Monday, August 25, 2008

On Tour in CZ with Druha Trava and Tony Trischka

It was sort of an insane thing to do, but this past weekend I drove up to the Czech Republic from Italy in order to catch the last couple of concerts of a tour by Druha Trava and the banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka. Tony had toured with DT in May, when I was in Nashville, and that tour apparently had gone so well that he came back in August for a week.

I had never seen Tony perform live before, but that was just one of the reasons that I had wanted to catch some of the tour. He had first toured the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in 1988, before the fall of communism, and he had also returned in 1989, also before the Wall came down.

During those stays, he performed as a guest on an LP by Poutnici, the influential progressive bluegrass group that Druha Trava's Robert Krestan and Lubos Malina played with before founding DT in 1991, and which in turn had been very influenced by Trischka's music. I had found a somewhat scuffed copy of that LP, "Wayfaring Stranger", in the used vinyl bin of a used book store in the little town of Kutna Hora 3 years ago. I bought it for the equivalent of a couple of dollars. In the liner notes, Trischka describes Poutnici in much the same terms I have used to describe Druha Trava. "They … have a unique sound," he said. "Czechgrass instead of Kentucky bluegrass. In other words, they've made it their own, which is wonderful."

I caught 2 concerts over the weekend -- one Saturday night at a little festival in the town of Frydek-Mistek, in northeast CZ near the Polish border, then on Sunday at another little bluegrass festival in the town of Chotebor, about 65 miles east of Prague. Druha Trava is still labeled "bluegrass", though their music only uses bluegrass as a starting point; Tony and I agreed that this is one of the reasons we like the band so much; they don't stick to rules or try to recreate or imitate the American bluegrass sound, rather, they take the musical building blocks and create something new. Robert Krestan's original songs and distinctive gravelly voice put the stamp on this; even their take on Dylan songs in their last CD, "Dylanovky," transforms them into Druha Trava songs.

The concerts featured DT in the first half, then DT and Tony Trischka, then Trischka solo or backed by the group. Among the standout pieces were duets featuring him and DT's banjoist Lubos Malina. For the final encore at Chotebor, the two of them performed a tricky maneuver whereby one played the right hand and the other the left, on the same instrument.

Over the weekend I had an opportunity to talk with Tony about his experiences touring CZ in the late 1980s -- he told me stories from that tour that underscored how, at that time, the music, and the experience of the music, (and the experience of experiencing the music) had a powerful symbolism that, particularly for younger people, has largely dissipated if not disappeared. (More on this later.)

Here's a slide show to give an impression of the scenes in both festivals -- all very similar to the bluegrass festivals in the US as portrayed, for example, in Neil Rosenberg's book "Bluegrass Odyssey." The little stage, the spare seating area. Stalls around selling food -- the usual Czech fare: in Frydek Mistek it was mostly grilled pork products (sausage, "steaks", etc and boiled hot dogs); at Chotebor there was goulash, liver dumpling (rice) soup and a sort of fried chicken cutlet that one of the musicians tried only to find it was almost raw inside. I stuck with potato chips.

There was also a lot of beer -- the local beer (and one of the sponsors) of the Chotebor festival is called "Rebel". Now, I've taken a lot of pictures of the Confederate flag displayed at country festivals in Europe, and I've met a lot of Civil War reenactors in various countries and discussed what this all means.... but Rebel beer is not related to the U.S. Civil War and no stars and bars are involved. The term refers to a local 19th century anti-Habsburg writer and agitator named Karel Havlicek Borovsky -- who died in the 1850s, well before the US Civil War broke out....

I've never seen a bluegrass festival before with a big screen, as in Chotebor! It was particularly odd, as the venue was so small that you could easily get close as close to the stage as you wanted.

Monday, August 18, 2008

King of Cowboy Clothing Dies at 107

From the New York Times.....Nudie without the flamboyance, perhaps

August 15, 2008
Jack A. Weil, the Cowboy’s Dresser, Dies at 107

Jack A. Weil, a garter salesman, breezed into Denver in 1928 in a new Chrysler Roadster to start a new life. He exceeded his hopes and became a king of cowboy couture — almost certainly the first to put snaps on Western shirts (17 on a shirt), and most likely the first to produce bolo ties commercially.

His Rockmount Ranch Wear Mfg. Company has sold millions of shirts, including at least one shipment to Antarctica, since it started in 1946. Clark Gable wore one in “The Misfits” with Marilyn Monroe, and Heath Ledger’s shirt in “Brokeback Mountain” — plaid fabric, diamond snaps and saw-tooth pockets — was Style No. 69-39.

Until Wednesday, when he died at 107 in Denver, Mr. Weil was still chief executive of the company he founded and, until just before his death, came to work daily. He was regularly called the oldest chief executive still working.

Read full story

Saturday, August 16, 2008

European Bluegrass Festival

At the end of July, the weekend after the Country Rendez-vous in Craponne, I took in the first couple days of the European Bluegrass Music Festival and contest, held for the third time in the Alps at La Roche sur Foron, France, between Geneva and Mont Blanc.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for the entire event, which ran July 30-August 3. One of the biggest bluegrass festivals in Europe, it featured 30 European bands and drew some 8,000-10,000 people. All concerts were free. The headline act was 3 Fox Drive from the United States, which had also performed in Craponne.

The festival was organized by the chairman of the French Bluegrass Music Association Christopher Howard-Williams, an English businessman who lives in La Roche, and sponsored by the town's mayor and tourist board.

Artists came from the Czech Republic, Britain, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Slovenia, Russia and Sweden.

Winners this year -- judged on a long list of criteria including stage presence, repertoire, and use of bluegrass instruments -- were:

1. Monogram (Czech Republic), 2. Toy Hearts (Britain) 3. (Shared) G-Runs & Roses and Wyrton (both Czech)

It is not surprising that the Czechs did so well -- there is a long history of bluegrass in the Czech Republic, going back to the 1960s. From what I saw, the Czech groups that took part were mostly made up of younger musicians. This means that they grew up in the music; they did not discover it or start to learn it or listen to it as adults. They feel at home in the music, and it shows. Lee Bidgood has explored a lot of this in the thoughtful blog he was keeping while in the Czech Republic doing research on Czech bluegrass over the past year.

My good friend and bluegrass chronicler Lilly Pavlak, who is based in Switzerland but was born in CZ, will be posting a long report on the Festival on the European Bluegrass Blog.

Meanwhile here are a couple of links to some (fuzzy) video I have posted on youtube.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Jews and Indians....

In my first Ruthless Cosmopolitan column, I wrote about the analogies I find between the "virtually Jewish" world and the "imaginary wild west", and I've written and spoken about this in greater depth at various conferences -- you can see a paper I prepared on it by clicking here.

One of these conferences was the Conference on Modern Jewish Culture held in Wroclaw, Poland, in June. One of the organizers, Marcin Wodzinski, from the University of Wroclaw, has now sent me information he turned up showing some perceived analogies dating back to the early 19th century.

He writes:

In 1824 in the first Jewish periodical in Eastern Europe "Beobachter an der Weichsel/dostrzegacz Nadwislanski", the editor Entoni Eisenbaum published an article entitled "Similaries of the religious rituals of the Inidians of North America and the Jews" (1824 No 23, pp. 182-184 and No 24, pp. 190-192). He claims that Indians and Jews are very similar. Both tribes pray to one God only, his name is Jehva for Jews and Joheva for Indians, they hate white people, consider themselves to be the chosen nation, they are divided into tribes ("generations"), have similar calendar, have one festive day a week, their dialect is similar to Hebrew, they have prophets and archpriest, consider some animals unclean, keep fast before war expeditions, and keep levirate.


Sunday, August 3, 2008

Craponne -- Country Rendezvous pictures

I meant to write up something on the Country Rendez-vous in Craponne last weekend, but got in each night far too late, and then left town to travel a little, ended up this past weekend in La Roche sur Foron, France, near Geneva, for the first couple of days of the European Bluegrass festival....

So here, at least, are some pictures from Craponne -- various performers, site, atmosphere, crowd, junk for sale....The festival forms a Wild Western Space par excellence...the area is fenced, and you step through into another world...

Friday, August 1, 2008

More Rebel Flags

I have added a number of pictures from the Country Rendez-vous in Craponne to the photo gallery of Rebel Flags in Europe that I have posted on my web site.

Someone at Craponne told me that he thought there were more Rebel Flags on show now than in the past; he estimated that it was almost 50-50 with American Flags. It didn't seem that much to me... but they certainly are very visible. This year there was a stand selling all sorts of Confederate stuff, including T-shirts of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate heroes, all clearly imported from the US.