the show, once all the chores of sound check, etc are finished, the staff sets a big long table in the middle of the hall, complete with tall fancy candelabras, and everyone eats a meal together.
Our show was well attended, due in part I’m sure to the fact that we played the Roskilde Festival last summer in Denmark. The audience was a rowdy mix of young and old and everything in between, including a little boy fast asleep by the stage on a pile of coats. At the end of the show, we walked off the stage in the midst of a tune and took the party outside for a last couple of tunes. People were singing along, and it was such a nice night altogether. I think we all wished to stay around Copenhagen a little longer.
Back in UK now…
There was the day where we played a show in the wood shop of a timber framer, whose home was artfully constructed of oak timbers, and whose farm sat adjacent to a large earthen ring that had been raised by the Romans in 1200. It was the shape of a horseshoe with a vast meadow in the middle, and on the ring were massive old oak trees that had been there for who knows how long. As the sun set with rays of golden light bursting through the branches, I started to feel like I was in Middle Earth, and that a hobbit might wander out from amidst the trees any moment. Or maybe Gandalf with his pipe, curls of smoke winding up into the leaves. I wouldn’t mind a quiet chat with old Gandalf. We had the day off next day, and our hosts provided a most welcome respite for us to rest, catch up on sleep, and enjoy a day outside of a car. We slept in, ate well, rode horses, went for a beautiful walk up into the woods and hills around the farm. Eli West was in the neighborhood, and we spent the day with him there. Wales is most certainly a magical place, with its little wooded hollows and grassy hills. It does feel an awful lot like I would imagine the shire to be.
There once was an audience we dubbed The Saddest Audience in the UK. Only because their love of the sad song was rather unrivaled. Not only did they doggedly request sad songs, but they sang along with them! We picked our saddest for them, and they were as happy as could be about it! From murder ballads to heartbreak songs, we couldn’t throw them. They ate it up. This was a special acoustic night, with no mics, and a load of folks crammed tightly into the back the Cross Keys pub in Sellatyn. Our good buddy Jock puts on this show, and I think there is people like about being packed in so tightly like that, a mild hardship that we secretly enjoy. It’s very intimate in a way, and it’s nice to enjoy that once in awhile.
We traveled into the very NW of Wales to a little island called Menai Bridge where a wonderful man named Owen puts on a concert series at the Vic Hotel. He’s been promoting music for 40 years! Owen is a musician himself and was lovely to visit with considering his encyclopedic knowledge of many things including the local history of his area. He took us on a little tour of Electric Mountain, an amazing hydro power system that was constructed to accommodate power surges. There is a lake at the top of the mountain and a lake at the bottom. Inside the mountain is the hydro system. During power surges, the water from the upper lake is released, flowing down into the lower lake. Then it gets slowly pumped back up again during low power times of day. It should be noted, that one major time when they have power surges is during a television break in the evenings when everyone gets up to make tea! Owen also took us to an old castle nearby, not to mention a gorgeous classic view of Snowdonia National Park. Snowdonia is a stunning place, and we took advantage of the opportunity for a walk and swim along our way the next day.
In Shrewsbury we performed at the Wightman Theater, a show promoted by our booking agent, Angie, of Access All Areas. The next day we drove up to Sheffield to play a double bill with Evie Laden and Kieth at the Graystones. What a great audience that was! A very fun night. And our hosts that evening shared their music with us in the form of a nice sing-song before bed. And then the tour was winding down. We drove down to Dorset Country for two days playing in Village Halls in the villages of Corfe Castle, and Portesham. These shows are put on by ArtsReach, a program that funds arts shows in village halls all around Dorset County. The bigger shows help fund the smaller shows, and then everybody, even in the rural parts has access to arts performances. The halls were both sold out and many folks were seeing us for the first time. Thanks to our hosts Barbara and Robert, who have a beautiful farm up on the hillside. The tour ended with a bang up near Aberystwyth in Wales, where we played a private party for a friend’s birthday party out in the countryside. The show was held inside a traveling barn. What is a traveling barn you might wonder? Well, it is a gorgeous timber frame structure covered in heavy canvas. It can be taken down and put up as needed. You know the term, “they were swinging from the rafters” as in, it was a wild night? Well, they literally were swinging from the rafters that night! People were dancing on the bar, flatfooting on the stage, swinging from the rafters, and well, it was a wild time! There was a English folk song sing-off, and we realized that we need to have more anthems in our own repertoire… We heard the dawn chorus in the wee hours before catching a few hours of sleep in front of a long journey back to the States.
We’re glad to have had a memorable tour in Ireland, UK, Germany, and Denmark. Thanks to all the folks who hosted us, helped promote our shows, and supported live music! Foghorn Stringband will reconvene in July at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA. In the mean time, Caleb has taught mandolin at the Midwest Banjo Camp, and along with Reeb toured in the NE with the Caleb Klauder Country Band in early June. We are also hosting the 4th Annual Great Big Fais Do Do Festival in Portland, OR this weekend. Sammy and Nadine will be enjoying their newly remodeled kitchen, hopefully christening it with some amazing meals. And are teaching at the Yukon Woodshed Camp. Summer is here!