Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost”; documentary by Todd Kwait (Folk Era Records) Paul Rishell and Annie Raines – “A Night In Woodstock” (Mojo Rodeo Records)

These two DVD’s were both put together by producer/director/writer Todd Kwait, and feature overlapping performers, so it makes sense to me to review the two of them together, though musically they are quite distinct.

“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost” is an idea that has been WAY overdue – a full-length documentary film about the history of jug band music. What’s more, it doesn’t cover just the original jug band heroes of the 1920’s/30’s (Clifford Hayes, Earl McDonald, Whistler’s Jug Band, Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, featuring Noah Lewis, Ashley Thompson, and the “Gus” of the title, Gus Cannon). It also features vintage footage and modern-day performances by some of the revered figures of the 1960’s jug band revival, most notably the Jim Kweskin Band (with Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur, and Maria Muldaur). Also covered from the Revival era is the Even Dozen Jug Band (which included John Sebastian, Joshua Rifkin, Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman, David Grisman, and the very same Maria Muldaur when she was still Maria D’Amato; all at the beginnings of their careers). (I would have liked more discussion of Dave Van Ronk’s role in the revival, which is one of the few criticisms I can come up with.) The story is brought further up-to-date when the Kweskin Band and Sebastian travel to Japan to interact with the highly active Japanese jug band scene. There is also a segment on Sankofa Strings (an African-American band which overlaps in personnel with the Carolina Chocolate Drops), who are attempting to bring awareness of jug band music back to the black community which spawned it, then spurned it.

Much of the focus on the early days is on Cannon’s Jug Stompers, since it was the revival of key parts of Cannon’s repertoire that sparked Kwait’s interest in the jug band phenomenon and indeed proved crucial to the 60’s revival. The first inkling most folkies had that a jug band revival was even possible came when the Rooftop Singers had a monster hit with Gus Cannon’s oldie, “Walk Right In”. (The late Erik Darling lived long enough to tell the tale of his hit on camera and sing a somewhat curious arrangement of the song, in which he substitutes his harmony part for the familiar melody.) Is there any one interested in this music who discovered it during this revival period (as I did) and did not fall under the mysterious spell of ”Going To Germany”? We learn that the phrase “goin’ to German’” had nothing to do with the European nation, but refers to a town near Memphis called Germantown. The film also visits what’s left of “Minglewood” (more properly, Menglewood) home of a box factory which, like Germantown, was a place where black people were able to find employment. “Minglewood Blues” was one of harmonica virtuoso Noah Lewis’ great contributions to the jug band world; Lewis would go on to utilize the setting again for another song, “The New Minglewood Blues”. This song was one of the first recorded by the Grateful Dead, which itself evolved out of a jug band. In fact, Bob Weir is one of the interviewees in this film as well.

This leaves John Sebastian, who is one of the stars of the DVD, both as an interviewee and as a featured performer. Much is made of the fact that jug band music was a major influence on the Lovin’ Spoonful. This is, of course, impossible to deny. But to think of them as an “electric jug band” leaves out a lot of their other, subsequent influences. Still, it’s a treat to hear Sebastian sing a bit of Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues”, and to recognize it as the source of “Younger Girl”, another piece of the puzzle directly traceable to Gus Cannon. As you can see, Kwait really was “chasin’ Gus Cannon’s ghost” in this film. Sebastian not only performs in the film with his more recent outfit, the J Band (which includes Paul Rishell and Annie Raines), he achieves a life-long dream to perform on-stage with the Jim Kweskin Band. Kweskin and the Muldaurs sound as fine as ever, but alas Fritz Richmond (also seen in vintage footage), the greatest of all washtub bass players and a mean hand at the jug as well, was slowly dying of lung cancer at the time the film was being made. Richmond becomes as much a focal point of the film as Gus Cannon. The Japanese segments, in fact, were part of a Fritz Richmond memorial tribute, featuring the American guests alongside the Japanese bands MadWords (featuring Uncle Mooney) and the Southern Chefs. One person obviously missing from the Kweskin segments of the film is David Simon, a/k/a “BrunoWolf”. It seems no one has any idea what happened to him.

There is next-to-no film footage of the original jug bands, though Kwait does include an excerpt of the famous 1930 film clip of Whistler’s Jug Band with their three (count ‘em) jugs. Roscoe Goose and the late Gil Fish of current favorites, the Juggernauts, offer insight into the early Louisville Jug Band scene, while jug band entrepreneur Rod Wenz accurately observes that more people outside of Louisville know about that city’s crucial formative role in the music than do people in Louisville itself. Thankfully, the Louisville classic “Banjoreno” (Clifford Hayes’ Dixieland Jug Blowers) is sampled here. There is footage available on Youtube of Will Shade and Charlie Burse in the 1950’s that might have been used, but the Memphis Jug Band gets its due nonetheless. Swedish historian Bengt Olsson and Charlie Musselwhite are along to assess Memphis’ and Will Shade’s contributions. Historian (and Van Ronk jug band associate) Sam Charters offers valuable perspective as well.

There’s so much more I could say about this exceptionally fine film. No, it doesn’t include everything, and some statements may be open to interpretation. But it accomplishes an awful lot in 100 minutes. There is additional info on a commentary track featuring Kwait, Sebastian, and others. Other bonus features include a number of anecdotes told by Fritz Richmond, and a conversation between John Sebastian and performer/historian Delmark Goldfarb. (I should add that there is a CD companion to the film, available separately, consisting of a live performance featuring many of the film’s principal figures.) It’s always gratifying to be able to say that a documentarian working in a neglected musical area got it right. Todd Kwait got it right.

When you consider guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica ace Annie Raines’s reputation as being true masters of acoustic blues, one might expect their concert DVD, “A Night in Woodstock” to be a purist’s delight. And indeed, the first half is a no-nonsense, thoroughly entertaining acoustic set, ranging from Piedmont rags to Delta blues, with a detour into swing territory. There is also an affecting rendition of Rishell’s most famous song, the blues ballad “Blues on a Holiday”. Rishell plays a gorgeous National steel-bodied guitar that’s a treat to see as well as to hear, while Raines is an absolute dynamo on harp. But then, the electric guitars and rhythm section come out, for a second half consisting of driving, roadhouse amplified blues. And it’s just as good as the acoustic half.

One of the reasons for this is a top-notch guest appearance by the Paul and Annie’s J Band boss, John Sebastian. The proceedings particularly catch fire when Sebastian and Raines get into blues-harp duets, something one doesn’t hear often enough, not this effectively. Rishell, meanwhile, acquits himself very well on electric guitar, and the band is a crack unit. It’s not until one listens to the commentary track (Rishell, Raines, Sebastian) – the commentary may be found under “audio options” – that one is aware of the massive problems the musicians and filmmaker Todd Kwait had to work under to get something that looks downright effortless. The music is energetic, beautifully played and sung, with a nice balance of styles in both formats, and a just-plain good time. There is nothing especially visual about Rishell and Raines’ act, but it’s always great to see fine musicians doing their thing this effectively.