The Gig That Wouldn't Die
Brooks Williams and Rani Arbo at Rosendale Cafe
January 17, 2003
Story by Gary Alexander
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
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
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.
Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem
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
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
"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
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.
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
Posted on January 15, 2003