Graminy; January 28, 2011; Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse
Wild Hog in the Woods is kind of like Brigadoon, but it appears every Friday instead of every thousand years. The Wil-Mar Center on Jenifer Street becomes a cozy little venue once a week, hosting singer songwriters and folkies of all varieties. The term coffeehouse is a bit generous, all they do is plug in the Mr. Coffee and brew up a pot, but you can’t argue with the prices, 35 cents a cup, and the same for a cookie. The cover charge is also ridiculously low; two bucks of you are a member, three if you aren’t. That money is used to cover the costs of putting on the show, there’s a ceramic pig that they use to collect money for the musicians.
Tonight’s guest was Graminy. The name comes from the scientific classification for grass, which is graminae. Just as their name is a fancy name for grass, their music is a fancy form of bluegrass that they like to call “class grass.” I’ve certainly never heard anything like it before. These songs were suites, they had movements, heck, they required sheet music, something I’ve seldom seen any of them use. The music is all written by Mike Bell, who was the wild card in the band for me since I knew the rest of the band. The themes were places and nature, and the music was as original and unique as anything I’d ever seen or heard. I’ve never been much of a fan of classical music but I’ve also never heard it mixed up with bluegrass before, and the results were absolutely hypnotic.
Bell has the advantage of having some of Madison’s best players as his bandmates. The omnipresent Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines, on fiddle and cello respectively, are probably the best known. The two have played on probably half the local releases of the last ten years, and are members of such recognizable bands as the Common Faces, the Moon Gypsies, the Bob Westfall Band and the Stellanovas. Their musical prowess is never more obvious than during their MadToast Live show which is recorded for podcast. In the course of their music and interview show they often play along with their guests, some of whom they had just met. Gaines also has a lovely singing voice, and most of the songs tonight which featured vocals were hers. After the break, Gaines and Wagoner also did one of their own songs, a quirky little love song that they both sing on.
I’ll admit that fiddler Shauncey Ali was the main draw for me. Though in this case, “violinist” and “violist” are probably more appropriate terms than fiddler. Like Wagoner and Gaines, Ali can pretty much play anything, but this was something I’d never seen him do. There were sounds he coaxed out of his instruments that I hadn’t heard before. It was especially intriguing to see Ali and Wagoner play together; their bows were in perfect synch. One of those numbers was a song that Ali had written. Composer too, apparently there’s no end to his skills.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the night was when Bell’s daughter joined the band for a couple songs. On the first she and her father played a duet, him on guitar and her on violin. Despite her age, which I would guess to be around 12, she was a remarkable player. The rest of the band returned to the stage so that she could “sing a song” with them. It was stunning to see a voice that should have been coming from an evening gown-glad torch singer lounging on a piano come out of her tiny frame. Despite the fact that the song was about fishing, it was still pretty amazing. I was even more surprised to hear that the band had never practiced with her; instead she and her father had simply run through it a few times.
Even though this was not the kind of show I usually see, I was endlessly intrigued by it. I’ll definitely go see Graminy again sometime, hopefully soon