Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bill Kirchen twangin' it.

Bill Kirchen
Originally uploaded by rufubaratsu.
Guitar whiz Bill Kirchen at the Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, 9/10/05.

Brian Hofeldt and Scott Mathews

Brian Hofeldt (guitar) and Scott Mathews (drums) of The Derailers, on stage at the Black Swamp Festival, 9/10/05.

More photos from Black Swamp

Brian Hofeldt
Originally uploaded by rufubaratsu.
Brian Hofeldt of The Derailers.

Chatham County Line @ Black Swamp

Chatham County Line
Originally uploaded by rufubaratsu.
The boys from Chatham County Line doing that high lonesome thing at the Black Swamp Festival, 9/10/05.

The Lustre Kings @ Black Swamp

The Lustre Kings on stage at the Black Swamp Festival on 9/10/05.

A cool rockabilly band in their own right, they did a bang-up job backing up Wanda Jackson.

Unfortunately, my camera battery died before I could get any photos of Wanda, or of the bass player, who looked exactly like Yul Brynner in Westworld.

Bill Kirchen @ Black Swamp

When he took the stage on Saturday at the Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio, staring into a blazing late afternoon sun, Bill Kirchen looked like just another guy with a Telecaster.


Kirchen is the guy with a Telecaster. From the wood to the wires, he owns that instrument.

His hour-plus set ripped open a 55-gallon drum of dieselbilly guitar whoop-ass, pouring out enough truckin' songs, too-much-drinkin' songs and ain't-seen-my-baby songs to rouse the sun-baked crowd out of its stupor.

Kirchen's country-fried guitar picking draws on the broad spectrum of American music, combining jazz, blues, bluegrass, western swing, rock-and-roll and anything else you can imagine. The result is a seamless, spot-on perfect blend of inspired, precisely executed fills, turn-arounds and jaw-dropping solos. All this is delivered with the surprising ease of a man who has no idea that he is working miracles.

Too Much Fun, Kirchen's rhythm section, consists of Claude Arthur on bass, and Dave Elliott on drums. Kirchen, Arthur and Elliot play as if their brains are hardwired together. Somehow you shouldn't be able to divide that much sound by a factor of only three, but then math was never my strong suit.

Kirchen is a player's player, one of those musicians other musicians go out of their way to see. In the realm of popular music he is best known for his early-seventies stint with Commmander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen's guitar work on Commander Cody's cover of the Johnny Bond hit Hot Rod Lincoln didn't make Kirchen a household name, but it made everyone forget about Johnny Bond.

Kirchen closed his set at Black Swamp with an extended version of the classic car song, turning it into a dieselbilly travelogue, an encyclopedia of hooks and guitar licks from more than half a century of rock, country, and pop. He covered it all, everything from Duane Eddy's Rebel Rouser and Cream's Sunshine of Your Love to effortless, respectful reproductions of the playing styles of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Merle Travis, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Freddy King, Albert King and a host of others whose names appear on the utterly pointless Rolling Stone list of The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Signing CDs and talking with fans after the set, Kirchen was warm, friendly and unassuming, an unlikely guitar god with nothing to prove.

(Also available at

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Derailers @ Black Swamp

The Derailers' return to the Black Swamp Arts Festival (they first played the festival in 2003) introduced a new line-up to the Black Swamp audience.

The new line-up brings brilliant guitarist and band co-founder Brian Hofeldt to the frontman role, and includes the addition of Sweet Basil McJagger on keyboards.

Noticeably absent is co-founder and former frontman Tony Villanueva, who left the band amiably early in 2004 to spend more time with his family and to concentrate on his songwriting career.

The Derailers' characteristically infectious sound still bridges the gap between Bakersfield and Liverpool, blending the honky-tonk twang of Buck Owens with the pop sensibilities and backbeat of the Beatles. The result is a crisp, expertly rendered hybrid that retains its honky-tonk authenticism.

As a frontman, Hofeldt is a capable vocalist, in the style of Buck Owens, but his vocal style does not lend itself to the material Villanueva used to perform with the band. Those songs were missing from The Derailers set at Black Swamp. Hofeldt and company filled the gap admirably with a sorching, crisply paced set of uptempo selections from past albums, and from an upcoming release.

The result is a new flavor, a harder-edged sound that is less vocal driven, relying more on the tight interplay of Hofeldt's tasty and restrained guitar licks, Chris Schlotzhauer's sweetly lyrical pedal steel, and McJagger's barrelhouse piano. The rhythm section of Scott Mathews (drums) and Ed Adkins (bass) remains as airtight as ever.

Where the previous incarnation of The Derailers was a '59 Coupe Deville, this new line-up is a '67 Camaro SS 396. The ride is different, but as cool as ever.

(Also available

Austin Lounge Lizards @ Black Swamp

The Austin Lounge Lizards' Friday-night set at the Black Swamp Arts Festival was the perfect antidote to a week of depressing news about how Katrina turned New Orleans into Bagdad. Introduced as the second-funniest thing to come out of Texas, the five-piece quasi-bluegrass band ran through an energetic and engaging set of original satirical songs funny enough to make your cheeks cramp from the non-stop grinning.

The Lizards's set included the Jan and Dean inspired, Hey, Little Minivan (lyrics), plus Jesus Loves me but he Can't Stand You (lyrics), Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs (lyrics) and Stupid Texas Song (lyrics) -- a personal favorite because it includes the word "forlorniest."

One of the stand-out numbers from the Lizard's set was Wer Is Da? a rap song performed in German by extraordinary multi-instrumentalist Korey Simeone, a former member of another Austin-based act, the fabulous Asylum Street Spankers. (A free mp3 of Wer Is Da? is available on the Spankers Download page.

Just reading the Lizard's smart, literate, often politically-oriented lyrics is funny enough; seeing the band perform the material live doubles the dosage. Maybe FDA should establish a minimum daily requirement.

(Also available at

Sleepy LaBeef @ Black Swamp

A $50 guitar tuner would have made an enormous difference in rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef's Friday night performance at the Black Swamp Arts Festival. LaBeef's set consisted of an extended (and when I say extended, I mean extended), extemporaneous medley of rootsy rock-and-roll and country classics. LaBeef performed the first half of the set on an a red Gibson guitar that was just enough out of tune to cause the muscles in your jaw to tense -- a physical condition that complicates the beer-drinking process.

LaBeef delivered a rapid-fire series of song snippets, singing just enough of the lyric to allow the audience to identify the tune before abruptly moving on to the next number like a drunk driver making an unannounced lane change.

LaBeef has a wonderfully deep, sonorous voice, and it is a genuine pleasure to hear him sing. His back-up players, however, sing like some of the smaller Muppets. So it was grievous tactical error when, halfway through the set, LaBeef moved to the drums and turned the lead vocals over to the drummer (who moved to the bass), and the bass player (who moved to an in-tune guitar).

The hour-long set was not without moments of real rockabilly energy. Those moments made it clear that with a good four-piece band and bit more structure to the set, LaBeef could have a truly first-rate act.

(Also available at

Friday, September 09, 2005

Preview: Black Swamp Arts Festival

This weekend the city of Bowling, Green, Ohio again plays host to the annual Black Swamp Arts Festival.

While the festival press release focuses on the visual arts, the real action happens on the main stage in the big parking lot behind the stores lining the east side of South Main St.

For the past twelve years the Black Swamp Festival has presented an astounding roster of regional and national acts, representing the broad musical genre called Americana: blues, R & B, and rootsy country and rock and roll.

This year's line-up includes (but is certainly not limited to) the Austin Lounge Lizards, Sleepy LaBeef, Wanda Jackson, Girlyman, Bill Kirchen, and the Derailers.

The best part? The music is free. Seating is general admission, but the large crowd ( I was unable to get an official headcount from the Festival office) of mostly 25- to 50-year-olds is relaxed, friendly, and generally content to mill around the food stands or hang back in the beer garden behind the main seating section. Front row seats for any of the performances can be had by simply showing up a few minutes early. Those seats fill up once the bands start cooking.

The Black Swamp festival is an incredibly well organized event, and the atmosphere is laid-back and family friendly. But don't let that family-friendly business scare you off. This is a party.

The festival begins at 5 p.m. tonight and runs through Sunday afternoon.

(Also available @

Saturday, September 03, 2005

We have a pulse!

Started off last night by meeting pals and fellow Elderly Brothers Jeff Zanders and George Hanrahan at the Cool Cleveland party at Cafe Sausalito (a name I can never hear without thinking about the syrupy lounge band in Lost in Translation: "Thank you! We're Sausalito..."). Spent most of the time chattering with Cleveland bloggers George Nemeth, Lori Kozey, and Jack Ricchiuto, in a the kind of rambling, booze-lubricated conversation that makes your cheeks cramp up from the constant grinning.

After the CC party we escorted Lori to a rendezvous in the Warehouse District, then headed over to the Ingenuity Main Stage near Public Square. The Warehouse District was humming, as one would expect on such a perfect late-summer night. I did not expect the energy radiating from Euclid Ave.

On the Main Stage some guy was busting Michael Jackson moves to a blaring, bumping dance track, and the crowd was into it. A few steps down Euclid found us in the sonic confluence of the dance music from the main stage and the sounds emanating from East 4th, which turned out to have at least three distinct sources: the Numbers Band on the 4th St. Stage, a some kind of hip-hop mix from a building next to -- or possibly in -- Pickwick and Frolic (booze lubrication is good for conversation, bad for geographic details), and the some apparently unauthorized street musician strangling TV theme songs out of an uncooperative saxophone.

All around people were busy having a very good time, soaking up the tangible vibe familiar to people who remember the heyday of the Flats, or who have spent a summer evening on Chicago's Navy Pier, or on Columbus Ave. in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I would liked to have seen more people, and maybe the Saturday crowds will be bigger. But so far the Ingenuity festival has been like a set of defibrillator paddles for downtown Cleveland. There's a pulse. I'm the optimistic sort, but I can't help but think that as word spreads about how Ingenuity has demonstrated what downtown Cleveland can be, that pulse will grow stronger.