Rani Arbo jazzes to swing
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 12, 2001) – A few years ago, New England bluegrass/folk outfit Salamander Crossing seemed poised for great success. The group had garnered a loyal following throughout the region for its mix of old-time instrumental music, original compositions and contemporary singer-songwriter material by the likes of Shawn Colvin, Bruce Cockburn and the Beatles.
The Amherst-based band was collaborating with famed artists like Tim O’Brien and Tony Furtado, appearing at top festivals, and was the object of much critical acclaim.
In retrospect, the group of young musicians and singers, fronted by singer-fiddler Rani Arbo, may well have gone on to the sort of national success that Nickel Creek has enjoyed the past year. But the band broke up in 1999, seemingly ending the story there.
But the core of that group has reappeared recently under a new guise, with a shift in musical emphasis and repertoire. And already Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, as the new group is billed, is garnering acclaim for its mix of jug-band novelties, swing tunes, ukulele music and even some songs from Salamander Crossing’s songbook.
Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem are at Club Helsinki tonight, with singer-songwriter Kerri Powers, who has a new album, You, Me, and a Redhead (Leopard Skin), opening the show at 8:30. For reservations call 528-3394.
In a recent phone interview, Arbo described Daisy Mayhem, with its emphasis on swing, as a logical and necessary evolution from the music of Salamander Crossing.
“Bluegrass has always been a little more rigid than swing,” said Arbo, “although there are a lot of new players who are bridging the gap. I really enjoy improvising in the swing genre. It’s more fun for me than improvising in bluegrass.
“Swing opens up more possibilities in my mind. I come up with better ideas, more unusual and rhythmic ideas. Bluegrass is very straight-ahead time, right on the beat. In swing there’s a lot of space between the beats and everyone in the band plays with that in a different way. There’s room for the solo instrument to mess with that micron of time.”
On its debut album, Cocktail Swing (Signature Sounds), the group – which also includes former Salamander Crossing member Andrew Kinsey on vocals and ukulele -- covers a variety of tunes, ranging from the jazz standard, “That’s All,” featuring Arbo’s vocals, to Anne Murray’s hit, “Snowbird,” arranged for ukulele. The album also includes a version of Louis Armstrong’s “Butter and Egg Man,” a Lefty Frizell tune, and a version of “I Get the Blues When It Rains,” which they heard on a recording by Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks.
“A lot of these songs had little trails, starting as gifts or a tape from a friend or an MP3 clip,” said Arbo, an alumna of Amherst College who plays fiddle in Daisy Mayhem. “A few of the songs are bona fide obscure. Many were made in the 1930s. I listen to a lot of jazz, but I don’t listen to it obsessively, and I’m no specialist. I’d plug it into the web to find out who wrote it and found out it had been recorded by some serious people.”
Some of the songs date back to Salamander Crossing days. Kinsey brought a cassette tape called “Promising Ukulele Tunes” on tour. The tunes on that tape, and its overall jug-band aesthetic, were in part the genesis of the Daisy Mayhem sound – a sound, said Arbo, defined by its “fun factor.”
“The songs we play were born from dance halls,” said Arbo. “Those kinds of dancing and venues are no longer part of mainstream society, but the feeling of play in that old-time and swing music, and bluegrass too … it’s ultimately a social genre, to get together and hang out and play. That’s part of the gumbo that what we do falls into.”
When she set out to make Daisy Mayhem’s first recording, Arbo wanted to capture the freewheeling, social spirit at the heart of the music. “So we threw a party and got a record out of it in the end. The album is the record of the party.
“The album is eclectic, but everything on it has a superb melody. That’s something I really gravitate to. When you have a good melody with good chords under it you can’t go wrong.”
Daisy Mayhem also differs from Salamander Crossing in its inclusion of a drummer. But Scott Kessel is no ordinary drummer. He plays a self-made instrument called the “Drumship Enterprise,” made entirely of recycled materials: cardboard box, metal cans, Danish Butter Cookie tins, a vinyl suitcase bass drum and bottlecap shakers.
“Scott came from a real funk, rock and zydeco background, so he has a real incredible sense of groove,” said Arbo. “So having Scott and our new guitar player, who also plays rock, we have this new palette of rhythm open to us. I play more polyrhythmically than I used to.”
The name Daisy Mayhem came from a friend’s band in Minneapolis.
“They were a punk band of sorts that went belly up, and I asked if I could use the name,” said Arbo. “It sounded a little chaotic, and the collection of music we do is very eclectic. There’s a little mayhem in the middle of a set; you have no idea what will happen.”
Arbo took the long way to swing through bluegrass, beginning with choral music. As a child, she sang in a choir in a huge Episcopal cathedral in New York. “We sang all different genres of classical music from all centuries,” said Arbo. “I still do that on and off in various groups. That gave me an appreciation for harmony, which is not something you find a lot in modern music. There are rarely three or four lines stacked in your face. That style of singing is a different style, classical versus folk, but the satisfaction of being able to be a brick in a wall of sound is something that led me to some of the more old time, bluegrass and gospel type music.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 14, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]
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