Howdy, dear Gazetteers, and welcome to yet another Thursday edition of thematic randomnicity. Today is of course National Monkey Day, not to be confused with National Sea Monkey Day; I’m sure you’ve already got May 16th marked on your calendar for that big celebration. No, today we’re celebrating landlocked simians of all sorts, including but not limited to apes, tarsiers, and lemurs (but not Tarzan).
But enough monkeying around. I’ll bet you’re here to learn what terrific and strange music the Gazette’s horde of research drones stumbled across while looking for pictures of tarsiers (which are, frankly, a little creepy if not downright disturbing). So, let’s dance…
First up, allow me to introduce you to an all-female Japanese groove/funk band called Tokyo Groove Jyoshi. Now, my Japanese is a bit rusty and in fact is limited to what I learned from watching Shogun (the 1980 original, not the remake), so as best as I can tell, Jyoshi is some kind of reference to girl or woman (joshi). Regardless of their band’s name, these ladies can play.
If you’re wondering about the three-stringed instrument that leads off, it’s a shamisen, a traditional Japanese instrument, and the huge pick — or plectrum, if you’re fancy — is called a bachi. You might also notice that the electric bass is a bit different. It has six strings, so it falls into the category of extended-range basses…or those with more than four strings. (If you read far enough into the Wikipedia article I just linked to, you’ll see that luthiers have made basses with fifteen strings or more. Nobody really knows why. But here’s a video of a dude attempting to play one.)
Merle Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues (released in 1969) is one of my favorite songs, regardless of genre. It’s been covered by a multitude over the decades, and it’s often used as a showcase for the individual musicians in an “all-star” collaboration setting. The following video is an excellent example.
You may note that none of the musicians in the video are identified. I did [some of] the heavy lifting for you in that regard, mainly by following the leads offered in some of the comments. The mandolin prodigy is Aaron Ramsey. The guy on electric guitar is a blues musician named Walter Trout (one of the commenters slammed him for his distortion-heavy solo on a classic country song, but I think Merle would have approved). The left-handed (or, at least, left-playing) fiddler is Molly Cherryholmes, who has apparently transitioned from her upbringing as a bluegrass artist to playing alternative rock with Celtic and jazz influences, according to the preceding link. The other fiddler is Laura Smith, who doubles as a music teacher. Josh Shilling is the lightning-fingered keyboardist/vocalist. The acoustic guitar solo around the 2:25 mark is played by Seth Taylor, who along with Shilling is part of the band Mountain Heart. I realize I’ve missed a couple, so feel free to continue the research, but enjoy the music first.
Being the alert reader I know you to be, you’ll notice that a recurring theme amongst these offerings is that of the use of weird instruments…or, at least, regular instruments in weird manifestations. Look closely at this next video featuring The Dead South, recorded at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Is that a cello being played like the world’s biggest acoustic guitar? Yes, I do believe that to be the case. At around the 2:10 mark in the video, you’ll see the guy — Danny Kenyon — using a bow. I don’t think Yo-Yo Ma did it that way.
Don’t be misled by the band’s name; they actually hail from Canada, eh. Canadians have a reputation for being, well, really really nice, and the band seems to embrace that reputation, if you believe its Code of Practice (and why wouldn’t you? Well, for one thing, if you google the cello player’s name, you’ll find some articles that are less than flattering. I’ll not link to them here. Just try to appreciate the musical talent.).
This next video is actually an hour-and-a-half-long concert by another all-female group, the now-defunct Katzenjammer. The group hailed from Oslo, Norway, and was active for about ten years starting in 2005.
I would love to have seen them perform. Not only are they each multi-instrumentalists (15 instruments, to be exact) and skilled vocalists, but they just seem to have a lot of fun on stage.
In keeping with the “weird instrument” theme…I present to you the BOUS…Bass Of Unusual Size. (Note: it’s your call, but you probably have better things to do than watch the entire video. I do recommend streaming at least the first five minutes.) (Further note: The big honkin’ bass is called a balalaika bass.)
By the way, katzenjammer is a German word that means, literally, cat’s wail. Make of that what you will.
So, Madi Diaz teamed up with Kacey Musgraves to record the song featured in the next video. There are no weird instruments or crazy antics, just some lovely harmonies bringing to life a tear-jerking kind of ballad, if that’s not a redundancy.
I know Musgraves as a country singer (although I didn’t know she hails from Golden, Texas, about 90 east of Dallas). I wasn’t familiar with Diaz, however; she was born in Connecticut, and isn’t part of the country scene, as far as I can tell. But she’s caught the attention of some heavy hitters, musically speaking, as earlier this year she joined Harry Styles on his European tour as a backup singer and guitarist.
Here’s another cover of an easily recognized song. The Weight was written by Robbie Robertson (another Canadian; Robertson passed away last August at age 80) and released by his band, the creatively-named the Band, in 1968. [One of the great unsolved mysteries in life is whether we should refer to the band as “the Band” or “The Band.” If the former, then the name of the band is actually “Band,” isn’t it?]
I’ve always liked The Weight (not the Weight, nor the weight), probably for the same reason you do: we all think we can do justice to the harmony to the “and…and…and” hook that runs throughout. [Newsflash: I can’t, and it’s pretty likely that you can’t either. Feel free to prove me wrong by sending me an mp3 of your singing.]
Now, their version of this song is very good, but what caught my imagination, and what qualifies it for the weird instrument theme of this post is the standup bass being played by Tom Ryan (aka Panda): it’s constructed from two run-of-the-mill hard sided suitcases stacked end-on-end (there’s a closeup around the 4:30 mark). I wonder if he can break it down and pack it inside itself for checking on an airplane?
I’m not sure how to characterize the next video, musically-speaking. It starts out as a ballad, then morphs into a straight-ahead blues/rock performance, before returning to the softer roots. The group is The Texas K.G.B. (an acronym for “Kelly Green Band,” a reference not to a color but to the lead guitarist and vocalist).
The band’s roots are in Georgia, but now they make their home in Austin. I have a vague recollection of their performing outdoors at a local restaurant from almost ten years ago, but I didn’t make the connection until I started reading about them here (note: your browser may dig in its heels at following that link due to an expired security certificate, but the website is legitimate; just ignore the request for your SSN and bank account password. JK. Probably.).
The vocalist in the video is actually the band’s bass player, Violet Lea.
Now, having said all of that…The Texas K.G.B. is now called Madam Radar, having changed their name in 2019. They were the first Austin-based band to play in the new Moody Center in Austin (according to their website; I couldn’t verify that claim). I have no idea how they chose their new name, but if you want to see and hear their performance of the classic rock tune, Radar Love, here it is…a live version recorded at Gruene Hall.
I had planned to end this post with the preceding video, but in an act of pure serendipity I clicked on a link in the sidebar of the YouTube page, and it led me to what follows. What I found was, in a word, mesmerizing.
Newen Afrobeat is a Chilean Afrobeat (duh) group that was formed in 2009. (Newen means strength in the Mapuche language of Chile and Argentina, and Afrobeat is a musical genre that originates in western Africa, primarily Nigeria.) Their songs typically have political, sociological, or cultural themes, which may or may not be your cup of pisco sour, but their performances are riveting and their musical talents undeniable.
I have no idea what language is used for this video, although my uneducated guess is that it’s a Nigerian language, perhaps either Hausa or Yoruba, those two being the dominant versions in a country with more than 500 native languages (!). Rather than focusing on the words, marvel at the tightness of the players, and wonder at the mesmerizing — there’s that word again — movements of the three female vocalists. The song is entitled Zombie, and some of those movements evoke that term, while others — such as the military-style salutes and marching steps — are confounding. No matter; all of these folks are at the top of their games.