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July 2024
Vol. 23, No. 10

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Some Folks I Know Whose Music Is Special

by Lou CurtissJune 2023

I first met Hank Bradley in Fresno, or maybe it was at the Sweets Mill Folk Festival, or maybe it was the Cabale Creamery in Berkeley. At any rate, by the time he played at the second San Diego State Folk Festival (in 1968) I had seen him with the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band (of now rare LP on Vanguard Records fame), the Diesel Ducks (famous for Grocery Store Music), the Spare Change Boys (busking band supreme), and Jose’s Appliances (where they advertised the wares and services of Jose, who may or may not have ever existed, I never knew). Maybe the best all around all time musician on the West Coast or most anywhere, Hank is one of those guys that other musicians come to your event to see. Fiddlers know him as one of the best old time Arthur Smith-style Tennessee fiddlers as well as being pretty adept at Eastern European styles; he also plays banjo about as well as anyone, bazouki, and most anything else with strings on it. At our various festivals he’s played solo; in duets with Jody Stecher, Sandy Bradley, and Frannie Leopold; in groups such as the Gypsy Gyppo String Band, the Zagreb Municipal Orchestra; and in all kinds of sit ins with the likes of Kenny Hall, Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band, Larry Hanks, and others I’m probably forgetting.

When I started putting together the Adams Avenue Roots Festivals in 1994, Hank was one of the first musicians I called to be a regular. By that time he, Cathie Whitesides, and Frannie Leopold had formed the Balkan Cafe Orchestra, a unique mixture of all the kinds of music those three very talented musicians play, sometimes mixing several kinds of music and Hank’s weird sense of humor all into one tune. (Check them out on You Tube or buy their CD). At any rate the Balkan Cafe Orchestra played the first 15 Adams Avenue Roots Festivals, were always a joy to work with, and always had a big following. Usually they not only played their own sets but wound up playing in a number of other bands as well. Hank and Cathie live in Seattle; Frannie still lives in Mendocino and I hope they get a chance to come down this way again.

I guess I first saw Kenny Hall with the Sweets Mill Mountain Boys at one of the Berkeley Folk Festivals back in the mid to late ’60s. Kenny’s style never did fit into that Missouri style the Mountain Boys had but Sunny Goodier up in San Francisco had sent me a tape where Kenny was playing with guitarist singer Jim Ringer and banjo player Ron Tinkler and that’s the way I brought him to the third San Diego State Folk Festival (in 1969). Later that summer I went to the Sweets Mill Folk Camp and heard the three of them in an all-night session. I remember hearing someone say, “Now that’s a Sweets Mill string band,” so the next year when I brought them down it was as the Sweets Mill String Band. Over the next couple of years they added Harry Liedstrand on fiddle (Kenny was starting to play lots of fiddle too, along with that taterbug mandolin), Cary Lung on a second mandolin, and they made a couple of LPs and toured quite a bit. I was always kind of proud of the fact that I took a Kenny Hall jam session and put it on stage and it became a regular working band. Kenny continued to do festivals for me; when SMSB broke up he played festivals with Will Spires and Joe Gwaltney and he even did a set with Mississippi bluesman Sam Chatmon (they first got together up at Sweets Mill too) as the California Sheiks (they even cut an album together for the Blue Goose label but it was never released; too bad because they were a great combination). Later on Kenny appeared, leading his own Long Haul String Band at several of the later San Diego State Folk Festivals and a bunch of the Adams Avenue Roots Festivals. It was usually good to have Kenny at a festival because he always stirred up the pick sessions and got people jamming like no one else.Kenny still lives in the Fresno area and still plays at weekly gigs in his late ’80s.

There are a lot of other remarkable musicians who have played at a lot of the Folk and Roots Festivals I’ve put together. Will Spires played first at the third San Diego State Folk Festival as part of Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band in 1969, doing mostly old Charlie Poole songs. At subsequent festivals he played lots of Cajun music (with the Balfa Brothers, Marc Savoy, Michael Doucet, and others), worked with Kenny Hall, did a set with Frannie Leopold (everyone did a set with Frannie), was part of the Golden Toad, and probably several bands I’m forgetting. I know he did solo sets a few times (the last at a recent Roots Festival). Jody Stecher was another who could be called on for a solo set, work as a duo with Kate Brislin, Hank Bradley, or a bluegrass sitar player whose name I don’t remember. He played mandolin with Rose Maddox, jammed with Vern Williams and Ray Parks, and sat in with Mike Seeger once or twice. He and Kate were always hits at the Adams Ave. Roots Festivals when they appeared. I could go on about musicians who gave a festival more than it’s money’s worth by always seeming to be around and part of the music. I remember Jon Bartlett from Vancouver B.C., Eric and Susie Thompson from Berkeley, Ray and Ina Patterson from Woodland Park in Colorado, Larry Hanks from the Bay Area, Tom and Martha Jennings and Clarence Langen from Thatcher, Arizona, Brian Steeger from Santa Cruz, and just a whole lot more. It seems to me that the most exciting thing about a music festival next to the performances is the jamming going on in the parking lot and around the grounds. It’s also always a treat if you can get two musicians or more who picked together in a jam to get together on stage for a one-time only performance. That’s always hard to bring off, but most always worthwhile.

We’ve had a lot of great music festivals here in San Diego, but the best ones are those that cater to musical surprises. Things you don’t expect are often those best remembered. And thus, the music flows on.

Lou Curtiss


Reprinted from the August 2011 edition of the San Diego Troubadour.

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