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The Gig That Wouldn't Die
Brooks Williams and Rani Arbo at Rosendale Cafe
January 17, 2003

Story by Gary Alexander

  Related Links:     Brooks William's Website
  Rani Arbo's Website
  Rosendale Cafe  

It was a lark but now it's a satellite.

It was designed for a single flight into the winter sky but now it passes swiftly through a given night whenever its orbit brings it overhead. It lives. It breathes. But only sometimes...

It's...."the undead gig."

"I think it was about a year and a half ago that I noticed a window of opportunity," mused New England-based singer-songwriter Brooks Williams. He was comparing performance schedules with his friend and fellow singer-songwriter, Rani Arbo, and he saw a mutual open spot on their respective calenders.

"I said `Why don't we put together a New Year's Eve concert for Northampton?'" Williams continued, suggesting that, although they had never performed publicly as a duo before, they had about five months to get together about once a week and create a concert-length evening of his renown guitar, her celebrated fiddle and their combined voices. "Let's learn a whole new set of tunes and really do something different from what both of us usually do."

Rani Arbo started doing what she does so well rather early in her life. Rani began singing in a chorus at the Cathedral of St. John of the Divine in New York City when she was 7 or 8 years old. It was the first year that the chorus included non-male members and the young Arbo was exposed to a wide-range of sacred and secular music there in the coming years.

Arbo, who also played cello as a child and toured with her high school chorus, dropped that instrument while in college but was continuing to sing when a touring show called Masters of the Folk Violin refilled her fretted sail. The six masters in question included the Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet of the New Orleans band, Beausoleil; jazz fiddler Claude Williams, who had played with Duke Ellington; Bill Monroe's bluegrass fiddler, Kenny Baker; a 14-year-old Allison Krause and the respective winners of the Irish and Scottish fiddle competition for that year; each playing solo.

"I'd heard a bit of fiddle music in my time but never to this degree and I was just blown away," Arbo recalled. "I think that as a singer who had done a lot of choral things, the idea of playing an instrument that could harmonize with itself was truly awesome. I'd grown up playing a bit of guitar but this was different. The violin and cello both have a very vocal sound and all of these styles of fiddle actually spoke to me."

Borrowing a fiddle from her college, Arbo began a decade of self-generated study with off-and-on instruction from "dance fiddlers in the area and bluegrass fiddlers here and there." In more recent years, she has immersed herself in deeper study of technique with a teacher in New York but this fine-tuning has come long after her talents became widely recognized through public appearances with her group, Salamander Crossing.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem
Formed during a two-year course of backroom jamming at the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, Arbo and her band toured the U.S. and Canadian folk circuit for nine years, releasing three acclaimed albums along the way.

When the band had run its winding course to the end of its natural lifespan, musical and personal differences pried it apart but Arbo hung on to its bassplayer, Andrew Kinsey, for the formation of Daisy Mayhem. Drummer Scott Kessel, who had sat in with Salamander on a number of occasions, was recruited to supply a unique, funkier and more-friendly-than-a-snare-drum sound with a self-designed percussive contraption called "The Drumship Enterprise." Somewhere along the way, Kessel- who has played kit drums with bands from rock to zydeco and whose folky accentuations are all over Brooks Williams' 2001 release on Signature Sounds, Skiffle-bop, wedded Arbo in a manner beyond the musical. She explains that his drumship developed through playing along with the band on a cardboard box- producing a tone which worked splendidly with their acoustic instruments.

In the mid `90's, Salamander Crossing had reached out to another familiar name in folk circles to produce their second album- Brooks Williams. The meeting of Arbo and Williams at those sessions forged a lasting friendship which spurts into public view when the moon is in the proper position and the ghost of Maria Ouspenskaya dons her gypsy beads.

Originally from Statesboro, Georgia, Brooks Williams notes that he's the only member of his extended family living above the Mason-Dixon Line and recalls that his early musical development was largely self-taught and insulated because his family moved too frequently for him to settle into a band situation. The first song he remembers writing was "faked."

"I was new to this town and I was encouraged to go to this `drop-in' center at a church basement so that I could `meet kids' and I could bring my guitar and everything," Williams laughs. "Everyone was going there and playing covers of songs they knew like the Rolling Stones and Beatles. I couldn't think of a thing to play, so I made something up and sort of fooled everyone into thinking it was a tune I had written. It was a little rough but there definitely was a little germ of a song there and I thought `This is kind of fun. I'm going to work on this a little more'."

Twelve albums later, the songs are still flowing, honed to an artistry which began to focus firmly in New England after he had left a job teaching in a junior high school near Boston shortly after college and moved to Northampton in 1985 to concentrate on playing.

"I didn't want to be haphazard about it and do it on the side," Williams said. "So, I put myself in a situation where I didn't have any other work except music- so it forced me to go out and play all the time to pay the rent. I needed to get my chops together to play clubs and it taught me a lot about playing and being heard in a loud room as a singer, solo guitar player. I think it was all to the good in the long run but there were definitely some very long nights."

The grind of playing solo in bars to noisy and often inattentive audiences gradually blossomed into entertaining more appreciative crowds as the hard lessons of public performance molded him into an artist who now commands considerably heightened respect from his listeners. Although Williams' accomplished guitar playing and songwriting have increasingly developed a following far beyond the Northeast circuit, public reaction to the first "lark" gig with Arbo surprised the both of them, selling out two shows and turning away a third.

Quite apart from their usual repertoire, the pair's blending of styles encompasses an dazzling span of blues, swing, old time, gospel, folk and whatnot which charms their audience into rare and timeless spaces. A captivating vocal blend on tunes like "Fear Is the Enemy of Love" or "Happy All the Time" unites the zesty support they provide for each other's singing and instrumentation, tying the elements into a unique and intricate package of contemporary sound.

"Brooks is an amazing guitar player; just a genius," Arbo says from her side of the musical mating. "He's really a fun person for me to have a side project with because it's so easy to play with him that it's nothing but fun and energy for me. Because my life is pretty busy with the band, that's just invaluable. So, it's great to have someone else with whom to try to figure out ideas and musical personalities that I might not get to use in my own group."

Arbo finds the joint endeavor challenging on several levels, not least of which is stripping down the components of her usual sound to just guitar and vocal.

"Brooks is the kind of player who can pull that off because, first of all, he's got great rhythm and he can play the bassline," Arbo adds. "He's got a really big, fat bassline on the acoustic guitar and he's a great soloist, so I can hear everything I'm used to hearing when I play with him. It's almost like it's all there- just that there's a lot more room for me to fill in around the edges."

"The fiddle, in our show, has a much bigger role for me and that's a challenge," Arbo continues. "It's fun to figure out how I can back him up under his solo and how I can come up with a little part that, in our band, might be played by guitar or even drums."

"From my perspective, I typically work either solo or fronting my own group," Williams supplied. "So, it's my show either way- mostly my songs or my covers- it's really focused on me. Rani is a band leader, so it's the same deal for both of us. We were putting ourselves in a situation where we were opting for a lot more interchange.

"We also decided not to just rehash our old stuff; to learn a whole new set of songs, and we chose to pick things that we typically didn't do at our own gigs. So that gave us an opportunity to delve into the more eclectic song interests that both of us have and bring things to the table which really run the gamut."

"We haven't been very intense about trying to do our original material," Arbo added. "We have a fair mount of it in the program but we have also spent the last year sniffing around for songs that we both have always wanted to do but haven't had a chance in other combinations."

After describing some of the chestnuts and pearls the pair enjoy showcasing on stage, Williams also reflected upon the actual experience of performance with Arbo: "The thing I enjoy most about this duo is that Rani is one of the best `communicators' of a song around. She's a wonderful singer and she has a way of `telling' a song that I very rarely see. As a player, there's nothing more thrilling than to lay down the groove for a singer of her caliber. It's a trip to go into this mode where my whole `job' on some songs is to- chordally and harmonically- lay down a really nice happening groove and let her go to town. That is the coolest thing. I just take two steps back from the microphone and lean back on my heels and it's just as good as it can be, man."

"After that first show, we had such a great time, we thought there's no reason not to keep it up," noted Arbo, who deflects the numerous requests they get for a recording of the blend to an uncertain future time when they're both not so distracted in their own individual recording zones. "We don't play a lot. It's a side project for both of us but we set aside certain times of the year- like this January."

A small window for both artists, perhaps, but they've been able to fit a handful of shows in Utah, New England and New York into the schedule, including Friday night at the Rosendale Cafe. Following their final gig in this little winter stretch, Williams will began touring the very next night to promote his 13th album, the `taproots' flavored Nectar, recorded last summer in Nashville and due for release within weeks. Arbo, in the meantime, will finish recording the second album with her new group, Daisy Mayhem, which is due for release in May.

That original New Year's Eve gig wasn't designed to be a trial balloon but its success has spawned obviously necessary, if sporadic, sequels. Williams and Arbo will demonstrate the appeal of this two-headed creation at 11 am on WAMC's Roundtable show Friday morning. The show is a four-legged critter that ventures out into only a few select nights of the year but it just won't stay down in a bed of memory. It lives in sparsely-spaced windows and you can crawl through one of them for the uncommon opportunity of a close-up look Friday night at the Rosendale Cafe.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on January 15, 2003

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