Terrance Simien at Don't Tell Mama (Photo: Michael Kornfeld/AcousticMusicScene.com)
It might be atypical to call an acoustic music concert spectacular, but “Alaska’s fiddling poet” Ken Waldman’s annual roots music variety showcase From Manhattan to Moose Pass, staged at Hell’s Kitchen cabaret club Don’t Tell Mama in conjunction with the nearby Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference, always are.
The fiddler/poet/acoustic music entrepreneur’s 10th annual extravaganza last Friday night (Jan. 4) was no exception. It brought together Max Hatt & Edda Glass, Hen’s Teeth, the DuoDuo Quartet, Jenna Moynihan & Mairi Chaimbeul, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer and Mark Kilianski & Nate Sabat, with each act doing short sets filling out an entire evening.
“It was like the other years--but different,” said Waldman afterwards. Sure enough, instead of ending as usual with everyone—Waldman included--playing together on “Cluck Old Hen,” Waldman this time began the program with it, prior to giving each act a 15-minute set. And even though one scheduled act had to cancel, Waldman was able to bring in surprise guest Terrance Simien as a perfect sub.
“But it’s always evolving—though some parts of the format remain the same,” said Waldman, “sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes a little more dramatically. Sometimes on stage I mention a quote I’ve learned as a writer: ’no surprise to writer, no surprise to reader.’ It means if a writer is surprised what he or she is writing--which happens—it’s almost guaranteed that the reader will be surprised. I think that’s a good thing: It means extra energy, and I try to bring that mindset to the show.”
He noted that his “active encouragement” of collaborations—“which brings an element of the unknown” to the proceedings--led to a high point of the Don’t Tell Mama showcase.
“When I assembled this year’s line-up, it included DuoDuo Quartet--made up of harpist Maeve Gilchrist, dancer Nic Gareiss, cellist Natalie Haas and guitarist Yann Falquet--as well as the duo of fidder Jenna Moynihan and harpist Mairi Chaimbeul. I thought that these groups might have room to collaborate, so I placed them next to each other in the program—and also asked that Maeve and Mairi somehow do some twin harp. Maeve wasn’t sure how the twin harps would work--and wasn't sure that two sets in a row with harps was a good idea. As she has far more credits as a producer and arranger than I have, I noted her concern, but asked that she give it a chance—especially since she and Mairi were long-time friends. The result? Many attendees found the twin harp interlude between the two sets was a highlight, and it didn't take away from the strong sets on either side.”
Waldman also mentioned how the Max Hatt & Edda Glass duo of Brazilian/Americana guitar and voice enjoyed the bass playing of Nate Sabat in his duo with guitarist Mark Kilianski so much that they had him play bass during their set, then said they’ll likely call on him when they need a bassist on future gigs. Regarding Louisiana zydeco accordionist/bandleader Simien, Waldman explained that after fiddler/guitarist Darren Wallace of the Louisiana-influenced group Erica Weiss & Shindig got into a car accident (luckily not too serious), the trio had to cancel.
“I ran into my friends Terrance and Cynthia Simien a few hours earlier at the APAP opening night reception at the nearby New York Hilton Midtown,” said Waldman, who spends a lot of time in Lafayette, Louisiana. “They were planning to stop by anyway, so I asked if Terrance could do a cameo to replace Erica’s set. Darren grew up in Louisiana and he and Terrance go way back, and Terrance agreed, even though he didn’t have an instrument. But it was no problem: His fill-in call-and-response song was a highlight.”
Simien performed a cappella “The Prison Bars,” an old Creole song in the juré form that evolved out of field hollers from the time of slavery. He clapped his hands, stomped his feet, whooped and shouted, and got the full Don’t Tell Mama room to double-clap and moan along.
Simien also told of how such songs (“songs from the church, field or bedroom, and some of the most African music recorded in the South”) would be sung while passing around “a jar of spirits,” with each singer having to add a verse to the song in order to swig from it.
The Grammy-winning Simien, who with wife/manager Cynthia created the Creole for Kidz & The History of Zydeco performing arts program, also offered a useful definition of “Creole”: a mix of French, African, Native American, Spanish, Dutch, and German, “but not too much.”
But an even bigger surprise, at least for Waldman, was spotting his old friend, Toronto banjo player and guitarist, Chris Coole, in the room.
“I had no idea, but his really excellent group, The Lonesome Ace String Band, was doing an APAP set the following day,” said Waldman. “For a number of years, I’d wanted to have Chris come by and play in this evening, but I didn't think he toured in the States enough to make it worthwhile. But there he was, and now he has seen exactly how the evening works.”
Or at least Coole knows how the evening used to work.
“I’m planning major changes in how I’ll produce it next year,” said Waldman, hinting that the evening’s schedule will be less structured and more spontaneous.
“I’ve already invited Chris—and whatever project he wants to bring,” Waldman added. “But I’ve also invited three other musicians/groups, and have my full list already formulated. Not only will the format be different, but I’m sure that though I have a great list of musicians already in my head and ready to invite, some won’t be able to make it or to commit that far out, and I’ll end up with a line-up I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. But will undoubtedly work out in its perfectly imperfect way.”
Ken Waldman and the Secret Visitors close out his 2016 APAP showcase at Don't Tell Mama with "Cluck Old Hen"