Frank Gutch Jr: Thoughts On Tom House… A Night With Junior Raimey (and Lost Tortoise)…
While I won’t apologize for this column (which reads more like a review), I do want people to know that I am aware that columns are not a place for reviews. This didn’t start out this way in my head, but the words came out a review of sorts anyway, and I can only make an exception for artists like Tom House and albums like Winding Down the Road. This is a special album, an album which I have no doubt will gain cult status within a very short period of time. You know what cult status is, don’t you? Respect given to music way outside the accepted— music for which you have a profound appreciation and a personal attachment. Welcome to the personal:
I sit here listening to Tom House‘s ’til you’ve seen mine and jesus doesn’t live here anymore and my mind is racing and my heart pumping because I know House (well, his music) and I know Woody Guthrie and Jim Ringer and Ralph Stanley and a whole host of musicians who have and do play music in the styles of yesteryear and I’m wondering why it takes a movie like O Brother, Where Art Thou? to make us pay attention when it is right in front of us. And I’m wondering why all the respect for the blues and not so much for the mountain music (although recent years have been kinder to the genre) which is also part of our musical heritage and in fact parallels the blues in so many ways. How can you separate the trials and tribulations of one section of the country from another, whether they be African-American or White Poor, when both are so closely related in terms of poverty and social caste and isolation from what was once termed “mainstream” America? And I’m wondering why I have not seen this before. Perhaps I was trapped by the electric syndrome (for years, if it wasn’t electric, to me it wasn’t guitar) or perhaps I was so plugged into my white middle class upbringing that I saw everything through rose-colored glasses because I have to tell you, things could not have been much better for me in spite of the injustice and heartache which must have been there but I ignored. I am talking music here— specifically music— because I have always seemed to have seen the world from that perspective, but isn’t it strange how my little world of music ran and runs parallel to the real world?
Is there a difference between the jazz and blues which emanated from The South and Chicago and the music which came from the mountains and the prairies? As I age, I hear it less and less and it makes me think that there is something wrong with a world which makes minor distinctions major and ignores that which is held in common. Ha! Listen to me. I act like music is a “thing”. In my youth, had anyone said that to me about music, I would probably have punched them in the nose. To me, music at its worst is a living organism. At its best, it is a miracle.
But back to House. While I’m not at a loss as to what to type into the search engine to find information about him, I wonder why everything has to be so word-oriented. I mean, sure, I could type in “folk” or “mining songs” or “mountain music”, I suppose, though that probably wouldn’t help much (although with the addition of his name, it might). Words are okay and in some instances show their worth, but wouldn’t it be better if we could search by culture or a string of musical notes or even a feel? I hear so many things on the two House albums I am limited to and they are limiting in themselves as well. Thirties and forties— depression and war. The descent into panic for survival or just plain panic. The rise of the middle class and the rise from poor to middle. Barn dances and barnstorms. Moonshine and liquor and the descent into a hell of denial. The joy of being alive and the accompanying gloom. The guy is a fucking musical Faulkner.
Life. That’s it. House writes and sings about life. That’s what the old songs were mostly about, those which truly had roots. Life and death and everything in between. Or maybe living and dying because life is life and death is death and they are final by definition. Living goes on and on and dying goes on way too long, it seems, sometimes.
House serves up his songs on the two albums I am hearing in the cloak of backwoods and old-timey. He jumps forward and backward in time like one of those cloggers I used to watch on TV broadcasts of The Grand Ole Opry, this time out of the backwoods of the thirties and the next time out of the fifties folk scene and the next almost current and embedded in today’s Americana culture. And occasionally, he breaks out and does something that doesn’t fit anywhere, like Down In the Hole, a song ready-made for a string of bands like The New Pornographers or The Raconteurs to drag into their midst. Or maybe rockers like Ireland’s Minnows or The Riptide Movement or Canada’s Redgy Blackout.
Do you see what I’m saying? Of course, you don’t. I am under a spell here and you’re still thinking The Beatles. Or Woody Guthrie. Or Bob Dylan. See, this is what House does. He drags you out of yourself and forces you into another time (and, just maybe, another dimension). I mean, if you’re yourself when you listen to Down In the Hole, you are just flat out not listening. And when he deedle-deedles and di-de-di’s, he has a reason. House tells stories, even when the stories don’t have a beginning or end.
Down In the Hole… You know what I hear? I hear Kaleidoscope (the American band from the sixties) doing Oh, Death. I hear a deeper-voiced Tim O’Brien reaching deep and singing about troubles and woes. I hear Cumberland River serving up deep-fried mountain music straight out of TV’s Justified. I hear backwoods music with more than a touch of the blues. You could turn this into a modern classic with little effort. A little acoustic plucking beneath short bursts of electric slide over a bedrock of bass and Hammond organ and beneath-the-beat drums. Any number of groups could do it and do it up right.
Of course, Tom House has already done it up right. I was unaware when I wrote the above. But I know now. I get him. And I am beginning to get his music.
You know what I think is really cool about House? Most people I know, if they heard him, would say he was born out-of-time, that his music is of a different era. House flat our doesn’t care. He is doing what he does and genre-be-damned, therefore it is not out-of-time. It is perfectly in-time.
And he proves it on his latest album, Winding Down the Road. When Keith Morris pointed me toward him, the new album was not yet ready and it was House’s first album he pointed to: The Neighborhood Is Changing. It was out of print (still is, in fact) and House okayed Keith’s dubbing it and sending it to me. I have to confess that after listening to the two CD’s I already had, I put Neighborhood aside and have yet to pick it up again because not long after, Winding showed up in the mail and I have been listening exclusively to that, Tom-House-wise. There is a reason.
You see, I feel the same way about Winding that I used to about Bob Dylan‘s Highway 61 Revisited. Not music-wise, for I was much younger back then and did not really appreciate the huge leap forward Highway was for Dylan. Feel-wise, though, the albums are comparable. In that they mix acoustic acoustic and electric and neither is/was basically known for that. In that there is something beneath the voice and chorus I cannot quite put a finger or a real specific thought on. In that both are unique and live(d) in their own minds as much as worlds. In that the music is bigger than one suspects at first.
I thought when I received the Winding album that House missed a good bet, not naming it Whiskey Sings Like Angels or Paradox With Suitcase after two other songs on the album, but Winding Down the Road fits. But wait. How about Someone’s Digging In the Underground, after another song on the album? Jesus. The guy has a knack for song titles. Hell, he has a knack for lyrics too. In fact, click on this and read what the guy came up with for just the songs on this album. I only wish I could write like that. Maybe I wouldn’t be starving.
After talking with Tom House, I’m pretty sure he is too, though. Seems like every really good artist does his best work under clouds, as it were, and House is one of the really good ones. But why take my word for it? Here is a link to an old article written by none other than Greil Marcus with whom I only occasionally agree but with whom I agree on this. Take it away, Greil!
Oh, and if you want, you can listen to him here. Tom House, that is. Seriously, though, if you really want to hear him, buy Winding Down the Road. Then throw a party for your best friends, the ones who really know and love music, and play it for them. And tell them to do the same. That is what I would call a real string of House parties. Sorry. I just couldn’t resist.
Try to resist this. Mud Records, House’s label based in Canada, is offering up one of the outstanding new songs from the Winding album and it is free!!! Help yourself to a good helping of what House does and is. Just click on this, scroll to the bottom of the page and get your song. Actually, it is his song. You only wish you could write and sing something this good.
Just Another Saturday Night with Junior Raimey…..
I went back to Corvallis, Oregon’s Cloud & Kelly’s last night and learned two things. I really can stay up past ten at night, as much as I have become used to not doing it over the years, and if a beautiful girl is drunk enough, she will not find me as repulsive as usual. I stopped by to see the bartender there— Dave, the Bartender, in fact. He plays harmonica with Junior Raimey and last week played up Junior as some country musician of worth, so I had to hear him. Now, my good friends think that I hate Country and they would be correct, as far as they take it. I’m not too fond of Nashville, you see, which is I suppose as good as Country to most people, but not me. When I want Country, I want Country, so I stopped by to see what this Raimey guy had and to have another pint of Flat Tail Red, which is as close to the old original Red Hook as I’ve been able to find. Well, let me tell you, the Flat Tail was exceptional and Raimey and band…
First on the bill, though, was Lost Tortoise, and they provided a party. A birthday party, to be exact. Rawlie’s. Cake and everything. When they played, they played The Mother Hips-type stuff with a bit of hard rock and country and pop and a lot of instrumental jamming, to boot. A good band. A solid band (within the loose framework of “jam”). Had they had more structure, a comprehensive setlist which might have allowed them to build, they would have had the place really rocking, but that isn’t their style. They have a Zappa (or Alex Arrowsmith) approach to their show and they played with it, letting humorous lyrics and odd chord changes and rhythm patterns define what they do. One of the guitarists was a throwback to the old hippie days, hair way past shoulders and casual dress (it was actually one of the guys there for the party who wore the dress), full of surprises when it came to guitar styles. The bass player was all over his half of the stage, dancing and carrying on and paying regular visits to the drummer for the beat’s sake. The girl singer was a dancing hurricane at times when she wasn’t adding the high end to the vocals, and the birthday boy, Rawlie, stayed on the right (my left), happy to live within the confines of his amplifier space, fez on head, smile on face. Like I said, they could have had the crowd at fever pitch. Instead, they saved the best moments and the most energy for the instrumental jams. I had to laugh because the crowd was like those during the sets of many third-on-the-bill bands I have seen in coliseums and sports arenas over the years, milling around and visiting and talking during the songs, then (as if they had really listened) whooping and clapping when the song ended. When they really cranked it out, though, all heads, as if on cue, turned toward the stage. If you’re interested, here is a video they did awhile ago. And here’s another.
Did I mention the cake? After all, what would a birthday celebration be without cake and toward the middle of Raimey’s set, Rawlie himself cut the cake and invited everyone to partake. I politely turned the invitation down, but only because I was scratching notes on a beer-stained sheet of paper which I knew would be totally unreadable with any added frosting smears which always happens when cake or ice cream is involved..
When it came time for Junior Raimey , I wasn’t sure what to expect. (You can listen and make up your own mind here) Dave the Bartender called him Country, but country these days could be anything. He looks like a farmer more than a cowboy, straw hat and unshaven face with square jaw and attitude. He had been drinking Pepsi and Crown Royal (waste of good drinkin’ whiskey as far as I’m concerned) and was well lubricated by showtime and he let everyone have it with both barrels, right off. He is part Charlie Daniels and part Jimmy Dean when he talks his songs, which he did plenty last night, and he prefers to call it Hip Hop. His voice is textured and loud, but only when he wants to make a point, which again he did plenty. The whole night was one of plenty, truth be told, and I found myself enjoying him more as the night went on and his drinking loosened him up (he was plenty loose to start with). I should have expected attitude when, during a break in Lost Tortoise‘s set he yelled “Play some Junior Raimey!” at the top of his lungs only to have the hippie guitarist say “Fuck you, Raimey!”, but in the nicest possible way. It set the tone for such classic songs as “I Hate My Ex” and “Rich Young Dumb Nymphomaniac” (Are those cover songs?) and lines and rhymes to match. I mean, the guy grew up in Aberdeen, Washington, but the more he drank, the deeper the Southern drawl and by the end of the night you would have sworn he was from some redneck area of Texas or Arkansas.
The crowd? They loved him. There was dancing and hootin’ and hollerin’ and you could tell they were there specifically for him, especially when he pointed to the crowd and made them take the chorus. I swear they not only knew the words but knew what he was going to say between songs, almost as if they had been practicing. By the time I left, sometime between 1:30 and 2:00 AM, he was still going strong, more than likely with that glass of Pepsi and Crown Royal close by, and no one was leaving. I heard someone yell “How long you playin’?” as I walked out the door and Raimey yelled back “I’ll play till you fuckin’ leave!” Obviously he loves being on stage and he might even tell you that, but more than likely he would say that he just didn’t have anywhere else to go. It’s an attitude thing.
The band was solid, the bass player and drummer laying down everything needed to shuffle or clog or rock out and judging from the dancing you would have thought that there was one hell of a lot more rockin’ out than anything else I could see. Lead guitar was handled very well by the same Lost Tortoise guy who yelled “Fuck you, Raimey” while playing the earlier set and Dave the Bartender played harmonica very much in a Charlie McCoy way, handling everything from raunchy country blues to the more conventional country style. And Raimey dug it. Raimey danced, and I mean danced, both alone and with Dave. It was fun to see.
The girl? She was there when I left. Still drunk, I assume. She came over to pay her bill and leaned against me a bit (not out of any desire, rather the inability to hold herself upright) and tried to talk, but I could understand little. I would have told her what a pleasure it was just having her there and how nice she looked and smelled, but I knew she wouldn’t be remembering much in the morning. It had been so long since a good looking girl paid any attention to me, drunk or sober, that I had forgotten what it was like. Ah, youth. To have it back.
I am beginning to really like Cloud & Kelly’s. It is comfortable there and the crowds seem to enjoy the music as much as I did back when I was much younger and hitting up the taverns during my Eugene days. They have a mac and cheese that smells great and I’m thinking I might just head down there one afternoon to try it out. I love mac and cheese when it’s done right. Hell, I like anything when it’s done right.
I left sober and feeling pretty darn good, outside of being tired. The girl helped. The atmosphere helped. But had it not been for Lost Tortoise and Junior Raimey (both the guy and the band), I wouldn’t have felt half as good. Music always makes the difference.
Oregon… Finally on the Musical Radar…..
Portland gets its share of music, true, but there is a whole state outside of the confines of that rockin’ city and damned if a couple of artists have not realized it. Old Californio, for one. I don’t know if they’ve ever played Oregon before, but they are scheduled to be at Cottage Grove’s Axe & Fiddle on August 31st and you can bet your ass I’ll be there. I caught Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers there twice (read the review) and fell in love with their Reuben sandwich (Axe & Fiddle‘s, not Zoe Muth‘s). Seeing Old Californio is going to be a real treat. Seeing them at the Axe & Fiddle is going to be even better.
Speaking of shows, music legend Steve Young and his son Jubal Lee Young are heading this way, slowly but surely. They are playing a long string of concerts, having just worked their way through Texas and Arizona (I think they played one Arizona venue before realizing that that’s one state where the politicians really are crazy and quickly moved on) and are now working their way north from Southern California. You can check their schedule here. If they play anywhere near you, I heartily recommend you attend. This doesn’t happen often and even if it did, it would be totally worth whatever you have to do to get there. I saw Steve play once. He was amazing. I have not yet seen Jubal, but I’ve heard his music. I’m sure he will more than hold his own.
If you are interested in reading about Steve Young and his journey through the musical jungles, I worked with Steve for a number of years putting together a fairly comprehensive biography. It is a fascinating story, told mostly in Steve’s own words. You can read it here.
Notes….. The Green Pajamas have just released, along with Green Monkey Records, their first ever recordings— Summer of Lust. Here is the second video promoting the album. A band worth collecting, as far as I’m concerned….. I cannot remember where I first heard about Charlottesville’s Red Rattles, but I’m glad I did. They book themselves as rock/gospel/punk and they pretty much nailed it. Low-fi and proud of it. You can hear them here. And you should. They’re the garage side of soul….. Speaking of Charlottesville, I’m still listening to the Wrinkle Neck Mules three albums and digging them. I will be writing about them soon….. Bobcat, the “splitoff” of Research Turtles (Bobcat‘s Joe Norman having played with RT‘s and Paul Gonsoulin having played in an early version of the RT‘s alter ego, Flamethrowers) have an interview online that any RT fan should read. After hearing the Bobcat‘s music, I am convinced that these guys are ear-worthy and a half….. I defy anyone to tell me that Laurie Biagini is not one of the hardest working musicians anywhere. She works a full-time job and writes on the commute (on a train! How cool is that?) and cranks out some of the best retro music this side of the sixties. Here is her latest video of a song titled Gold Plated Girl. Another winner. And Laurie will be playing at International Pop Overthrow Vancouver on August 29th, should you be lucky enough to be in Vancouver on that date….. And, yes, I am still listening to Alcoholic Faith Mission‘s Ask Me This. And it’s not even beginning to get old yet. If you want to hear why, stream it here…..
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”