This nondescript cellar door on the square in Bristol, New Hampshire ("Gateway to Newfound Lake") was once entrance to the tavern at Abel's restaurant. It's now long gone, but back in the 90s, Abel's thriving, eclectic weekly open mike first brought the Buskers together (where's the historic plaque?). It was always crowded with musicians and good music until 11 pm, when second shift ended at the Freudenberg factory up the street and the bar grew too boisterous for acoustic jamming.
I was back in Bristol with my jazz trio the other night, playing across the street at the Purple Pit Jazz Cub (and coffee shop/café), which opened in 2014. Other than old Abel's still sadly empty storefront, things are clearly looking up around town. I had to park blocks away from the newly beautified square; the new Mexican restaurant in town was packed; and we found out later there was an auction in town that night, too.
This Saturday the Buskers return to Bristol to play the Back Room at the Mill Fudge Factory (below), which overlooks the Newfound River–and is directly next to the former Abel's. It only seats about 40, with a stage so small I am considering bringing just accordion and bass this year, leaving the keyboard at home. It is an ideal venue for listening, and we have had some of our best audiences there.
Now 25 years older, a little wiser maybe, certainly more experienced and accomplished, if only a little better known than when we started out (!), we still come back to play in the little village where we first met. Roots.
The Mill Fudge Factory, Bristol, New Hampshire, where The Buskers are playing this Saturday, Aug. 4, at 7:30 pm. $12. Advance reservations recommended, as seating is limited. BYOB. Menu orders can be made in advance.
Link to tickets: thebackroomatthemill
This will be a very modest Summer for The Buskers; just a handful of shows at small, familiar venues–intimate listening rooms with, if past years are anything to go by, attentive and enthusiastic audiences; all in idyllic vacation spots near beautiful lakes (if not directly on a lake, as in Inlet, NY in the Adirondacks). Though a festival or two would have been nice to connect with new and larger audiences, we will be grateful for what we have, and I look forward to heading home next week and reuniting with my fellow band members.
First up is a duo with Paul at friendly local Giuseppe's in Meredith, NH. Our fiddle-y? fiddlier? fiddlish? tunes, I'm warning you in advance, we will save for when we have KZ with us. Instead we will up the ante on familiar vintage covers. Banjo, accordion, guitar, piano, bass...who needs fiddle?! Later in July, we head over to KZ's home for some intensive rehearsals before our NY shows. I also have a number of shows with my jazz trio at some great venues [craigjaster.com/shows].
I know it's a little late in the day, but maybe I should write a word or two about this move of mine to Germany: catch you up on why I made the move, and what life has been like here so far...
When the cash-strapped private school where both my wife and I worked for many years could no longer cover our health insurance, we found ourselves forking over almost 25% of our take home pay just for insurance on the marketplace. My wife took a much higher paying teaching job in California for a couple of years, but rent on her tiny cottage was sky high, and, though we had some fun times on both coasts, being apart that much, and all the plane flights back and forth got old, as you can imagine. [song reference: "Home Tonight."] But we couldn't see a way to afford to stay in New Hampshire. So adventure was required of us. My wife was recruited for a good teaching job here in Germany, where we have now been for almost a year, with excellent, affordable cost of living and health care. As you may know, quality of life is very important in Europe. And people are willing to pay high taxes for good infrastructure.
We live in the prettiest part of Düsseldorf, all cobblestone streets and mature, well-tended trees. Within a few blocks are: grocery store, health food store, coffee roaster, bank, post office, doctor, dentist, tram and bus stop, bike shop, three gelaterias, four biergartens, myriad bike and walking paths, several churches whose bells peal often, rich farmland (wheat, sugar beets, rapeseed), and the ruins of King Barbarossa's 12th century castle overlooking the Rhine. We don't have a car!
Winter here wasn't bad. I heard New England winter dragged on forever. I miss snow, but on the other hand, it was nice to be able to bike to work in February, and the grass stayed green.The Rhine flooded big-time at one point. And now, At 51.2 degrees latitude, in mid-June, the sun sets at around 10 pm. There are no ticks or mosquitoes to speak of, and absolutely no black flies. And yet, of course, I miss home.
How long will we stay here? I can't say. At the very least, another year to fulfil my wife's contract. We also have to see whether I can gain a stronger foothold now that I have been here a while. I am not very connected to the local scenes (yet), there's the language barrier (though I am working on that!); and I haven't been playing out anywhere near enough (yet). I've gone to jazz open sessions; I'm now rehearsing with an electric trio with good commercial potential; and I've had a few jazz gigs with excellent and sympathetic players. I'm beginning to investigate the singer/songwriter scene. And I already have a handful of local fans, including some of our neighbors here in our building.
There is a big upside, though: the hours I've been able to put into daily practice: piano, voice, composing, research... a luxury I never had before, and I love it. I feel very grateful for this gift. But it's time to put it to use.
...so the saying goes. For those of us living far apart from each other in the Northland, late Winter is time to reconnect. Busker Paul made the seven hour plus drive over to northern New York this past weekend to work on Summer set lists with KZ. Craig will be back from Germany just eight weeks this Summer, so in addition to trio gigs, we’ll be performing some duos: Kathy and Paul (in NY) and Paul and Craig (in NH), circling around everyone's summer family plans. (Or If you are in Dusseldorf in May, you might catch the combination of Craig and Kathy out busking!)
Despite it being just about Spring, Paul drove thru a whiteout of blowing snow drifts near the windmill forest in Chateauguay on Friday, but he made it safely, and that evening we gathered songs into set lists for various gigs. Saturday was the big practice day: seven hours work, if you could call it that, broken up with a breather trip out to the Irish Festival in Watertown. Great fun it was; so many tunes up for grabs for the set lists; so much good noise in the home.
In July Kathy will also be featured at the Old Tyme Fiddlers’ Association in Osceola, NY, way up in the hills of the Tug Hill plateau, where in Winter the wind from Lake Ontario hits hard and the "Lake Effect" brings lots and lots of snow. (If you look at a map of night light in the Northeast you will notice the area is dark; it is sparsely populated because of the snow). That concert will feature KZ on fiddle, though Paul will most certainly bring his banjo along. Kathy is not a traditional fiddler, so she's already practicing up for this. Practice, practice, practice...
Exhibit A, my vintage Italian Frontalini
I had to decide which instruments to bring to Düsseldorf, and which to leave for Summer gigs back in the U.S.; which could travel easily and which I couldn’t part with. Leaving my accordion was a no-brainer. It is delicate and expensive, not good for air travel. And Germany is the land of accordions! I can pick up a nice used one cheap here.
...or CAN I?
Once settled in our flat and we finally had internet (another saga), I set to work. Research yielded two shops in Köln, an hour and a half train ride away. But I soon found out small, light accordions like mine (exhibit A) are a comparative rarity. My emails to the proprietors of the two shops (ein Herr R. und ein Herr Z.) brought only one offer, from Herr Z., and he said it needed work. I turned it down, sight unseen – didn’t want to wait a month or more for the repairs to be done.
A month went by. No new leads. Contacted Herr Z. again. Too late; that one had sold. I eventually made a trip to Köln; emailed the stores first to see if they had any smaller instruments in the store at that moment. Herr Z's father got back to me: yes! But, I discovered when I got there, two trains and a tram later, he only meant new accordions. A miscommunication. He spoke no English. I spoke almost no German.
Later, Herr R. contacted me regarding a student model Hohner that came in. I expressed interest. Those are very small and light; but then I had the opportunity to play one at an open session I attended, and decided that with only 24 keys and 48 bass buttons, it wasn’t enough accordion; so I didn’t pursue it.
Strike 2. This guy doesn’t know what he wants.
More perusal of websites. (FYI Craigslist isn’t used much here, but I searched Quoka.de, which is similar, for local listings). Found a Hohner Arietta (exhibit B) on the other side of Düsseldorf and took the train out to see it. The right model and size, but quite a few wheezy, stuck, and out of tune notes. It will need repair… but how much?
So I sent yet another email to both Herr Z. and Herr R. assuring them I was still looking (and hinting that I am approaching desperation). I even asked their advice: would he recommend I buy this Hohner at said price and bring it in for repairs? Does that sound like a reasonable option?
Strike 3. You’re out.
This morning I received this email back from Herr Z. And I quote:
“I have offered you an Arietta for 100 Euros less in October last Year already….I told you it would need repair. You were not willing to even have a look at it. Find it impolite of me but I´m not wasting any more time in writing E-Mails back and forth. I´m earning money overhauling accordions not with writing. I´m sure you will find something fitting your needs. You don´t need my help.”
Ouch. Yes, it was impolite. I apologized: “Es tut mir Leid…. At that time [when I turned down the one that needed work], I thought I could find one "ready to go" without waiting for repair. I was wrong… I am truly sorry for taking your time.” And I added (he probably won’t even read it) that if I buy the instrument, I will make an appointment to have it repaired at his shop. To show him that I am actually a nice, reasonable person? Or should I go to the other shop after this?
Herr Z.'s email fits with the German stereotype: curt and cold, brooking no nonsense, and feeling duty-bound to tell you what’s what. There is truth in that, I find, but on the whole, our experience here has been that most people have been so very warm and kind–and patient–with us. Thank God; as expats, we make mistakes and are lost in one way or another much of the time.
Tomorrow I plan to go back and buy the Arietta from the guy selling out of his garage (I talked the asking price down a good bit). I will take my chances that I am not buying an instrument that needs more repair than I can afford. But where will I take it to be repaired?
Stay tuned, for the next episode of………… ACCORDION DRAMA!
Exhibit B, a German Hohner Arietta
The Buskers have yet to release a Christmas album, one of the better ways to increase revenue stream, especially if you only record songs already in the public domain–-for the same reason ballet companies put on the Nutcracker and theater companies mount A Christmas Carol every December.
However, in 2012 Paul and I each recorded a track for a New Hampshire Christmas compilation album entitled “Christmas As I See It,” produced and engineered by Matt Marcil. I just re-released my contribution, “Poor Little Jesus,” as a single. And yes, it’s a little sad, focusing as it does on the conditions baby Jesus was born into, conditions we’d want no mother and child to have to go through, while we know millions experience far worse, even.
We hope you have a happy Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and/or New Year, but the holidays can be stressful, so don’t feel any worse if, after prolonged exposure to the taste of cloyingly cheerful earworm holiday songs…
"Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingaling, too…”
you find yourself wanting a Scroogey astringent palate cleanser. Fortunately, there is a rich tradition of sad Christmas songs out there.
The track that seems to get the heaviest rotation in recent years would have to be John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas:”
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done…”
–a dreary contribution to the darker holiday song catalog that never spoke to me. [I don’t like “Imagine,” either, but everyone else seems to, so I will leave that sacred cow alone for now]. Then the other day my wife, who was a Joan Baez fan in her childhood, came home singing the old song “Stewball.” Where did that come from? Then we realized we had just heard “So This Is Christmas” while out shopping. Lennon borrowed both the tune and the chord progression:
"Old Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine
He never drank water, he always drank wine.”
If you know both songs, you will never be able to unhear the mashup again.
I know it gets covered a lot, but I don’t have a problem with Joni Mitchell’s “River:”
"It's coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer and singin’ songs of joy and peace…”
Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is Here,” laced with major 7ths, is suitably melancholic, which the happy lyrics do not hide in the least. And the country contributions to the genre are numerous, of course. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” is a keeper, as is John Prine’s super dry “Christmas In Prison:”
“It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good,
We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood…”
There's "Blue Christmas..." Oh, google “downer Christmas songs;” and you find no end of examples from every genre. Judy Garland’s rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis pops up on every list. And it's sadder than you remember. But I was surprised to find that the one song that kills me every time didn’t make it onto any lists that I checked out: the Pogues’ “Fairy Tale of New York” with Kirsty Macoll. It’s just too sad; that's Shane McGowan for you, a train wreck you can't look away from, the pain buried by the end in the band's drunken 6/8 carousing. (actually, at around 4:26 they edited in a clip of McGowan, still alive, dancing in 2012; a bloody miracle, which you need if you make it through the whole video).
Merry Christmas! Or not. That's OK, too. We love you whether you are feeling festive or melancholic. Or both at the same time! And thanks for supporting The Buskers in 2017.
Which instrument to bring? No one wants to be left behind. “Take ME! Take ME!” I’ve lugged digital keyboards on trips only when a tough performance deadline was coming up. But I prefer to travel light. What does that leave? Last year in Maine I took the mandolin. I’ve played it since I was 13, but not professionally, and it sometimes gets neglected for months, so it was a pleasure to spend quality time with my old friend. This year, with apologies to everyone else on the lake, I brought the accordion, which gets much less attention than my main ax the piano until another round of Buskers gigs approaches.
Some people like to do jigsaw puzzles or play board games of a quiet lakeside evening, but learning new things on an instrument is my puzzle-solving fun. Because I am self-taught it's very much like working on a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture on the cover of the box–all the more true as you can’t see what you are doing when playing accordion (unless you look in a mirror, which I sometimes do when confused). This week I made good progress on the mysteries of the bass buttons; learned some more complex patterns–some walking lines and funky patterns. I was relaxed; there were no distractions. A good (self-)Teachable Moment.
Editor's Note: [They call this practicing, I believe].
Now I'm back home; the Buskers are in town for a couple of shows; and when I picked up the accordion at today’s rehearsal, that week of ‘shedding paid off. It was so… comfortable, I guess?
Speaking of traveling with instruments: In its case my accordion is just small enough to squeeze by as a carry-on, but once on a flight to California they stopped me at the gate because the flight was so full. I begged and pleaded–it’s a valuable and delicate instrument; they insisted; and in the end we negotiated a compromise: I could bring the accordion but had to check the case. You can imagine the laughter and snarky comments as I shuffled down the aisle with it. A true accordion moment. (The next time I took it on a plane I wrapped it in bubble wrap and put it in a grocery bag. Traveling incognito).
Sunset, Crawford Pond, Warren, Maine.
Not enough tickets pre-sold for this show in Manchester, NH tomorrow night (June 2), so the venue decided to cancel. Please accept our apologies. (On a sweeter note, thanks to all of you who came out to Giuseppe's in Meredith, NH last night!!) We will be back in NH in July. See you then?