Getting Old In Berkeley Is New Again

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention celebrates an everyman’s version of fiddles, guitars, jams, and square dances.


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Photo Courtesy BOTMC

Red Mountain Yellowhammers

The Quale boys have thrived by tapping into the region’s deep pool of talent. Niko has studied with Albany banjo master Bill Evans and continues to take lessons with Catherine Manning. Miles studies mandolin with Sharon Gilchrist and guitar with Jim Nunally. Both Miles and Teo grab lessons with the celebrated sibling string stars Tristan and Tashina Clarridge whenever they come down from Shasta, and even toured as an opening act for the Clarridges’ band the Bee Eaters with their own combo, Crying Uncle. 

Rather than conforming to typecasting as the People’s Republic of Berzerkeley, the old-time scene embodies the best of a community where progressive zeal is tempered by a reverence for the rural past before screens became the dominant vehicle for entertainment. “People think you have to go to Nashville or some place to be around great bluegrass and old-time musicians, but this area is teeming with them,” Mariaelena Quale said. “The boys are in a string ensemble and enjoy classical music, but the bluegrass has kept their interest. You go to a classical performance and you can’t make noise until the piece is over and you clap. At old-time shows or jams, everyone’s clapping or dancing or playing along. It’s all about the community.”

Which isn’t to say that the old-time scene disdains virtuosity or seeks to turn the music into precious artifacts. Bruce Molsky, a fiddler, guitarist, and banjo player revered in old-time circles, is an artist who’s delved deeply into the tradition without being bounded by it. Like many musicians drawn to old-time music, Molsky can’t claim it as a birthright. A Jewish kid from the Bronx, he became obsessed with old-time music at Cornell University in the early 1970s while studying engineering (a profession he pursued until he was in his early 40s, when he devoted himself to music full time).

Influenced by the great North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell, he settled in Rockbridge County, Va., for several years and spent all his spare time soaking up sounds from his neighbors. These days he’s on faculty at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, part of the school’s American Roots Music Program, which is where he met his Drifters banjo bandmate Allison de Groot, a Berklee alum. They started playing together informally, and the new trio took shape when she suggested bringing Stash Wyslouch into the mix, “a punk guitar player who went acoustic,” said Molsky, who gives an old-time fiddle workshop at Freight & Salvage on Sept. 21 and plays with Molsky’s Mountain Drifters the following night as part of a Freight triple bill.

“He hadn’t played a whole lot of old-time music but had listened to a lot of it,” Molsky said. “A good guitar player is a percussionist who cements the music. He’s really studious, and he totally got it. We play music that’s respectful of tradition and based on tradition, but they have their own approach and life experience. It’s my band and I may be the main dude, but their experience with traditional music is not mine, and they’re dragging me to a new place. Stash isn’t afraid to step out and get a little crazy.”

Molsky has produced albums by some brilliant young players on the scene, such as April Verch, Joe Walsh, Karen Tweed, and Tatiana Hargreaves. He has also worked closely with Mark Knopfler, contributing widely to his 2015 album Tracker. The fact that untested players can get next to an old-time music’s equivalent of a rock star like Molsky is one thing that makes the scene so appealing. The music is accessible on every level, and one needn’t know how to improvise or play over chord changes, and “for the square dancing, you don’t have to know any special moves,” said Suzy Thompson, who plays the Freight on Sept. 21 with longtime collaborator guitarist Del Rey on a triple bill with the Foghorn Stringband and Bobby Taylor and Kim Johnson.

“There’s a whole young generation of people who are getting into this music, because it’s a great way to meet people,” she continued. “Another thing I notice in today’s political climate is that it’s a great way to make a connection with people of a different persuasion politically. Maybe not so much in Berkeley, but I know some Trump supporters who play old-time music. Playing music together is a great way to humanize the other, and in a small way old-time music can help get past these divisions.”

 

Find the complete schedule and learn more at BerkeleyOldTimeMusic.org.

 

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