More from the Me & Thee Coffeehouse

Last month we played a show in Marblehead at the Me & Thee. The incredibly hard working all-volunteer staff made the night a wonderful experience for us. The person with the vision for an all-Marblehead band opening night (and the opening of their 40th season) was Kathy Sands-Boehmer. She puts in countless hours following the New England music scene and is always strategically planning interesting and exciting nights of music for all of those lucky enough to make the trip to the Me & Thee.

Here’s a video that someone from the audience shot and them posted to YouTube. We are playing the tune “Sally In The Garden”. Left to right the musicians are Tim Baldanzi on the mandolin, Etienne Cremieux on the fiddle, Ren Price on percussion, John ‘JP” Price on Guitar and me (Tim Rowell) on banjo.

Interview by Kathy Sands-Boehmer

Quick Q and A with Tim Rowell (Jubilee Mule)
by Kathy S-B · 2 September 2009

Who would ever think that a vibrant band of old time musicians had a very real presence in the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts? Having witnessed these guys in action, I can vouch for the fact that if it were not for the ocean breeze wafting through the windows or the sound of nearby Abbot Hall’s tolling chimes, you’d think you were smack dab in the middle of Appalachia. Jubilee Mule plays regularly at the Cantab in Cambridge and has developed quite a loyal following. You can read all about Jubilee Mule and see some terrific videos at their website.

What’s your definition of “old time” music?

Old Time music to me is American music from the Civil War up until the mid 1930’s. The stuff that I’ve been really interested in for about the last 35 years or so has been primarily from the southern Appalachian mountains and surrounding areas. It’s music that is strongly connected to a time when people wrote or played music as easily as often as we flip on a TV. The songs were written about whatever was happening at that moment — a crow landing on the fence at harvest time, the exploits of a traveling railroad man, the chickens in the henhouse, unrequited love and on and on.

As an award-winning banjo player, I have to ask — what is it about the banjo that rocks your world?

I’m not 100% sure. I can’t explain the hold that it has on me. I love a lot of different instruments and am always trying to learn how to play new ones — but when I sit down to play or practice I almost always pick up the banjo — much to the chagrin of my extremely patient wife. I find that the clawhammer style in particular has a groove and a drive that I really love and that lends itself to a bunch of different styles of music.

Tell us about your mentor, Steve Mote. What is it about his music that has inspired you?

Most old time musicians are closet ethnomusicologists. They love to learn about the tunes that they play and love. They try to preserve the heritage of this unique American art. Until I met Steve, my biggest influence was Pete Seeger and the way that he used music as a tool to bring people together. Pete said to me once that he was really a guitar player with a banjo in his hands and I think that his playing style totally reflects that. His banjo has a long neck with three extra frets so that it matched his vocal range and long limbs and could easily play in more keys with the same relative tuning. The style was really unique to Pete. Steve exposed me to the clawhammer playing style. He learned his tunes directly from the families of musicians in the Ozark mountains who handed the tunes and the playing style down from generation to generation. The first time I heard him play I felt like a was a witness to something primordial — like salmon swimming upstream or a river cutting its way through limestone.

How did Jubilee Mule become a playing entity?

I was driving through Marblehead during the summer with my windows down and I heard this great music coming out of this small art gallery and it was JP (John Price) playing the mandolin with someone. The groove was undeniable and I had to find out who was playing. I stopped the car in traffic and accosted him with my phone number and he called and we’ve been playing together ever since. There have been a bunch of different musicians who have joined us on various stages in the past eight or nine years, but the core of the band has remained with me and JP.

Do you continue to explore new musical frontiers with your own music and with the band?

Yes, absolutely. Right now the band is a really interesting mix of different musical points of view. JP has been playing guitar in a really interesting way that incorporates Irish sensibilities with dynamic rhythms and innovative tunings. His son, Ren, has contributing great rhythmic drive with a variety of hand percussion and occasionally bass. Tim Baldanzi is a really talented mandolin player and singer who’s playing I’ve enjoyed since first hearing him at play at the Monday night old time jam at Sandy’s Music in Cambridge. Tim and I first bonded while playing tunes in modal tuning or what we affectionately call “spooky tunes.”
Our newest member, Etienne Cremieux, has just entered Berklee and brings a whole world of hard driving and intricate bluegrass chops to the table. This musical soup has included everything from Civil War marching songs to Frank Zappa. I really look forward every time to sitting down and pulling out the instruments with these guys because I’m never really sure what’s going to happen but it has almost always been an adventure.

Tim & Don & Ed & 3 Banjos

I know, I know. One banjo is bad enough. But three???
On the second Thursday of every month there’s an old time jam at my music school, Minuteman Music Center, in Lexington. (half-hour from Boston). It’s open to anyone who wants to come and I never know who’s going to show.

This month I was overjoyed to have Ed Britt and Don Borchelt walk in. These guys have played a lot of double banjo stuff together. I think that the first time we really played together was sitting under Jon Gersh’s canopy at the Harry Smith Frolic in Greenfield this past summer.

Well, we shared an enjoyable couple hours of music with a small handful of other musicians and at about 10pm everybody packed up and trundled off to their respective homes. Well, almost everybody.
Don and Ed had some more pickin’ left in them, so we played on and I pulled out my handy Zoom H2 recorder. Here are the first couple of tunes.

Chilly Winds and Greasy Coat can both be found on my Banjo Hangout music page. If you go to the site, be sure to find both Ed and Don’s music pages- there’s a ton of artfully executed and joyful music showing clearly what can happen when two old friends carry on a musical conversation.

Jubilee Mule at the Me & Thee Coffee House

Jubilee Mule, the band that I’m lucky enough to play in, opened the 40th season of the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead. It was such a pleasure to play in a place that didn’t serve beer or didn’t have the Red Sox game playing on an array of flat-screen televisions. (Although it is nice when the Sox hit a home run right when we end a tune…) The audience was filled with friends and family from near and far away. It is a great venue to perform in. The Me & Thee lives in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead.

There are about forty of these venues in and around the Boston area. Each of them feature comfortable, welcoming surroundings, a professional sound system, desert and coffee and a constant stream of todays best musical performers. These venues are members of the Boston Area Coffee House Association . BACHA stages are manned exclusively by volunteers who are dedicated to offering a wonderful musical night out for the entire family.

Here’s a video that was shot by someone in the audience and posted on YouTube. We are playing a set of tunes that JP learned from the playing of Jody Stecher titled “Old Country Stomp”.

Cumberland Gap

A great tune with a lot of different versions. This one has 3 parts and is played out of double D tuning. I don’t remember where I learned it but a good 2 part version can be found on Bob Carlin and Bruce Molsky’s album “Take Me As I Am”. A really nice fretless rendition of the 2 parter can be found on Riley Baugus’ album “Life of Riley”. The banjo is tuned aDADE.

Stevie Coyle at the Me & Thee

I heard Stevie Coyle for the first time the other night at the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead. I’m not normally a huge fan of the solo-guy-on-a-stage-playing- fingerstyle-guitar-and-singing-about-his-life type of thing. Normally I get bored after hearing the same picking patterns and the same harmonic progressions only slightly altered by the use of a capo. After a couple of songs I was trying to find an excuse to stealthily exit the room. But then something happened. I got interested by what he was doing. I know that musicians normally make the worst audience members so I tried to suspend the steady stream of fault-finding criticism that inevitably accompanies my boredom. In listening to him play and sing I was happily imagining the perfect mix of Jorma Kaukonnen / Tom Waits / Sgt. Pepper / Neil Young. The music was really good. The picking was different from song to song and even within each song. He was playing a Thompson guitar and playing and singing through a small AER amp. Each note of the guitar seemed perfectly suspended in a painting of deeply related color and rhythm. I kept looking for exotic tunings and partial capos. The farthest afield of standard tuning was that I thought I saw him go to drop-D once. He played a great mix of stuff from his latest CD “Ten in One” and covers and tunes I just didn’t know at all but probably came from his other life as a member of the band The Waybacks. Toward the end of the show he got great audience participation by singing some familiar lyrics in a surprising new and wonderful setting. One of the audience members later commented on the great range of emotion that he seemed to effortlessly elicit from ten fingers and six strings. I heartily fought the post-show reaction of assaulting the artist with my normally hyperbolic praise and digging into my wallet to buy as many CD’s as there was cash for. I failed miserably on the first account and had partial success on the second as I only left with one CD. I’ve only listened to it once all the way through and it is as I suspected really interesting. I’m really glad that I listened to my wife when she told me to get out of the office and go to the show. She’s usually (read “always”) right.