Warm Weekend for a Road Trip
On my way down to Champaign IL to a house concert to see Jason Ringenberg, I flashed on the first time I encountered Jason and the Scorchers (who would eventually be renamed to Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, probably because that would sound more sellable). It was a summer day in Champaign back in 1982 ish. Campustown in Champaign during the summer was pretty dead in those days. You could stroll into Mabel's (the CBGB of C-U at the time) and see really great bands, and there'd be maybe a dozen people in this place that would normally pack in some 300 bodies on a Saturday night. In the case of Jason and the Scorchers, the dozen or so people there went and told their friends not to miss this band the next time they came through, because despite the small crowd, they lived up to their name and scorched the place. We'd never seen anything like it: a band that looked and started to sound country, right down to Jason's sweetly throaty voice, but playing it loud and fast. We didn't know it at the time, nor had anybody coined the phrase yet, but in hindsight, this was the band that pretty much invented cowpunk. Up until that point, I had no use in my life for country music (or folk, for that matter), but when Jason sang out John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" at triple tempo, he did so without a hint of irony and made his point: this was great music, made by people who loved country, but also loved punk.
So, thirty some odd years later, after the Scorchers disbanded and Jason kept plugging away with his songs and his other persona ("Farmer Jason" -- a delightful children's entertainer who sings about farm animals and such but never giving up his punk roots ), I made the trip to my friends Cynthia and Ernie's house to see a solo performance from Ringenberg. These house concerts ("The Sandwich Life House Concert" series) are always wonderful -- I don't get down to see them all that often but I'd driven down for his set once before and it's worth the trip. This was a special performance: a 10th anniversary of Sandwich Life House Concerts, a 20th anniversary of C and E living in this particular house, and their 30th wedding anniversary. As such, C and E put together a great lineup for the whole evening: joining Jason would be Nashville legends Fats Kaplin and Kristi Rose.
But opening the night were a band of 16 year olds (fronted by Cynthia and Ernie's youngest son, Owen Blackwelder) called the Taxi Boys who turned in a really good set of power pop with professionalism and proficiency that belied their age. Their choice of covers --- including Pink Floyd's "Lucifer Sam", Nick Lowe's "Teacher Teacher", and a combo of the Beatles "The End/Back in the USSR" (not to mention local heroes The Vertebrats) -- should give you an idea of where they're coming from, but they have a really good pile of originals with odd little flourishes like dissonant lead lines and oddly placed crescendos that make for some really good hooks. This is a band that closes their set with a Flamin Groovies cover: Blackwelder even named his vintage VW Beetle "Cyril", so these aren't just a bunch of young punks with three chords. They're definitely a band to watch.
Her tone ranges from clear to choky to raspy, her emotional range covers everything from joyous to melancholy to wistful, her dynamic range goes from a whisper to a holler. But her genius is knowing exactly what vocal tools to employ when, so when accompanied by her husband Kaplin (whose versatility and virtuosity would be easy to take for granted) they deliver a riveting set. Also, she's got a terrific sense of humor that warms up a room, and set the tone for Ringenberg.
Jason Ringenberg's set proved he was the heart of the Scorchers: he had that same warmth he's had for the past 30 years. While he's a punk rocker at heart and always will be, he's not a disentranced punk rocker. Whether's he's covering Dylan ("Absolutely Sweet Marie") or stomping his foot to accompany his own storytelling songs, every song he sings wipes away any sense of jaded cynicism. Even when he wails a sad song, he bounces right back with a rocker, a joke, or a happy children's ditty. Even when he's singing about punk itself, as in "God Bless The Ramones" it's a joy, it's a fun story despite the disaster.
He joined Rose and Kaplin for a few songs, and he and the duo took turns with a couple more sets, and then took turns on verses of The Weight before the night was through. Farmer Jason slices up a few more of his home grown tomatoes for the spread of food that people picked at as they finished off their beers, and bid their farewells. The whole thing was worth driving through four hours of rain and chill for the warmest weekend I've had in a long time. God Bless the Ramones!
On the way out of town, Stella asked me to take a picture of this house in Urbana at 704 West High Street. I asked the assembled locals if they knew why. Apparently its used on the cover of an album by American Football, and as I have not followed the C-U music scene in a while (so I'm not at all familiar with this band), as one of the locals told me, "Oh yeah. That's a thing," so I went and shot it. Oh, and by the way, for those of you who refer to Illinois as "Flatland" you'd be amazed at some of the beauty you'd find just off the freeway on the way down. I stopped at Matheissen State Park for a hike before I rolled into C-U. It's a lovely overlooked state park (just south of the more famous Starved Rock) and even on a grey day with sprinkling showers it was stunning. Here's photos of the whole trip, including the house concert.