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Make a Joyful Noise

Monday, December 31, 2007

As you know, this tends not to be a timely blog. You're in the clutches of a blog ant, who stores up posts like wheat, writing when moved to write, and taking food out of the pantry when not. So it feels like an event for me when I've got any news, and actually get it together to do a post about it the next day.

The Swinging Orangutangs have done a bit of a phoenix trick, with a new lineup and a bunch of new material. Bill and I sat down at breakfast this morning and made a list of all the people we've played with in this band in the past 14 years. We've had five different drummers, six bass players, and four instrumentalist/vocalists in addition to the core members (Bill and me).

Bands are like gardens. Some years, certain things grow really well, and other years, other kinds of plants take over. Some incarnations of the Orangutangs have emphasized original music, such as was written and performed by Bill's talented brother Andy. Others have been dance/cover tune oriented. Some have been folkier. Others have been a little more kick-butt rawk.

Back in October '07 we needed to put some people together to play a benefit for the Colony Theater's renovation. Bill went to movies in the beautiful Colony Theater when he was a kid, but since then it's closed and fallen into peely, spooky, Phantom-of the-Opera style disrepair. So we've played music for ColonyFest for several years running to help raise money to resurrect it. We asked Clay Paschal, who's recently moved here from Indiana, to play bass...a growing buzz was out on him already in the local music community.
I can use only one word that accurately sums up his bass and rhythm talents: MONSTER. A tasty, melodic, unfailingly in-the-pocket monster. Last night at practice, I was playing "Empty Pockets," a fairly obscure fiddle tune, on my pennywhistle, and Clay began to whistle it, and then revealed that he plays whistle, fife, and has taught low brass (trombone and the like) in schools. Oh. One of THOSE people, those Stevie Wonder kind of people who can walk into a music store and pull anything off the wall and play it. Oh, and he's got a warped sense of humor, too.

Speaking of those people, here's Vinnie Mele, who has come out from behind the keyboard to play a guitar lead. He also plays sax and sings beautifully, like a crazy bird. Hilariously funny and ridiculously talented, Vincenzo brings a sparkle and dimension to our band that's addictive. And behind him is another natural wonder, Jessica Baldwin. Jess is a classically-trained voice teacher and pianist who teaches voice and directs choirs in a large local church. She has always wanted to branch out into pop and rock, but has never had an opportunity until now. Speaking of unleashing a monster...we're getting some four-part harmonies with Bill, me, Vinnie and Jess that literally bring me to tears. Jess has a lot to teach me about singing, and she's debuting Chaka Khan's "Tell Me Something Good..." singing while playing its quirky, offbeat keyboard part. She brought The Weepies' "Gotta Have You" to our repertoire, and we're tremendously excited about the dimension and vocal beauty she adds. Warped sense of humor, check. It's kind of hard to see here, but she's got her hair wadded into two Mickey Mouse ears for last night's on-site rehearsal. Chet Baker LOVES Jess, and he spends most of our rehearsal time here at home sitting on her lap as she plays keyboard, his ears pasted back in doggie joy, gently farting into our airspace. He has become our band mascot, a role he embraces with zest. There is NOTHING Chet Baker loves more than band rehearsals. He hangs with us like the white on rice, going between my and Jess' laps, roo-rooing at Clay and Andy, playing tag with Vinnie, and pestering Bill, but mostly just digging the music. He is one music-loving doggeh.
Andy Hall is an incredibly tasty, artful, creative drummer, and it's a privilege to play with him. I have to use the M-word on Andy, too. Monster. He brings a world beat savvy to our music. Complexity is his friend, but not his overlord. He spans genres like most of us walk across sidewalk cracks. My favorite memory of Andy was about a decade ago, when we went to a bar in West Virginia to hear him play with a band called Pole. As blood began to seep from our ears, we grabbed napkins, tore them up and made little ear-tampons, which barely helped. At the break, Andy came out to greet us. We complimented him on his work, which was stunning. And ventured an opinion that it might be just a teeny bit loud. Andy looked thoughtful, smiled, rocked back on his heels, and nodded. "Pole's a loud band."I'm happy to say that the Swinging Orangutangs is not a loud band. For my fifth and final monster, I present band leader Guillermo "Guitarzan" Thompson. He's in a special kind of heaven right now, playing songs he's always wanted to play with a dream lineup. With Vinnie helping on rhythm and leads, Bill's freed to sing more and soar on his Strat, Creamy Delight. Ryan Adams, Wilco, Tom Petty, Talking Heads, and a bunch of crazy 70's disco stuff; we've fattened the repertoire by about 15 songs, and more keep flowing. There is a sense of energy and possibility about it all that is heady and intoxicating. Bill burns CD's for everyone, calls practice in our basement music room, makes chili, keeps the cold beers coming, and the band rolls along like a well-oiled monster truck. We have a New Year's Eve gig tonight, with tons of our friends coming. A team of friends has transformed a downtown building into Party Central. We've got three digital projectors and some kind of fourth gizmo throwing swirly psychedelic shapes on the walls, every Indian tapestry we own hanging up, strange fiber-optic lighting gadgets, food and bev's. Me, I'm a pig in mud. I looooove harmony singing, and I love having another woman to balance the testosterone swirling through our lineup. I haven't laughed this much in a year. Tonight, I'm taking a mirror with me, because I have to stand directly in front of Jess, Andy and Clay. You can't be turning your back on an audience, so I'm going to hold up the mirror and grin and make faces at them. We're going to hard. Every photo in this post was taken by our band photographer, Phoebe Linnea Thompson. She was fighting some bad odds--poor lighting and the tendency of musicians to block each other thanks to being crammed together with a bunch of homely equipment. Thank you, Phoebs.

Phoebe has been taking photographs and writing for a couple of years now, with increasing success. She usually works with a small Canon Powershot point-and-shoot, but she prefers my Rebel XTi (naturally). More and more, I lean on her for off-the-cuff photography assignments. It's wonderful to watch her blossom. Speaking of blossoming...Phoebe has a blog now! She's got mad blogging skilz, born of posting for me and Daddy when we're indisposed, and spending lots of time getting Macs to do what they were made to do, without her mother's fear of failure. I can guarantee lots of Chetfixes on Phoebe's blog, since those two are rarely found far apart. I told Phoebs she needed to do five good posts before I'd link to her, and she did five in one day. Acorn don't fall far from the tree. Go check it out, and give her a twinkle in the comments section!


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