Blurred Time Continues
The War Pipes
A Trip with Ralph
In a Birmingham Diner
|A Ramblers time line of sorts...
Fall, 1972. Tommy Thompson, Jim Watson, Bill Hicks form the Red Clay Ramblers at the Broadmore Apts., Hiway 15-501, between Durham and Chapel Hill, NC. First gigs at "Endangered Species," a tiny basement bar in Chapel Hill run by "Big Dale" (White) and "Little Dale" (Villeponteaux). The stage is facing the steps down into the joint--people can fall onto the stage if they care to get a falling start.
Winter '72-'73. First gigs at the Cat's Cradle, then under the management of Marsha Wilson. The Cradle is already becoming the acoustic venue of the western Triangle, and is at its second location, on Rosemary St. to the west of its original location behind the Burger Chef (nee Breadman's).
Spring, 1973. Mike Craver joins the band, ostensibly as a bass player. For the rest of his fifteen or so years in the Blurs, Craver plays one symbolic number on the instrument. The band learns quickly that Mike is a primo piano and guitar player and singer. The bass continues to be passed between Tommy and Jim, or to lie on its side as stage art. A big highlight of the first half of '73--Mike lugging the thing all over Athens, Alabama, at the Tennessee Valley Fiddler's Contest the band crashes. Other important things of '73--EveryMan Street Theatre productions featuring the band members and other musicians from the area--the precurser of Diamond Studs; the big road trip Nawth, after Bill plays with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band at their last gig for twenty years, the National Folk Festival in D.C.--to Café Lena in Saratoga, NY. The Blurs also play a double bill in New York City with the Balfa Freres, and turn down Peking Duck afterwards, causing an international incident with Taiwan. The band records Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless, a transitional album from the Hollow Rock and Fuzzy Mountain and New Academic String Band days on Moe Ashe's Folkways Label. Moe says, to Ken Sole, inveterate Blur-fan of that era--"put a nickel on the tone-arm, it'll play."
Winter '73-'74. The first winter tour through the mid-west. Chicago Folk Festival, Kent State, venues from Iowa to New York City. Driving the highway, across Pennsylvania, in a blizzard, the only thing out there are semis dropping huge blocks of ice off their wheels in the path of Watson's red VW van. The Blurs stop at some motel and pay a fortune for an emergency room and a bad breakfast. Hicks frets so much about locking the bus on the road that he's given 10 fret points at the end of the trip by Uncle Wide Load. The arcane beer from Wisconsin that the band thought was a good idea to bring back to the land of Blue Ribbon froze solid and got pretty darn unfizzy. The band records Stolen Love in the spring. Charles Ellertson, intrepid engineer. The album hints at things to come with Mike's stellar "Home Fries," and Hicks belting out Bessie Smith's risque "I Got What It Takes But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away." It also points back to the Hollow Rock/Fuzzy Mountain days of yore, with fiddle tunes and pure old-time versions of "Yellow Rose of Texas" and the title cut, "Stolen Love." Blind Alfred Reed's "She's Been After Man Ever Since" prefigures the moment some years later when Sweet Honey in the Rock presented serious personal objections to Mike's "Thoroughly African Man," and in general suggests a political tone-deafness that the Blurs have displayed proudly throughout their group and solo careers. But we did quit doing the song after a waitress at the Town Crier quit her job because of it---we always did have feelings and appeared on the same morning TV show with Barry Manilow on one occasion during the marketing of Diamond Studs.
Fall, 1974. In September, Diamond Studs opens at the Ranch House, Chapel Hill. This is a collaboration between the Ramblers and a country/folk group, the Southern States Fidelity Choir (Jim Wann, Bland Simpson, John Foley, Mike Sheehan, and Jan Davidson), who share the Cradle venue with the Blurs. The play is written by Wann, Simpson, and John Haber, the director. It is so well received that it attracts the attention of off-Broadway New York backers. In December, the whole show is moved to New York! Blurs meet the Big Time??
Winter '74-'75. In the Big Apple. Studs rehearses for the month of December, shooting for a New Years Eve opening. The show is tightened. By Christmas it's up at about 440 and climbing. The boys and girls of the cast roam the cold city streets, looking in windows at the pretty lights, drinking double shots in neighborhood bars, watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, grumbling about lines and scenes biting the dust at the hands of these cruel New York professionals. Pat Birch, who choreographed Grease, blocks out the show and tries to keep Bill Smith from dancing through the ceiling. The set is built as, beneath them, the Pigsty Hill Lite Orchestra thrums away each night, setting heads on fire in the parking lot down the block from 407 W. 43rd.
New Year's Eve, l974. "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes." Clive Barnes, New York Times. Subscribing patrons are unhappy with the Neanderthal politics of making Jesse James a hero; the tide of acclaim sweeps them away in the neon Gotham night.
Winter-Spring, 1975. Studs runs to sold out houses, 8 shows a week. All sorts of exciting people show up. Alec Guinness sits in the back, Walter Chronkite in the front; Carol Channing is also spotted, as is Germain Greer, who is not amused and asks Mike why he is hiding behind his "pappy" beard. Bill Smith turns his ankle but dances on. Fiddlin' Bill's bow disintegrates one night in the middle of "Year of Jubilo" and he extemporizes a clogging routine. At the 100th performance, Jim Wann (Jesse James) is hit in the face with a pie at the encore number and extemporizes a new verse in the song about getting hit in the face with a pie. Perhaps this was subconsciously engendered by the cake-throwing at Mike Craver's birthday party at La Plaka, the casts' hard drinking hangout after the show? No one ever asks the significance of Tommy playing Jesse's mother. Notes are given about "embroidery," a neat new techie term. Jack Herrick joins the Studs cast. Hmmm. He plays bass.
Fall, 1975. After some road work with Studs out at the end of Long Island, the Blurs regroup and go on the road, working as well on new material and a new album which eventually becomes Twisted Laurel. New discussion arises about the need for a bass player. Craver agrees. That is, the top of his head nods from above the upright. Watson is getting a sore thumb. Tommy has all he can do with banjo and guitar and working out most of the harmony lines. Bill will not even make an effort at the ole doghouse.
Winter, 1976. Jack Herrick joins the Blurs. Tho he claims to play bass and does pretty much whack the thing around, it turns out that he also plays trumpet. Suddenly another wedge of the greater "old-time pie" is exposed to the Ramblers. They dig in--Charlie Poole's "Beale Street Blues" returns to W.C. Handy's cradle. Meanwhile, Watson sets "Milwaukee Blues" aflame, and Mike and Tommy collaborate on "The Ace." Bill has also written "Hobo's Last Letter," and "You Were Only F**king While I was Making Love," the latter causing people to literally fall out of their chairs when it is performed as an encore at the Cradle.
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