Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Waiting for the Thaw Truck

Dear Switchback fans,

If you are living anywhere in North America, you probably are in agreement that this has to be one of the most severe winters on record.  The catchphrase for this winter is “polar vortex.”  Chicago has been one of the best places to fully treasure and appreciate the polar vortex at its greatest.

The fault was mine.  I had left water trickling in the basement to keep the pipes from freezing during the -15° degree weather a couple of weeks before.  However, in my euphoria after the show at the Woodstock Opera House, I neglected to check how cold it was to be for the rest of that weekend.  The taps had been turned off in the meantime.  So when I turned on the tap to prepare a bottle for our daughter at 6 a.m. Monday, there was no water.  At 3 a.m. there had been water. That’s how fast the pipes froze.

I called Chicago’s non-emergency hotline to report that we had no running water.  “I have a three-week-old baby here in the house,” I said.

“Congratulations,” the cheerful lady replied.  “We will make sure someone gets out to you.”

And so we waited.

One thing that becomes very obvious is how much water a three-week-old baby requires.  Already we had a bulging basket of baby clothes, changing covers and swaddling blankets sitting in the nursery.  Then there is the water for the humidifiers to keep the air moist for the baby and then the water to make formula.  I sure am glad Annie didn’t decide to start her cloth-diapering experiment that week!  Other than that, it’s a piece of cake.

I put a call in to my alderman’s office.  I already knew the alderman’s assistant and have found him to be a very good, hard-working guy.   He assured me that he would get a truck to our house.

And so we waited.

Evening came and no word from the Water Department.
I started melting snow in five-gallon buckets for the toilets.  I told Annie, “It will be just like Little House on the Prairie.”  However, Charles Ingalls didn’t have to deal with the City of Chicago Water Department.

Monday evening at around 8 p.m., a truck pulled up outside our house and up the walk came three figures that easily could have been written into a Shakespearean play.  One gentleman was a short figure with heavy fireman boots and a hunting hat.  He was the ringleader of the group.  One gentleman was portly and was wearing sweatpants along with his reflective vest.  The final gentleman was a tall man with a beard.  In spite of his heavy winter garments, he had an almost elegant air, like that of a poetry professor.

“You have water problems?” the ringleader asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“You know there are a lot of people without water right now,” he said.

I didn’t know what to say to that.

I pulled on my coat and followed them out to the street in front of our house.

“We need to find the b-box,” the poet said.

“What’s a b-box?” I asked.

“That’s where the water comes in from the street,” the ringleader said.

Later that night, I decided to research what a b-box is.  Its full name is a “Buffalo Box,” named after Buffalo, New York, and is literally a valve box that connects a home’s water system to the water main.

I happened to know where our b-box was since the gas company had redone the gas line last summer.  At least I knew it was next to our big silver maple.

The heavy-set gentleman brought out a metal detector and started sweeping it along the ground.

“You sure this thing is here?” he asked.

“Positive,” I said.

I watched him sweep the ground and noticed gravity was starting to win with his sweatpants.

The poet came out with a measuring wheel and started up the street to measure the distance out from the nearest hydrant.  The ringleader came back with a shovel and started clearing the two feet of snow from around the tree.  Nothing.

“He says the b-box is here,” said the ringleader to no one in particular.

The poet and the ringleader went back to the truck and I stood with the heavy-set gentleman who leaned on his shovel.

“You need to make a bigger clearing,” I said.  “I think I can find this thing.”

I reached for the shovel.  He grabbed the shovel back from me and shot me a look.  Then he started chucking a few more shovelfuls of snow.  And sure enough, the b-box was discovered.

“All right,” I said to the ringleader.  “What next?”

“That’s it for us. We’re just the crew to open the b-box,” he said.  “You need to wait for the Thaw Truck.”

“The Thaw Truck?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how they thaw the line, with this big electrical current.”

“Are they coming now?”

“They’ll be here later.”

About 90 minutes later, this flatbed truck with a generator on its back rolled down the street.  I deduced that this was the Thaw Truck.  So I grabbed my coat and headed out toward it.  It was idling at the corner of our street.  I was just about within shouting distance when the Thaw Truck slowly lurched into life and headed down the street.  I figured it was just going around the block and would come back.  It didn’t.  I learned another lesson.  When life gives you a Thaw Truck, you run it down and make sure it doesn’t lurch down the street.

I called the non-emergency line.  A nice lady answered.  I told her who I was and where I lived and that I had no water and a three-week-old baby.  She said, “Congratulations!”  I told her that the Thaw Truck did not stop at our house.  She was sorry for us.

My brother-in-law has a wonderful girlfriend whose dad might be even more wonderful as he works for the Water Department on the South Side of Chicago.  We are out of his jurisdiction, but he started putting in calls on our behalf.  Between him and the alderman’s office, we began to lobby the Water Department for action.

Tuesday slowly went by with nothing happening.  We placed more calls to the non-emergency line.  We were congratulated on our baby and assured that we would be moved up the priority list.

I began to work on our snowmelt, separating the melt water from the snow and filling up the flush box of the toilet.  We decided we would concentrate on just using the main floor bathroom.  I ran out to the store and picked up 10 gallons of water for drinking and cleaning.  I decided it was a good week to grow a beard.  I began to think aloud that perhaps we could survive without running water.  Áine’s crying snapped me out of my reverie.

A snow storm arrived that evening and I went out to the street to cover the b-box and place a stake with tape next to it.  I figured that way we could avoid the b-box opening team and move right to the Thaw Truck.  Six inches of snow fell and I felt I was doing my part to ensure that the Thaw Truck would be able to swing into action once it came to our address.

But it never came.

Wednesday arrived and the Little House on the Prairie experience was starting to get old.  Charles Ingalls would have figured something out by now, I thought.  Either dug a well, created his own water company, or something.  All I could do was call the alderman’s office and soothe our baby.

Our alderman succeeded in getting another team from the Water Department to visit that afternoon.  The gentlemen came down into the basement and inspected where our water line came in from the street.  I had recently had the line covered by sheet rock with vents, which they deemed needed to go.  So I reluctantly cut open a hole in the wall.  They looked at the pipe.

“Put a hair dryer on it," the one gentleman said.

So I did and the result was that there was no result.

The gentlemen hung around and realized that there wasn’t anything else they could do.

“You’re going to have to wait for the Thaw Truck,” the one gentleman said. “I wish I could do more.”

More phone calls were made and emails sent throughout Thursday.  Charles Ingalls would have harnessed his team, gone to the state capitol and proceeded to haul a Thaw Truck to Walnut Grove by now.  I started to resent Charles Ingalls.

Then, the unbelievable happened.

At about 10:30 p.m. a crew appeared and I eagerly rushed them into to the basement to look at the water line.

“You have no union,” the Thaw Truck leader said.

“What’s a union?” I asked, and wondered why nobody told me I needed one before.

A Thaw Truck works like a big battery charger.  The generator on the back of the flat bed produces a negative and a positive charge.  One end gets clipped to the b-box and the other to the water line.  The union acts as a ground to the house.

“No union and I could burn your house down,” the Thaw Truck leader said.  “I’m sorry.”

I called my brother-in-law’s girlfriend’s dad.  He saved the day by getting a plumber scheduled for the next morning to come and install the union.

At 2:30 a.m. my wife woke me up.  “There’s a Thaw Truck outside,” she said.

She happened to be feeding the baby at the moment that it rolled up.  And sure enough a crew hopped out and walked up to the door and rang the bell.  I quickly pulled on some clothes and headed down to the door.

“We’re here to thaw your pipes,” the new Thaw Truck leader said.  “No sleep until the job is done.”

“But a team was here at 10:30 last night,” I said.  “I need a union installed.”

We trudged downstairs to look at the pipes.

“You need a union,” he said.

“Yes,” I said dejectedly.

Friday came with the plumber, Mike.  He installed a union and did some repair work on the water line.  I had to leave and drive out to Macomb for our show at Western Illinois University.  I was past Galesburg when I got the text from my wife.  A crew with a third Thaw Truck had arrived around noon time.  And now…

Running water!

I checked into the Hampton Inn and got myself into the shower.  By now Charles Ingalls would have been in a warm tub and shaved with a straight razor.

I wasn’t cut out for Little House on the Prairie, anyway.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Giving thanks and Kanoka moments

Thanksgiving for northeast Iowa
by Brian FitzGerald

People have been asking me for a while what “Kanoka” means.  Is it a Native American chief?  Some town in Minnesota or Kansas?  Kanoka, the title and first track from our latest studio release, describes a destination of the soul, what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called “finding your bliss.” 

Playing northeast Iowa over the years has always been chock full of Kanoka moments for Marty and me, each experience showing us we were on our path.  The influence of the Driftless Region on our music is everywhere for those who want to get a sense of the Switchback Sound. For example, the cover of our second release, Check on Out, has a photo of my then 8 year-old son straddling his bike on the Blackhawk Bridge.  That album has the song “Stranded, Ragged and Poor” about the flooding of the Mississippi.  

The first time we played the City Club in Waukon, the brass who ran the legendary Dar’s Place caught our show and we were immediately herded over to that club for a mind-altering experience.  We soon became the house band with a following hungry for traditional Celtic, rock and country originals and our own take on some scorching covers.  There was a local expression, waygood, which was used to describe an exceptionally fun time.  WayGood became the name of our company and independent label.  Many a night when we were finished playing Dar’s we would sit with the bar maids and listen to the unbelievable eclectic jukebox. That eventually led us to release Dar’s Place, an equally eclectic mix of original tunes.  The cover shot featured the proprietor, Brenda.  The disc had everyone who was in the bar on it.  Lenny and Big Gary brought their Harley’s out and we took shots of them with us in front of the club.  Playing Dar’s was always a Kanoka moment for us. 

Nancy Whiskey, our second Irish album, was recorded after several nights playing for the crazy folks at the Haymarket in Decorah.  Engineer Bruce Larsen was sometimes kept awake turning knobs until the birds were chirping.  The late, great photographer Larsh Bristol always wanted to photograph Maxine, a celebrated Waukon character, and we knew that we wanted Larsh to shoot the cover for Nancy Whiskey.  When Larsh learned that Maxine was to be the subject, he was in like Flynn, and a mutual Kanoka moment for Switchback and Larsh was born.  To this day, people still ask about our cover girl on Nancy Whiskey and we love to tell the story.  As they say in Waukon, it was waygood. 

Less than two years ago, the Steyer Opera House hosted a benefit for KPVL, a local independent public radio station that people loved to call “the voice of Postville, Iowa.”  It was the first time we publicly released our 12th collaboration, Ghosts of the River Folk, to a full capacity northeast Iowa audience.  The inspirational stomping grounds for Ghosts was again the Driftless Region.  The centerpiece of that collection was the song “The Mayfly Dance” that captured another Kanoka moment.   In it we recalled opening for the legendary musician and riverboat captain, John Hartford, at the Iowa State Sesquicentennial celebration that was held in Lansing.

And those are just a few of the memories of playing for the folks of the Driftless Region.  So many more have shaped our music through the years.  This November 16, we will celebrate two new albums, Kanoka and our new LIVE Volume One collection, with a dance at the Steyer Opera House in Decorah.  It will be our way of giving thanks for and to a place where the land and people have given so much to our sound.  Though you can’t manufacture a Kanoka moment, there’s no better place to set the table for one than Decorah.  My bet is that Nick, Marty and I, as well as our Iowa fans, will have one.  And it will be waygood.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

SWITCHBACK LIVE American Roots and Celtic Soul (Volume 1)

by Jim Sundberg

Several years ago when we first met the band, I was absolutely overwhelmed with the variety of songs they had written and played while out on the road.  And after I got to know them, I felt compelled to document their travels.  The crazy thing is that they let me tag along!  My wife Karen and I have recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video, and shot thousands of photos of Switchback in some pretty amazing locations.  

Switchback doesn't just play music; these guys are great comedians, storytellers and historians. After you see them play a few shows (and you should) you start to appreciate the little things, like how they can tune their instruments in-between songs while giving you a fascinatingly obscure history lesson about the city in which they are currently playing (yeah, they do their homework).  Oh, and did you know that an Englishman wrote the Irish classic Danny Boy?  You would if you'd ever been to a Switchback show.

With so much material gathered over the years, it was inevitable that Switchback would release a series of live albums. This very first live album contains 12 incredible performances, recorded over an 8 year period in the USA and Canada.  This selection of live recordings has all of the energy, enthusiasm and eclecticism (one of Marty's favorite words) that comes from these two guys every time they perform.  Switchback LIVE, American Roots and Celtic Soul Volume One is your own personal, hand-crafted Switchback show.  Sit back and enjoy!

The following stories are in the booklet that comes with the album...
1) Wrong You Can Write (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)
2010 - Royal Canadian Legion Branch 054, Haileybury, Ontario, Canada
How far away is Haileybury, Ontario, exactly? Let me give you an idea: St Joseph Island is about eight or nine hours from Chicago and the band has played there about a dozen times over the last seven years. Haileybury is another six hours north and east of St Joseph Island. The trip we made for this recording was a treacherous one, with pounding rain and wind for most of the drive. When we got to the Legion we met up with Lee Marshall, a mountain of a man with a voice to match (the voice of Canadian television). He was our host for the show and we also stayed with Lee and his wife Lucy at their beautiful home in Haileybury. I was still setting up the recording equipment when Lee introduced the band and I really wish I had that today, because with Lee’s rich, deep voice it turned out to be one of the most impressive Switchback introductions I have ever heard.

2) Banshee Gumbo (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)
2006 - Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey, Michigan, USA
Legend has it, this was the first song Marty and Brian ever wrote together. The night this was recorded was the night they dubbed me “The Colonel” (after Colonel Tom Parker of Elvis fame).  The guys were getting kicked out of their dressing room so it could be used for a weekly meeting (even though the kitchen was wide open!).  I just couldn't believe how the band was being treated and I took the situation in hand to re-secure their dressing room.  There were some other issues that had to be dealt with that night and I forever became known as "The Colonel" (please don't tell anyone).  Petoskey percussionist Jim Marshall showed up late to meet the band for the first time with the flu and a raging 100+ degree fever.  The sound guy refused to let us mic him. (Jim later passed out from delirium and exhaustion in the front row and was non-responsive when Marty invited him from the stage to return for a few numbers.)  To add insult to multiple injuries, at show time we discovered one of the speakers had gone out.  On the plus side, the house was packed.  On the minus side, only half of them could hear the band!  But the crowd loved them after all, and we did raise a lot of money for a church in Petoskey and their needy family fund.

3) Stellar Jay's Wing (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)
2006 - Crooked Tree Arts Center - Petoskey, Michigan, USA
This is a great example of Switchback performing a song in progress. Written just a few days before on the back of a McDonald’s bag en route from Colorado to Illinois, this love song written by Marty for his girlfriend (now wife) Annie may sound complete in this recording, but it was really just being taken for a spin in its earliest stages before the audience.

4) Swingin', Rockin', Rollin’ (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)  
2008 - Black Cat Concerts, Charlevoix, Michigan, USA
Just before this song was recorded, Marty and Brian were both giving each other a hard time about what the next song was going to be.  I thought it would get a little tense, but it became clear that their sniping was all in good fun.  Finally, they decided on “Swingin', Rockin', Rollin'.”  You can hear the smiles and laughter from their banter spill over into the song.  They gave a very tight performance even though Marty and Brian both seemed like they were still sticking it to each other during the entire song.  Maybe that added to the energy, and the crowd certainly joined in on the fun.  After finishing this song, Marty went off mic to sing “Ave Maria” because an older woman in the front row heard from someone else at the show that he could perform that song, and so she requested it.  Right after “Ave Maria,” the band launched into another request – the Rolling Stones’ "Paint it Black."  After the second song the woman in the front row looked at her friend and said, "It’s not every day that you hear those two songs in the same show!"  It’s true, these guys can switch gears and genres faster than most people can change their socks.

5) Connemara Man (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)
2008 - Royal Canadian Legion Branch 374, St Joseph Island, Ontario, Canada
This was recorded at the benefit concert for the 49th Regiment troops from the Algoma region that were serving over in Afghanistan.  We were running a little late getting up to the border because we had a late night at the last show.  All the way through the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan Marty and Brian were practicing the words and music for the Canadian National Anthem.  They had prepared a very special version to play along with the slideshow of pictures from the base in Afghanistan.  We rolled into the border crossing with the van full of gear and Marty was still singing the anthem.  We had a letter with us from the Legion stating that we were coming up to St Joseph Island to perform at a benefit concert for the troops.  Border services took one look at the letter and asked us what we were doing.  Not trying to be cute, I said, "The letter says what we are doing."  Well, that was the wrong answer and he asked us to pull over and go into the customs building.  We pulled over next to the building and Brian was the first one to get out.  An officer shouted, "Sir, get back in the van!"  Brian slinked back into the van and the customs guy asked us what we had in our vehicle. We explained that we were going to St Joe Island to play at a benefit for the troops.  He leaned into the van, gave us all a stern look and said, “I didn't ask you what you were doing. I asked you what you had in the van.”   I tried to show him the letter, but he took one look and said, "Go inside and take the letter to the man at the counter."  We went in and presented our precious letter from the Legion to the man at the immigration counter and had visions of the men outdoors tearing into the gear in the van.  The man at the counter looked over the letter and then disappeared into a small office in the back. Marty was turning white right before my eyes.  Brian just shrugged with his classic "Whatcha gonna do?" look.  We waited for over 20 minutes with no word from the back room.  Then all of a sudden the officer came out, handed us the letter, and said, “OK you’re good to go.”  By this time Marty was almost drained of color and sitting down.  We took the letter (and the whiter shade of Marty) and went on our merry way to the island for the show.  At the concert that night Marty and Brian performed their amazing version of the Canadian National Anthem for the first time.  Because their version is so different it took the audience, military guests included, about 15 seconds before they realized what the song was.  They jumped to their feet and many sang along, some with tears in their eyes.  One of guests came up after the show and said, "Your version made me realize, for the first time, what a hauntingly beautiful melody that song has, and it made me cry."

6) The Fire That Burns (written by FitzGerald & McCormack) 
2006 - Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey, Michigan, USA
This was recorded the same night as “Banshee Gumbo” and “Stellar Jay’s Wing.”  By this time, feverish Jim Marshall had gathered enough renewed strength from his front row cat nap to rejoin the band for this poignant number.  The sound guy did not want me to mic Jim's hand drums, but while he wasn't looking, and before Jim woke up from his nap, I was able to toss a mic on a rag out onto the stage under his drums.

7) Spancil Hill (traditional)  
2006 - Royal Canadian Legion Branch 374, St Joseph Island, Ontario, Canada
Switchback’s rendition of this Irish ballad is performed with an upbeat Americana twist.  This is one of my wife Karen's favorites and also one of mine, not only for its music, but for the story behind it.  I was amazed at the number of verses this song has when I looked it up online.  One day, I asked Marty if he knew all the verses and he calmly said, "Yeah."  It is amazing to me that Marty and Brian know the words and music to hundreds of Celtic songs, not to mention over 200 of their own and the probably 200+ old classic rock, blues, jazz, gospel, and bluegrass tunes.  That is one of the best things about Switchback.  You can travel with them to a dozen shows (and we have done this over a two-week period several times) and each show has a different set list tailored to the crowd and the mood of the evening. 

8) Nancy Whiskey (traditional) 
2007 - Royal Canadian Legion Branch 374, St Joseph Island, Ontario, Canada
I was at the door setting up the cash box and a man came in and handed me his ticket.  He said, "These guys are good....right?”  I replied, "You are in for quite a show tonight!"  He glanced up at the stage and saw Brian arranging things. "What kind of guitar does he play?"  "I think he has the Yamaha tonight," I said.  Brian walked out the side door of the Legion and this gave the man a chance to walk up to the stage to carefully survey the band's equipment.  I have to tell you that back then Brian was playing his favorite "Old" Yamaha; just picture Willie Nelson's guitar with different strings or Glen Hansard's guitar in the movie "Once.”  The man walked back up to me and said, "So what kind of Yamaha is that?"  The ticket area was getting busy and, probably not thinking, I just said, "I don't know, I think it's the fast one."  He didn't like that answer too much and went over to his seat, slumped down and folded his arms as if to say, "OK 'guitar boy' show me your stuff."  Well of course Brian did, and at the break the man tracked me down again and with a sly smile said, "You were right....it is the fast one."

9) Drunken Sailor (traditional)  
2008 - Black Cat Concerts, Charlevoix, Michigan, USA
It never fails – Switchback could be at a convention of Professional Live Music Ignorers International and their unique, seductively accelerating version of “Drunken Sailor” would make the crowd sit up and take notice.  By the end, Brian’s mandolin-picking hand moves so fast that it pretty much becomes invisible.  Like the antithesis to “Danny Boy,” it is similarly one of the most requested and beloved tunes played at any Switchback concert.

10) Ain't Going Back (written by FitzGerald & McCormack) 
2006 - Crooked Tree Arts Center, Petoskey, Michigan, USA
This is the title song of the album that started it all.  After holding down day jobs and playing together in other bands for years, Marty and Brian finally partnered up and debuted as Switchback with “Ain’t Going Back” in 1994.  It was a time of cassette tapes and payphones, and these young guys just starting out as a new band figured that success wouldn’t come overnight.  A common sound at Switchback concerts in the ‘90s, this track is a rare treat at shows nowadays, but better than any other Switchback composition, it reflects the determination and steady attitude that has kept them playing together with bigger and better success well earned over 20 years.

11) Danny Boy (traditional) 
2011 - Historic Elk Rapids Town Hall, Elk Rapids, Michigan, USA
This was the second year for the Historic Elk Rapids Town Hall benefit and we tried to stream the show to the world...trying to be all techy and stuff.  Everything worked great; we even called someone in Iowa and had them test the connection online to make sure it was working out in the far reaches of the Midwest.  But when the nearly 200-person crowd came in, we started to have problems and could not figure out what was going on.  I looked out into the crowd and noticed a few people taking pictures of the band with their smart phones. That's when it hit me: "The wireless network is trying to service all of these people and their internet connections… plus the video for our live streaming."  In other words, our connection turned to mush (a technical term).  The video was now going out to the world at around 4 or 5 frames a second...and even that was off and on all night.  But all was not lost: the real video and audio recording for this song was excellent, ranking up there with the top versions of “Danny Boy” on the internet and currently has over 40,000 views on YouTube.

12) Bonus Track – Twister in a Trailer Park (written by FitzGerald & McCormack)
2007 - Royal Canadian Legion Branch 374, St Joseph Island, Ontario, Canada
“Twister in a Trailer Park” is a song that is hard to fit into a Switchback album of heart tugging ballads and serious foot stomping Celtic or Americana tunes.  But it does show off their seriously eclectic and humorous tendencies, and it is one the most requested original songs in their catalog of more than 250 handcrafted tunes.  They wrote this song on a dare from a music producer in Nashville who told them, "Boys, you are just not country enough."  So they set out to write the ultimate Midwestern country love ballad, and as you can tell from the extended barking sequence, this is a very sad, tender and thoughtful country song - "Her love hit me like a Twister in a Trailer Park."

Purchase the Switchback Live album by clicking here

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Looking for signs

by Marty McCormack

Back in 1993, I was still wearing a suit and tie everyday as I headed off to work at St. Therese Medical Center in Waukegan, Illinois.  My hair was cut short and I was part of the marketing department of a healthcare corporation that had a vast empire stretching from the Wisconsin border to central Illinois.  My newsletter, Goodlife, had a circulation of over 100,000 readers and I had won an award for the most outstanding publication in healthcare marketing.  Things were looking good, except for one little secret.  While everyone knew me as a marketing geek by daysecretly I was a musician by night.

I would head to Oak Park from Waukegan and join Fitz for songwriting and playing clubs.  About 1 a.m., I would crash on the couch, with a pressed shirt hanging nearby, waiting for my 6 a.m. commute.  I would wake up, throw myself in the shower, put on the clean shirt, another tie, grab a Burger King coffee (there was no Starbucks in 1993) and head north to my day job.  Something had to giveI knew my heart's true desire was to be a musician.  I asked God for a sign to tell me: “Take the leap!”

And one day in late July of 1993, that sign appeared. I was driving along Route 173 heading from my folks' house in Woodstock, Illinois, to my job.  My Civic was chugging along the road east of Alden when a huge red-tailed hawk lumbered in front of my windshield.  There in its talons was clutched a fat gopher.  Seemingly oblivious to my car, it appeared we were to collide.  At the last moment before what looked to be certain impact, the hawk flapped hard for some air and dropped the gopher.  With a “shu-tunk” the discarded prey bounced off my windshield.  Letting go of the gopher saved the hawk from becoming a hood ornament.   I drove on and realized “that must be the sign! In order to soar, I too would have to let go of that which provided me security.”  In my case, not a fat gopher, but my day job.  So that same day, I walked in to my vice president's office and tendered my resignation.

In the months following, I was always asking for “a sign."   I wanted to know I was on the right path.  I had just quit a lucrative career.  Brian and I were playing prisons, nursing homes and pubs.  Most of my friends and some of my family thought I was a bit crazy.   I prayed for another sign to know that Switchback was on the right path.

And I got one.  A big one.  This time it was playing at the Irish Times Pub in Brookfield, Illinois.  In those days, fans like Phil and Maureen Huber would be on hand to see us as we struggled to get our sound defined and Switchback off the ground.  One Sunday evening, we arrived at the Irish Times to play, and there, sitting at a stage-side table was a Yaqui Indian.  Now, any American Indian in Brookfield, Illinois would be something to make one sit up and take notice but here was a Yaqui Indian in his native dress, waiting for us to play in an Irish pub on a Sunday night.  I couldn't believe my eyes.

He listened to a set and on the break he told us how he was an artist and visiting Chicago as part of a cultural exchange.  He talked about our music and admired that we were following our passion, like he was.  Finally, it was time for him to leave.  “Here," he said, taking an earring in the shape of an Indian warrior from his ear and putting it into my hand, “this is for you.”  I held onto that earring for years until a visit to Bear Butte out in western South Dakota.  I thought such a powerful sign should go to a powerful place, the very mountain where Crazy Horse received his visions.  I am sure it is still there sitting high up on the mountain.

These days, I feel pretty certain that I am following the right path.  And I still get signs that I am.  The best sign that I am on the right path now comes from you, our fans.  Your appreciation of our music, traveling to shows all over the country and comments coming in through Facebook remind me how blessed I am to be able to do what I love and connect with so many people throughout the world.

This coming September 21, we will have an opportunity to come together and celebrate 20 years of Switchback at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago -- a celebration of us all traveling the same road together.  Brian and I encourage you  to bring as many friends as you can to rekindle the fire of friendship that has been burning now for over 20 years.  You’ve been asked to submit your all-time favorite Switchback songs for the night.  If you haven’t, you can visit our Facebook page and submit your favorite Switchback songs.  Some selections will be performed by special guests.  And yes, Maggie FitzGerald will get up and sing “In My Glory!"  Part of the ticket proceeds will help restore the Athenaeum.  That, of course, is in keeping with WayGood's mission to help make the world just a little bit better.   The Athenaeum is a large theater with over 1,000 seats; we have a challenge to sell at least 700, so your attendance is very much needed and appreciated.

Happily and hopefully, all of us coming together will be all the sign we need, that indeed, 20 years on, the WayGood World is still going strong.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Cowboy from Connaught

My cousin Seamus Connaughton was the sort of person who was larger than life.  Even though he stood barely five feet, six inches, his energy and wit made up for any shortcomings in stature. Seamus lived his whole life near Claremorris Co. Mayo.  When I first met him back in the late 1980’s, he was still working the farmland that my grandfather came from, Bolinree.  The farm had a magical and unusual air for a visiting American.  For example, there are not many Iron Age ring forts on farms in Illinois.  A crumbling wall was all that was left of the original McCormack cottage, a Wailing Wall of sorts for the visiting members of my family.  Connection was the purpose, and the suitcase would usually come home with a stone or two taken from that ruin that had sheltered that side of my father’s family. 
Seamus also worked the Connaughton family farm, Ballybrehony.  It was a beautiful farmstead, with a far-off view of Croagh Patrick and mountains that make up the Galway-Mayo borderland.   A thick grove of pines bordered the drive that led to a neat wrought iron gate. Through that gate and well-tended garden would be the path that would lead to the cottage.  In that cottage, Seamus held reign along with Nell, Tommy, and Mike.  The nights were filled with conversation, ghost stories and music, the centerpiece being the huge turf fire that kept the house warm with an almost ceremonial blaze.

Though I loved all my cousins, it was Seamus that held the special place.  At the end of our first meeting, he produced a punt, the old Irish currency, and tore it in half.  “Write your name on one half and I will on the other,” he said.  It was a crude but effective way of telling me that I was one of them, and though we may be parted by the Pond, when we got together we would be whole again.  Indeed, the nights spent at the turf fire at Ballybrehony were an affirmation that I was home.  

Seamus was no stranger to the world of entertainment.  He worked the dance halls in Mayo and played a good harmonica. When I first arrived in Ireland, it was Seamus who set up the opportunities for me to sing.  The cross-road dances and interviews on Midwest radio in Ballyhaunis were due to his belief and support in my music.  It was a proud day when Brian and I played RTE with none other than Pat Kenny as the host.  He was the American equivalent of Garrison Keillor or David Letterman and I felt like I had arrived in Ireland when I heard the pride in the voices of Seamus and Nell.

He was also a practical joker.  On my first visit to Ireland, exhausted and numbed by more than one hot whiskey, I fell asleep by the turf fire. He and Tommy tied my shoes together as I slumbered.  Early in the morning, I woke and started out of the chair to get ready to head back to Claremorris, only to find myself flat on the floor and my two cousins laughing at my befuddlement at my lack of forward mobility.

There was also the fact that Seamus was ironically a man of the wide open prairie but only vicariously.  He loved watching westerns on television.  Seamus could recall more western movies than anyone I knew.  He would watch the broad expanse of the west open up on his television there in Claremorris.  It was one of the few times I could share with him something that I personally knew a bit more about than he. When Brian and I would talk about our rambles across Kansas and Colorado, he would get a far-off look and sucking in a bit of air would exhale with an almost boyish “Oh yah” as if he was there in the van with us.  Later the marvels of cell phones and texting pictures made the connection much easier.  I would click a shot of a sunrise over the Flint Hills and send it to the Connaught Cowboy six hours ahead of me. Once we brought a bag of buffalo jerky over as a present.  He loved that connection to the west.  I was always on the lookout for an authentic arrowhead while I was on my rambles, hoping I could find one since that would have been the ultimate gift for him.

I always kept after him about coming over to the States to see the west.  Seamus made it pretty clear that he was indeed happy where he was in Claremorris.  He had his friends and his home. Riding the range on his remote was enough. 

Something kept him as a bachelor on the farm, and he pretty much kept to himself. When my cousin Nell (Seamus' sister) died, I flew over to spend some time with him.  We drove around Mayo in his car, me praying silently to myself as Seamus would whip around a corner with James Bond intensity.  We spent a day hanging around Achill, talking about the family, and here and there a cloud would appear across his face as he recollected a memory that wasn’t all that idyllic.  Whatever trials he suffered or heartbreaks he had, he kept to himself, much like the lone hero of the westerns he saw on television.

When I wrote the song Bolinree, it was as a tribute to the Irish side of my family. Their generosity allowed me, my siblings, and later on Brian, his family, and some of our close friends a true glimpse of an Ireland that is now past.  Seamus would tear up when Bolinree would be played; it was too much to recount the years and his own siblings, passed on.  The farm no longer in family hands, the movement of time. The song was played as they carried his casket out of the church.

The Pond, as both sides of the family would refer to the ocean, always seemed so small.  An eight hour flight and you are there in Ireland, amazing.  However, the Pond turned back into the forbiddingly huge Atlantic when word came from my cousin Liam that Seamus was ill. The FaceTime phone call caught Brian and me doing a sound check in Austin, MN.  Seamus was in the hospital and slowly but surely the news turned from bad to worse as his health rapidly deteriorated.

Thanks to technology, I had the chance to say goodbye to Seamus and thank him for being a light in my life, but of course it just wasn’t how I ever thought our final parting would be.  We would always end our partings at Claremorris with a “see you later” rather than saying “goodbye,” which was too painful.  Cowboys like to ride off into the sunset of course.  And the Cowboy from Connaught rode off like all cowboys, tall in the saddle and looking forward to what lies beyond the next rise. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Good, the Bad and the Nervous Guy

by Kris Sundberg, director of the music video "Pour Me"

I was thrilled when Marty and Brian first asked me to create a music video for their new album, Kanoka. They even graciously decided to let me choose which song I wanted to do. There was just one problem: the album wasn't finished yet. Luckily, I got to see them play a few live shows last summer where they unveiled some of the new songs. That's when I first heard "Pour Me" and I knew immediately that song was going to be the winner.

The music video for Switchback's "Pour Me" was shot in two drastically different locations. I first filmed the band performing the song while I was on vacation with my family during this past New Year's celebration. We had all traveled with the band to our cabin on St. Joseph Island in Ontario, Canada, and Switchback was to play at a party on the island to ring in the New Year. Since I live in Los Angeles, CA, I knew this would probably be my only chance to get any live footage of the band. So the band members, my production assistant (aka my girlfriend) and I went to the venue a little early and ran through the song 5 or 6 times to shoot different angles of them playing. The stage was already set up for the party, which meant I didn't have to worry about lighting the band, which was nice, but there was a giant Canadian flag behind them that snuck its way into a few shots. I consider it a tribute to our friends on St. Joe.

The second part of the video took us from cold and snowy Ontario to the blazing heat of the Imperial Sand Dunes in Brawley, California, just north of the Mexican border. As I listened to Kanoka, I of course began to imagine the old west and decided it would be really fun to pay homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the finale of which is one of my favorite cinematic moments. I called upon a good friend of mine, Nick Miller, to be the director of photography for this portion. Nick and I went to school together and have collaborated on several projects in the past. Most people would probably shudder at the idea of driving 4 hours to film in the desert all day, but I knew Nick would be ready for the adventure. I then asked Lauren LoGrasso, an actress, musician, and friend from college, to help with the casting. She introduced me to Kit Leonard and he graciously agreed to play the part.

The next Saturday I woke up at 5am and got ready for the shoot. I hopped in my car and went to pick up Nick and the rest of the equipment. After a much-needed stop for coffee and breakfast, we hit the road for Brawley. We arrived at the location around 10am and looked out at the dunes. The view was breathtaking...despite our best efforts, I don't think any video or pictures can ever quite do it justice. But then we had to start unloading the equipment. It was a cool 105 degrees as we carried all of our gear down into the dunes. We needed to be far enough away from the parking lot to get the wide shots that I wanted (like the one where you can see all three of the Kit Leonards standing around the table). Nick and I each had to make about 3 trips back and forth from the car to get it all down there. I had asked Kit to be there by 11, so by the time he arrived and we were ready to start shooting, Nick and I had already been awake for 6 hours and had lugged heavy equipment up and down sand dunes! It was a good thing we came prepared with lots of water.

Kit was an amazing person to work with: a very talented actor and never complained once about the heat (we did take a few breaks to go back to our cars and bask in some air conditioning). He revealed to me that he had traveled through the Sahara with some friends in the 70s, so this was nothing new to him. I think he even handled it better than Nick and I, who both had to take a break at one point because we were feeling faint. So much for the vitality of youth.
There were a few other challenges and interesting moments during the shoot. For the super wide shots, Nick and I had to climb back up to the parking lot and leave Kit out on the dune by himself. Fortunately, Nick had brought walkie-talkies, so we gave Kit one to hide in his pocket, while I brought one up with me so I could give directions from afar. 

We also had to constantly work out the logistics of the VFX shots, specifically when there was more than one Kit in the shot. We would have to keep the camera in the exact same spot and make sure Kit was either wearing glasses or not, holding the guitar the right way, tilting his hat up, etc. Then he would have to switch to one of the other characters and walk over to a different spot. I gave each character a really creative name so I could easily communicate who Kit was supposed to be at the time; there was "Hero," "Villain" and "Nervous Guy." I then merged the footage in the editing process so that it looked like there were two (or three) Kits in the same shot.

We filmed until the sun was just descending over the horizon, then frantically set up for the last shot: the iconic western movie staple of riding (in this case walking) into the sunset. Nick and I then spent the next hour hiking our equipment back up the sandy hill and somehow managed to finish packing before dark. After a long 4 hour drive home, we were finally done. We were exhausted and caked in sand (as was my car), but we felt that the day had gone extremely well and that our adventure would result in a great music video.

Monday, May 27, 2013

If the mountain won’t come to Mahomet

We were sitting in a restaurant parking lot down in Springfield, Illinois. It was a late April morning, but the temperature was already starting to climb. Brian and I were on tour playing at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Our friends Penny and Sheila at the Springfield Area Arts Council booked us to play the Hope Institute as well, a wonderful state run facility for children with special needs. While we were on tour, we also were working our telephones, getting people to come to the release party for Kanoka in Chicago.  

“Call CJ,” Brian said. “See if she and Charlie can come out.”

Any Switchback fan from the northeast corner of Iowa knows Charlie and CJ. They are great dancers. Charlie is a farmer and his wife CJ is an insurance agent. We have played for them and others for the past 20 years, starting at little bars in Winneshiek County and moving on up to theaters and festivals. Seeing Charlie and CJ at your event means two things:  first that the event will be a success, and second that you will be in for some great dancing, because Charlie and CJ take to the floor and immediately other couples follow suit. Charlie has a grin on his face throughout the song as he and CJ glide across the floor. There’s always something magical to me about their ability to get others to dance. I guess it’s the realization of two people deeply in love and enjoying life, and they are not afraid to get out on the dance floor and just be themselves. Certainly it’s a way of life in northeast Iowa, people kicking off their shoes and dancing in their bare feet. The wonderful circle is created between the band and the fans, pumping a lot of energy. I definitely wanted that vibe for our release party.

I dialed CJ and told her the purpose of my call. “Oh no, we won’t be able to make it into Chicago,” CJ said apologetically. “Charlie is planting and there is no way he will be able to get away.”

After a couple minutes of pleading and wondering what the forecast will be two weeks into the future, I knew it was no use. A farmer has to plant his fields when they are ready and so no Charlie and CJ at the release party. I finished the call and had that feeling of disappointment at the image of the evening with them there dancing slowly fading away.

Charlie and CJ weren’t the only ones. Other fans called in with their regrets. Even my Mother called in with her and Dad’s regrets:

“Mom, whaddya mean you can’t come to the release party?”
“Sorry, Martin, but your sister Celia has to be in Atlanta and Dad and I are taking care of the kids.”
“But I mentioned it to the family back in January!  How could this happen?”
“You know, things get busy, your sister is busy, people are busy. It happens!”

When your own mother can’t make your release party, it’s time to evaluate things.

Don’t get me wrong, the release party was a great success! We had the whole house filled to capacity. Kaija, Nick’s girlfriend from Decorah, Iowa, led the charge on the dance floor with bare feet and all. Katrina, who flew in from Washington D.C. for the release, joined her and soon the room was full of people dancing and having a great time. Beatrice and Mel from Oak Park were out there exhorting other couples to take to the floor. The Arnolds, Wilsons, and Wisniewskis had the Hoosier contingent occupying the back wall and I could see them swaying to the music.  And even some new fans from Newark, Ohio, drove in for the show and marveled at the diversity of music and the enthusiasm of the audience.

Through the whole process of getting people to come to the event and afterwards, I kept hearing this old saying in my mind: “If the mountain won’t come to Mahomet, Mahomet will come to the mountain.” And I realized that in essence, was an unwritten rule for any independent musician. Curious about the origin of the saying, I looked it up online and sure enough Wiktionary had the answer. It seems that Sir Francis Bacon had either created or collected the saying and published it in 1625.

Mahomet made the people believe that he would call a hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers, for the observers of his law. The people assembled; Mahomet called the hill to come to him, again and again; and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.

Wiktionary went on to say that there is no link to the prophet Mohammed or Islam either written or oral. It’s just one of those sayings that came into being. I am sure Francis Bacon must have heard it from someone as it is such an odd saying.

More interesting is the meaning of the phrase, especially to an indie musician: If your fans can’t come to you, you must go to where the fans are. Thus the need for touring. So throughout this summer, we will have celebrations of the Kanoka album starting with the Mayfly Dance Dance on Friday, June 21 in McGregor, Iowa. There will be a Canadian release party on Sunday, June 30 on St. Joseph Island. And others are in the works for Texas, Kansas, and Ohio. The website will have them listed and we would be very grateful if you come out.

Touring is part of the life of a musician. It is for the very reason that all of our fans lead busy lives themselves that touring becomes an essential way of communicating and re-establishing the bond between fan and musician.   There is nothing that can replace the energy of community. Fans who were in attendance at the Oak Center in Minnesota or the Midland Theater in Ohio or the Prairie Window Concert Series in Kansas or any number of other places understand that feeling of electricity that occurs when everything falls into sync. It’s also why we so value our dedicated volunteer group, STeam, that help us make sure that fans get connected with the venues in their areas and make it possible for us to be there to play.

There is an acknowledged, shared sacrifice: we all give up some of our precious time on earth to come together because we believe in the beauty of music and we also believe in the sharing of the moment. You have to be there to share, plain and simple.

The next morning Brian and I along with Keith Riker performed at the Hope Institute. The kids were all seated for the show. Cliff, the director of the center, and I talked. “Let’s just make it a dance party,” I suggested. He agreed and soon we were tearing into the Kanoka album.  Immediately a young man got up from his seat and bolted toward the speaker. He started dancing in front of it, allowing the vibrations to wash over his body.  His smile was ecstatic and soon he was joined by two other dancers. Kids stood up from their chairs and screamed with delight. Some teacher aides had a tough time keeping kids from dancing out of their areas and I would watch an occasional kid bopping down the aisles, a teacher in hot pursuit. Other kids were quietly sitting, taking in the show. The entire energy was magical and joyful.  We ended the concert as exhausted and happy as the kids were. That one young man danced for every song in front of the speaker. He left still moving and smiling.  

As we rolled up the cables, Brian remarked, “Now that was a release party!” and I agreed. It was truly the debut of Kanoka for a very appreciative audience, who didn’t really know who we are, would never buy an album, but just lived in the moment for the music.

And here again, that saying came through. It’s the other side of our music, which is to bring music to those who would seldom if ever get a chance to hear it live. If the hill won’t come to Mahomet, Mahomet will come to the hill. And if these kids can’t come to see Switchback play, Switchback will come and play for them. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The American Soundscape of Switchback's Journey to Kanoka

There is always a moment of anticipation, suspense, and joy as one tears the plastic sheath off a new CD, opens the jewel case, pops the disc out of the restraining center fingers, and slips the recording into the sliding tray of the player.  It is an unconscious ritual recreation of your favorite birthday present being unwrapped-- a magical moment as living music emerges from inanimate machine.  That pristine plastic disc suddenly sings in vivid aural hues.  Oh sure, perhaps the suspense and joy are a little different in 2013, a little more muted, as the music is now merely a few mouse clicks and a download away with the instant gratification of iTunes.  But still, the experience is pure enchantment as you and the music are conjoined.

Technology enables sound on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone almost instantly, but the personal connection to the artist becomes pale and distant without cover artwork, without liner notes, or even the comforting tactile feel of the disc and jewel case that are themselves faint echoes of the nostalgic vinyl LP experience.  The CD is different, though.

The CD can be conceived as an organic whole in which all the music lives together in the same neighborhood. Each song in this community is invested with a specific role creating a narrative experience as one cut leads inevitably to the next.  Like a train, there may be a “hit song” engine that drives the rest, but each car carries its own passengers and freight in which the sum of the whole is greater than its parts.  The whole idea of a cloud technology digital library destroys the album concept and works to dissolve the unity of the CD.  Tracks are sold for 98 cents each.  Every song is an orphan. Cheap, quick, sound bytes trump carefully wrought unity.

And yet, here in your hands, is the promise of something very different.  Deliciously retro in its unity, wonderfully conceived as a whole, with a music that is nurtured by the sweet scent of Midwestern soil and inextricably linked to the fascinating characters that inhabit the heartland of America,  Kanoka is an astonishing ramble through the heart of Americana soul, a love story redolent of Walt Whitman’s lyrical verse.

Kanoka is unity.  In fact, the fictional place name is nearly a palindrome; the album itself is a palindrome.  The title track opens with the sound of a surging train wedded to the soulful whistle of Lloyd Maines’s steel guitar. The final track, “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer,” trails off like a caboose coda in the distance graced with those same train track clacks and Maines’s steel rail wails.  The circle is unbroken.

Switchback is very unusual in that the band consists of only two performers in both live performance and recording situations. Marty McCormack and Brian FitzGerald have forged an identity and shared vision over a twenty-five year relationship that has enabled them to enfold others in their music as an integrated extension of themselves. The presence of musician’s musicians, Lloyd Maines on pedal slide guitar and Howard Levy on harmonica, allows Switchback to draw upon the full soundscape of American life.  Drummers Jim Hines and Nick Hirka and percussionist Keith Riker inject the pulse that is the heartland heartbeat.

Levy’s harp is woven into the band’s mix on four cuts, but more importantly, there are a pair of extraordinary solo interludes that punctuate the album.  The first is a jovial blues cowboy meditation on Western life that makes a seamless transition into the first sweet notes of Maines’s steel guitar that begins “Van Tassel.” The second interlude, a prelude to “Rocky Mountain Express,” dances merrily along its path to a graceful extended arpeggio that ends in a sweetly sustained final whistle tone.  And then, from the distance, this is answered in the same key with the onrushing rhythm of the “Express.”  This transition is a kinder, gentler nod to the scream as train whistle in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.

Maines’s pedal steel percolates through Kanoka like the Mississippi embracing the heartlands.  Crying into the high lonesome American night, poured into another honky tonk round, slipping along Highway 20, the sweet sigh of a waltz as a foil to the life’s bucking bronco in “Rope as I’m Riding,” a lyrical counterpoint to the vocals in “Wrong You Can Write,” the onomatopoeia of water through sand, or a sinister swirling cyclone. There is a little Lloyd Maines melodious fairy dust sprinkled liberally throughout, imbuing the album’s diversity with unity.

Diversity and unity.  The beauty of train travel is that you remain the same and your immediate surroundings remain the same, even as the scenery outside the window continually shifts. Switchback travels through the full range of American musical scenery, pausing to visit genres and musicians that have shaped our nation’s sonic history.  There is more than a hint of George Jones country in “Pour Me.”  “Rocky Mountain Express” rides the same rails as “Orange Blossom Special.”  The specter of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” is conjured by “Wrong You Can Write.”  The tight vocal harmonies of “Water Through Sand” or “Bottom of the Bottle of Beer” reference the country rock sound of the Byrds and Poco.  There is even a hint of U2 and Bono in the anthemic vocals of “I’ll Be Damned.”  Costumes reveal more than they conceal. Though cloaked in various styles and influences, Switchback remains Switchback. Integrity and truth are enthroned in their music.

Kanoka dispels the borders dividing life from music by weaving non-musical sounds into several songs.  Far more than sound effects, the iconic West is invoked with horse whinnies, timeless generations are symbolized through waves breaking on a beach, and the album’s journey is reflected in the rhythmic train sounds that open and close the recording.  The thoughtful mix of sounds is emblematic of Switchback’s attention to both nuance and idea.

Kanoka surely will be characterized and marketed as Americana, but this album transcends that commercial branding formula.  Kanoka is more than Americana—it is the sound of America itself.

Ron Pen, director
John Jacob Niles Center for American Music
University of Kentucky