Honky Tonkin’

The Hideout Club is our venue for our Chicago shows. There could be no greater contrast to the glitzy, towering, steel, stone and glass skyscrapers that dominate downtown Chicago, and impressed us so much when we arrived. The Hideout is altogether more HUMAN.

It’s a tiny wooden building, dating back to around the time of WW2, at which point Wabansia St was a working class neighbourhood with lots of little houses and diners in a similar style. Over the decades all of those small buildings have been swept away and replaced by warehouses and big shed wholesalers. And more than a few waste lots. It reminds me of certain parts of Leith…before the gentrification.

Next door is the Chicago fleet management HQ, where all the snowploughs head out from (and usually they see a lot of work – last year this time there were feet of snow. It’s unseasonably warm and dry right now though, which makes getting around much easier – though it does make the big fleecy Chicago coat I bought, and that fills half my suitcase, completely redundant! Ah well, I will get the good of it back in Orkney…)

Across the street is the yard where they park Chicago’s garbage trucks. On the horizon, five or six miles south, is downtown…like Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

The Hideout has been, for 15 years or so, not a struggling pub in a neighbourhood with very few neighbours. Rather, it’s been a seven nights a week venue for any kind of edgy independent music anyone wants to put on: country, blues, jazz, punk, anything. They also stage their own pantomimes, using staff members, regular musical performers and regular customers as the cast. There’s a real feeling of community, of support.

We certainly found that putting on our show. The stage is tiny – reminiscent of the Cromarty Hall in St Margaret’s Hope, where we first did this show in October 2009 – and the hall is tiny too: 100 people have jammed into it the past two nights. It’s wood lined, studded with old posters, fishing trophies, leftover props from the pantos (a rocking horse, a fake throne made for Mavis Staples) but the acoustics are great and the atmosphere even better. Thursday’s show was good, Friday’s was one of the best ever. And last night’s audience threw themselves into the Strip the Willow with wild abandon – fantastic!

Dick and Iain have been throwing themselves into show preparations with their usually energy, as the pictures show. And Lynda was throwing in all kinds of wild, inventive solos last night – it’s great when the drive and inventiveness of the music comes together with a responsive, enthusiastic audience. Once again we thought of Thomas Fraser: he had the drive, the invention in bucketloads, but shied away from such audiences. I can’t help but think he would have felt right at home here – we certainly do.

 

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Suite Home Chicago

Excuse the terrible pun…that is actually the name of the apartment block that the band and the rest of the NTS team are staying in. The comfort of the rooms and the stunning high-rise views (I’m on the 28th floor…) are appropriately mind-blowing. After 24 hours in Chicago we are still reeling from the scale and verve of architecture, the bustle of the streets, and the proliferation of neon-signed bars, diners and restaurants.

We came to love Lafayette, Indiana, during our time there at Purdue University – but that was a small town, not not much bigger than Kirkwall or Lerwick. Suddenly we are at the heart of a huge metropolis – and we’re already loving it here too.

What would Thomas have made of it? Hard to say, but Karl, Thomas’s grandson, who has come over to see the show in three of the five US venues, might be able to give us some notion when we next catch up with him: he has been researching the life of a close relation of Thomas’s, who left Shetland before Wold War Two and lived here for several decades. Supposedly she lived and worked in close proximity to some of Chicago’s more notorious characters…but I will let Karl that tale. When she returned to Shetland in her old age, she cut a colourful figure by all accounts, with salty language, fur coats, and pearl handled revolvers.

Thomas would undoubtedly have been knocked sideways by this town – the crowds, the buildings blocking out the sky, the constant sirens – but I’m equally sure he would have revelled in the music here: blues, jazz and country seem to be the thing, in that order. If we can find them, we aim to visit Chess Records studios later in the week. Today we checked out a fantastic hub called the Old Town School of Folk Music (www.oldtownschool.org) (like the Wrigley Sisters’ Reel, but ten times the size.) Last night we went to a gig at our venue, the Hideout Club by one of my all time favourite songwriters, Robbie Fulks (www.robbiefulks.com.) He did a varied and virtuosic set – I hadn’t realised what a stunning guitarist he is, as well as writing all those fine, fierce, funny songs – and also had the audience in stitches with his sardonic patter. His mix of yarns and music was actually only about two steps away from Long Gone Lonesome…

Which would be a fine place to stop, but I can’t resist including this link to a local magazine, which names us as the ‘No 1 thing to Do in Chicago in February’ http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/February-2012/Five-Best-Things-to-Do-in-February-in-Chicago/

The good press is working: all four shows are already sold out… I’ll let you know how we get on.

Duncan

Farewell Purdue

Suddenly it’s our last day in Purdue… It seems like just a few hours since we arrived, but our six days in Indiana are almost over.

Thursday we had an open dress rehearsal for a crowd of students, Friday and Saturday we did 8pm shows and got very warm receptions. Today, Sunday, we did a 3pm matinee and gave what was for me one of our best shows ever… Everything flowed smoothly, the story went across really clearly, and the music sounded good too. Hey, I’m hard to please but even I was happy this afternoon.

Every show has also featured a chance to dance, and the Strip the Willow in particular in particular has always gone down well! I hope someone else has photos of that, because of course I was playing the guitar when all the dancing was going on. Very touching how quickly people leap at the chance to do a Scottish dance. Guess it’s a rarity around here.

Apparently we were pioneering in other ways as well that we didn’t realise before we got here. Purdue Convocations, an events promoter responsible for bringing us here, collaborated with the university drama faculty to put the shows on – apparently something that’s never been done before here. We also did workshops with a selection of students – technical, directing and acting – which was new too.

Well, it was also new for me to teach post-graduate acting students how to act!

These new experiences are what it’s all about…well, doing the show is what it’s really all about, but these extra contacts are stimulating for the tour-fatigued brain, great fun, and educational for us as well as the students.

So I’ll leave you with three pics of Purdue University, which you will see is built on a grand scale. 20,000 odd students, and enormous buildings to house and teach them in. Not like Stenness, Orkney at all. But we have been made very welcome and got to know some fine individuals. So thanks Purdue, and farewell…

A tale of two hats

Sunday, our last day in Austin, was also a day off, so Iain and I took off into the country south-east of Austin with some new friends we’d met through the theatre: Eunice and Morgann (both grad students at UT) and Joel Gammage, fourth generation hat maker at Texas Hatters in Lockhart. (www.texashatters.com)

Up till now, Lockhart has always meant BARBECUE to me, and we did indeed start our visit with some fantastic brisket and sausage at Smitty’s (which I lasted visited about 15 years ago, when it was still – before a family split – called Kreuz Market.)

Then we went a couple of blocks along the dusty road to Joel’s shop and workshop, an amazing, Dickensian place stuffed with hundreds of hats of all shapes and sizes (many, but not all, what we would call cowboy hats), as well as steamers, gluers, sewing machines, wooden hat moulds (many over 200 years old, Joel said), big squares of different felts (South American beaver being most prized, and New Zealand hare next best) – and hundreds of photos of celebrities wearing Texas Hatter hats. Everyone from Willie Nelson to Prince Charles to Guich Cooke to Stevie Ray Vaughan to ZZ Top to Jerry Jeff Walker to George Bush has had their head measured here.

Well, I don’t know if Iain and I will end up with our photos on the wall of fame, but we certainly ended up with Texas Hatter hats on our heads. The wind in Orkney makes wide-brimmed cowboy hats unwearable (they keep blowing away) but these fedoras looked both snazzy and practical to us. Joel decorated them for us, stamped our names on the leather liner and hand stitched that into place, then sized them to the perfect fit with stem and a ingenious wooden stretcher.

We decided against the coon skin hats…though the picture does remind me of that funny pic of Thomas with a cat balanced on his shoulder.

Apparently Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his first hat from tips earned busking on the very shoe-shine stand Iain and I sat on to sing Crazy Arms. Our tips were few, I’m afraid, but the joy of wearing these hand-customised hats was – and is – plentiful.

Review!

Just found this link to what might be our first review here in the states from one of the Austin shows.

Have been flicking through more Austin pics today too… what an amazing city to kick off in! We flew up north yesterday and are now settled in at Purdue Uni, West Lafayette, Indiana. Huge Uni Campus so totally different feel to Austin. Shows Fri, Sat and Sunday. Bleedin’ FREEZING here – shock to the system after Austin.

 

Tommy Duncan Festival

A few months ago, Graham Simpson, drummer with Lone Star Swing band for 2009 tour (originally due to be on this tour but unfortunately not able to make it) was in touch via Facebook with a group of people organising the Tommy Duncan Tribute, in Hillsboro, Texas.

Tommy D is a legend of Western Swing, and was vocalist with Bob Wills (aka the King of Western Swing)… and sang hits such as…Stay a little longer. Tommy is the one sitting on the table singing in that clip – impossible to not love that sound! Bob Wills’ sound led to Duncan’s obsession with all things Texas a few years ago now, and eventually on to his Thomas Fraser obsession years later.  Anyway, back to the story…

Tommy’s family has started a festival in his name, to raise awareness of his huge contribution to Western Swing music and through Graham’s contact, Lone Star Swing were invited as special guests!

Fast forward to Fri 13th January… after arriving in Austin the previous night, we headed 2 hours drive north! Got to thinking on the way up that Tommy & Thomas kinda look alike. They were only 17 years apart in age – Tommy would’ve been 101 this year, and Thomas 84. Feels like they met indirectly that weekend when we told Tommy’s family about Thomas.

Duncan had arranged for us to meet the organisers in Whitney, Texas, Tommy’s birthplace. We were met in Whitney by Pam Townley, the organiser and a few others including Guich Koock – who was a great host to us – and Billy Mata – a Western Swing musician himself.

We followed them down a long, dusty 2 mile track to the house Tommy was born in. Amazing wood built, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ style. There we met Glynn Duncan, Tommy’s brother!

Duncan was keen to get as much chat with his as possible, as you can imagine. Check out those red boots!

Glynn is 90 but still sharp and told a great few stories. He sang with Bob Wills for a short while too. That tiny little house was home to a family of 14! Amazing introduction to Texas, and it’s people – they were all so friendly, and welcoming and keen to tell us all about the area and it’s musical history. I think Dick might’ve managed to transport himself back 100 years – he seemed to blend in with the house as if he’d always been there!

Later that night, we were invited for dinner at the house of Tommy & Glynn’s nephew. We felt so honoured to be invited in to the family. A great night of Texas food and hospitality! Little bit of a shock to be met by the stuffed bear, and the numerous deer and elk heads but they soon blended in just fine.

In true Texas tradition, all the men were dressed in cowboy style, with hats, boots and western shirts… and true polite (take their hat off to say hello to a lady!) cowboys too. And all of that was only just the beginning!

Festival took place the following day, Saturday – our second full day in the States! The ‘Chuckwagon breakfast’ to start the day was amazing! Everything cooked on the fire, by the wagon… bliss.

We were interviewed for local radio then spent the rest of the day listening to the best Western Swing I’ve ever heard… with lots of people on the floor, Texas Two-Stepping!!

We sneaked out to meet Dave Alexander and to visit his tour bus. Could definitely cope with a life on the road in one of those.

The whole experience of that first weekend was just way beyond my best expectations of Texas. Really nice people, amazing music and a nostalgic feel of times past. One thing that I couldn’t help notice was a missing age group of 20-40 year olds. There were only two (really cute) young people there – two young cowboys who were like miniature versions of the older men in the community. They were having a great time though, and seeing them with their families reminded me Shetland and Orkney where music and that old sense of nostalgia are still linked. Texas feels like home! Sure Thomas would have thought so too!

 

Adios Austin…

Sunday, and a day of rest in Austin. Much needed after a hectic few days. Great day yesterday – standing ovation for the afternoon show! Amazing. These are my first few shows so I was kinda relieved to get them out of the way. I’m replacing Fiona Driver, fiddle player who did the last tour with Long Gone Lonesome – a hard act to follow!

Was great last night to get a chance to sit down with everyone who’s worked so hard this week to make everything run seamlessly! James Gardner‘s here with us as Production Manager, and Stevie Jones on Sound – both brilliant to work with, and doing an amazing job. The techie/venue team from Bass Concert Hall have been amazing too – thanks y’all! Few beers and a taste of whisky combined with a little backstage tune was a great way to round off the Austin shows. Managed to persuade everybody to pose for a pic!

L-R Back - James (NTS), Kirsten (Austin), Iain (LSS), Dick (LSS), Neil (NTS), Stevie (NTS), May (Thomas' daughter), Alexis (Karl's partner), Karl (Thomas' grandson). L-R Front - Jeremy (Austin), Michael (NY), Duncan (LSS), Lynda (LSS), Ben (Austin), Cynthia (Austin), Mackie (May's husband) & Emma (NTS).

Great to have some of Thomas’ family there – makes the whole story feel even more real when people who knew Thomas are there in the crowd. Austin itself has been a great city to experience.

Cedar Fever and Sell Out Shows

Day 3 in Austin! Two sell out shows so far – both well received!

We’ve recreated a village hall in Scotland on the huge stage of Austin’s Bass Theatre. As in Orkney or Shetland, the show is followed by a raffle and dance! In true Texas style, the crowd stuck around and took to the dance floor! Amazing to see the cowboy hats birling around the floor. They were even up for a strip the willow, expertly led by our Director, here with us on the tour, Emma Callander and NTS Executive Producer Neil Murray who has been around for the start of the tour. The Texans did a great job! Great to have six Shetlanders there last night too, including May, Thomas’ daughter and Karl, his grandson.

Opening show on Thursday was a tough one for Duncan, who all but lost his voice to cedar fever – a common allergic reaction round these parts at this time of year. Trip to the doctor yesterday sorted him out and he was back in full voice last night.

Two more shows here in Austin today, day off tomorrow, then we head for Indiana on Monday. Austin has been an amazing experience – renowned for it’s live music scene, Duncan’s recommendation for gigs and venues is never-ending, in true music fanatic style and he’s been rushing round to as many as he can squeeze in, from the Broken Spoke, to the White Horse and the Continental Club. Iain has been keeping up with Duncan, but Dick and I took the more leisurely option of the hotel bar last night, where we bumped into some of Thomas’ family so a good chance to have a catch up with them. It’s great they’re over here.

Still tales to tell of our trips during our first week in the US before the start of the tour – to Hillsboro, Texas as special guests at the Tommy Duncan festival, and to Nashville, to introduce the guys to the best in honky tonkin’… including Dick’s spectacular Nashville debut, at Rippy’s, Lower Broadway! If I can just figure out how to get the video uploaded I’ll get it up here. In the meantime, here are some shots from the Bass Hall. Time to get the dress on and get downstairs! Bye for now, Lynda.

Austin stage! Preparing for Opening night...

Taking Thomas Fraser ‘home’

We’ve made it through our first two shows to kick off the tour, here in Austin, Texas. The Austin audiences have been fantastic – even up for dancing an Orcadian Strip the Willow!

Six Shetlanders were there tonight, amongst them May (Thomas’ daughter) and Karl (his grandson). It was brilliant to see them there, and for them to be sharing in the experience of what really does feel like taking Thomas Fraser ‘home’ to his musical roots.

For some background in case you’re not familiar with the show… we (the Lone Star Swing Band, aka Duncan McLean, Iain Tait, Dick Levens and me – Lynda Anderson) are here in the USA touring Long Gone Lonesome, a National Theatre of Scotland production about the life of Shetlander Thomas Fraser.

Thomas was a crofter and fisherman in the remote Shetland Islands, who fell in love with the country music of America… the songs of Carl Smith and Jimmie Rodgers amongst others. Not only did he listen to the music obsessively, he learned to play guitar and sing the songs to a standard to rival the original artists.

Although known as a talent in the local community during his lifetime, his extreme shyness limited his public performances and it was really only 20 years after his death that the true wealth of his talents were discovered, when his grandson, Karl Simpson, listened through old reel to reel recordings Thomas had left – no less than 1000 tracks!

Karl got to work preserving the tapes, and to date has released 6 CDs of Thomas’ music to worldwide acclaim. Duncan was gripped by the music and story of Thomas’ life and the play is a combination of that story together with some of the songs Thomas loved so much. Although he was never in America, I really do feel like he’s travelling with us to his musical ‘home’. Just wish he could be here to see it for himself.