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We take our cues from Dave Van Ronk (l-r) Michael Eck, Greg Haymes, Bowtie Blotto and Steven Clyde of the Ramblin' Jug Stompers.

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

An American Band

Ramblin’ Jug Stompers return to their own roots to bring back some old-time roots music

By Erik Hage

This is where it begins, this is where it continues, but this is not where it ends. I am sitting in an Albany attic among the creative clutter of albums, instruments, and a bottle or two of spirits with the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers. Through these musicians, I am also in the presence of more local-music history than one has a right to be.

Well, there are actually two histories here, sort of entwined around each other: There is the history of Albany music, but there is also the history of American music itself. And sometimes it takes a jug band to bring you back to that primeval place when categories didn’t matter, when the spirit of the tunes seemed to have been carved out of the most basic elements: earth, air, fire, water, heart muscle and humanity.

But this is also fun, you see. When the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers play Caffé Lena, ticket buyers aren’t necessarily out for a history lesson; they are there to plug into the vital, basic spirit of songs that moved Americans before terms like “bluegrass,” “country” or “folk” parsed out territories within the music and mutated off into distinct strains. When people banged out tales of humanity on washboard, banjo and, yes, jug.

The Jug Stompers consist of members of Albany ’80s new-wave legends and nascent MTV stars Blotto: in this case “Wild Bill” (aka Sarge Blotto, aka Times Union columnist- critic Greg Haymes) and “Bowtie” (aka Bowtie Blotto). Also on board is Steven “Cousin” Clyde—who has made his name playing with Richie Havens, Commander Cody and with the current Blotto incarnation, to name a few—and Michael Eck (“Mr. Eck”), who has been somewhat of a Zelig on the Albany scene for three decades as a punk rocker, singer-songwriter, critic, painter and frequent supporter.

So there’s that: a lot of local lore in one room and the kind of beatific, relaxed atmosphere that comes with sitting around in a cluttered rehearsal space with a bunch of seasoned musicians who don’t need to prove anything.

But how the hell did they all end up together, and in a jug band, of all things? “It was very . . . unintentional,” laughs Bowtie. Eck points more specifically to a benefit he was putting together last year for folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose own Ragtime Jug Stompers in the early ’60s provided a template: “There’s a manifesto on the back of that record that says, ‘Go start your own jug band.’ It’s so DYI and punk rock.”

The group also point to the continued appeal of old-timey string-band music. “It’s just resonating because it’s part of the collective bedrock of all pop music,” says Clyde. “This is where it all came from. The [chord] progressions are recognizable and the lyrics and stories are understandable.” Wild Bill adds, “The music itself is such a . . . mélange of styles. It’s country, it’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s folk. And it all came together to become the pop music of its day.”

“It’s real American music, in my mind. I think the lo-tech nature of it [is appealing],” banjo man Bowtie says. Wild Bill (resident washboard, harmonica, and kazoo player) agrees: “Like Mike [Eck] was saying too, it’s very much got the same DYI ethos of all the punk bands. You don’t need to go out and buy a $2,000 guitar and amp to play this kind of music. You go to the hardware store and buy a washboard for 10 bucks . . . or $9.99,” he cracks.

But Eck also cautions against lumping the group in with the rest of the post-O Brother, Where Art Thou bands who leaped that old-time bandwagon a few years back. “All of us in one way or another—even though I come from a very different background—have played this music before it’s come around again. Now it’s back again with all of the string bands: Yonder Mountain String Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, etc., etc., etc.”

Eck’s point also dredges up some local history and the very early genesis of the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers: Back in the early ’70s Bowtie, Clyde and Wild Bill were in the Star-Spangled Washboard Band, a humor-oriented acoustic jug group who gained a following on the East Coast and appeared twice on The Michael Douglas Show before going electric and eventually morphing into Blotto. (As if the story doesn’t have enough quirks: Bowtie and Wild Bill were also in a mime troupe together.)

So consider that old unit a sort of version 1.0 of the current band, who recently released a live CD (recorded at Caffe Lena), Crooked Songs. The album pops with the room fidelity of Lena and contains lots of Depression-era varnish, fleshed out with vocal harmonies, banjo, washboard, mandolin, kazoo, etc.

The choice to debut with a live album came together “the same way the band came together. It was completely by accident,” Bowtie remembers. They were planning on having the gig recorded primarily for their own edification, but were so pleased with the results that they decided to release it. Claims Wild Bill, “The show that’s on the album is only the fourth show we’ve ever played.”

Besides such public domain as “Midnight Special” are tunes like the reggae standard “The Harder They Come” and the Faces’ “Ooh La La.” But the emphasis is on traditional music of earlier times.

“Bowtie doesn’t want to do any songs written after the ’40s . . . the 1840s,” Wild Bill cracks. “He’s the keeper of the tradition.”

Eck adds, “The concept Wild Bill and I had of doing a Brian Eno night has gone by the wayside.” In seemingly all seriousness, Wild Bill points out, “That was an idea I actually had for this band at one point. And I thought, well, that’s not going to happen obviously.”

“Bowtie is cruel but fair,” reasons Clyde. Bowtie, who actually radiates Buddha-like benevolence, says in his own defense, “This is a discussion we have frequently. . . . Some bands say they’re ‘eclectic,’ which by my measure often means that they’re too lazy to actually to settle on a vision.”

Part of the Stompers’ personal vision involves what Wild Bill terms “Stomperizing” tunes that are added to the set list. The group also tries to slightly slow down songs that have that bluegrassy, breakneck pace to add more of what Clyde (the resident music theorist) calls a “ramblin’ feel. . . . If you go too fast, it sounds mechanical. In the old Washboard band I remember feeling that this thing was going down the road too fast and some stuff was being lost with some of the bluegrass tunes. We’re talking, just pull it back a tiny bit so that it fits in a certain pocket. That’s what we call ramblin’ speed.”

Bowtie adds that early (pre-’40s, obviously) country music, such as Dock Boggs, was a bit slower before the bluegrass guys “got a hold of it and sped it” in order to show their chops. Clyde also explains that the title of the band’s CD (Crooked Songs) also has a technical connotation. The mountain term “crooked” was applied to tunes that had irregular rather than typical cadences. “They’re songs that don’t fit into that same basic pattern,” Wild Bill says.

As to what keeps the veteran musicians still trying new things such as this venture after all of these years, Bowtie explains, “This is certainly not to prove anything. . . . I love to play, I love to be out doing this. I’d rather play acoustic than electric. With the Blotto thing, we’ll still play gigs electric but I don’t think that’s a direction I want to invest in. I want to get back to what I sort of consider my roots.”

“It’s just fun,” Wild Bill exclaims. “For me there’s really no other reason than it’s . . . just . . . fun. These are guys I love, and I’ve loved playing with them for years. I’ve known these guys for 36 years and [Eck] for like 20 years.” (“Not steadily,” jokes Bowtie.)

Bowtie remembers that Alan Chartock recently asked him, on a WAMC radio show, if he had to choose between music and his day job, what would he do? “There’s no choice. I’d do it full time if I could, like that,” he says, snapping his fingers in the air.

At the end of the night, Eck kindly offers me to choose a painting from a box of folk art he rendered on small slabs of press board. The piece I choose is a simple, black outline of a guitar against a bright indigo background. Around the instrument are squiggly lines of red and yellow, as if the instrument is resonating, as if it’s radiating energy. It occurrs to me as I walk to the car that the painting probably says more about the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers than I ever could.

The Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (www.jugstomp ers.com) will play Tess’ Lark Tavern (453 Madison Ave., Albany) Monday (Jan. 15) at 7 PM and the Ale House (680 River St., Troy) on Jan. 20 at 9 PM.


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Got Rough Mix items? Contact Kathryn Lurie at klurie@metroland.net or 463-2500 ext. 143.



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