Joan Baez at Barangus. Wait, what?
Trumansburg, New York is a special little town (really little… the “greater metro” population is around 6,000), and it’s where I grow up and continue to work (though I live in nearby Ithaca). Okay, I know that everyone thinks their hometown is special, but we do have the chops to back it up. The natural beauty alone is enough to put us on the map (we’ve got the highest single-drop waterfall East of the Mississippi, and all sorts of great hiking trails and a big lake and whatnot). It’s our musical pedigree, though, that is the stuff of legend. The Moog Synthesizer was invented here, for starters, so with that minor point alone, one could claim that modern music wouldn’t be anywhere if it wasn’t for a little storefront in Trumansburg where Bob Moog tinkered away until he changed musical history. We’ve got a solid Americana pedigree, as well – Donna the Buffalo, the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Horse Flies, the Highwoods Stringband, Jennie Stearns, and a stack of others all got their start in or around Trumansburg, and we continue to churn out a new name-brand artist every few years.
Barangus is a legendary T-burg bar, popular among the segment of the local population who prefer Toby Keith to Donna the Buffalo, and Rascal Flatts to the Old Crow Medicine Show. It’s better-known for the life-size replica of a Black Angus cow that straddles its roof than for any musical history – it’s more of a (non-ironic) PBR and horseshoes tournament sort of place than a wild music venue. That said, I love it. It’s everything you want in an old roadhouse bar – complete with multiple examples of taxidermy, lottery on the television, and an inconveniently-located ladies’ room. It used to have a dirt floor, even, but they fancied it up with plywood a couple of years ago.
I’m getting somewhere with this, I promise.
So Joan Baez was in town last Friday, performing at Ithaca’s Historic State Theatre. She’s been on a “back to the roots” kick lately, and her band members on this tour include Cajun and old-time kingpin Dirk Powell and guitar wizard Scott Nygaard. It was a sold-out show, and Joanie (as we’ve taken to calling her) was really on her game. I’m not the biggest fan of early Joan Baez work – I know that it’s historically important, but I really can’t take much of that piercing vibrato. I was pleased to discover, though, that her voice has mellowed and relaxed with age – it’s much richer now, and she sounded great.
The thing about having renegades like Dirk Powell in your band, though, is that they know everyone. Dirk’s T-burg connections run deep – he and Kevin Wimmer (who happens to be my annoying boyfriend and who did not happen to be in town that night, in the interest of full disclosure) played in a zydeco band with members of Donna the Buffalo (it was bizarrely called Zydeco Norton, which I never caught the meaning of) back in the early ’90s, and he’s got deep roots with T-burg pickers like Richie Stearns, the two having met at old-time fiddlers’ conventions when they were both banjo-toting teenagers.
So here’s the thing: A bunch of T-burg guys have formed a sort of ad hoc band called the All-American Helldrivers. It includes Steve Selin (from the Evil City Stringband), Tom Gilbert (formerly of Donna the Buffalo), Ben Gould (formerly of the Old Crow Medicine Show), Eric Aceto (who builds the best electric violins in the USA), Bob Champion, Rich Hallett, Mike Hansen, and probably some other people (I’m not sure if it’s an official-enough band to have a standard lineup), all of whom are joined together by a love of greasy old honky-tonk songs. The only place in Trumansburg where honky-tonk feels just right is Barangus, so that’s where they do it, and they were doing it last Friday. On that particular night, Richie Stearns, a T-burg local who has my vote for best banjo player in the universe, was joining in with the band, and that’s where things started to get interesting.
So Richie and Dirk, both lovers of great music and big surprises, decided that it would be pretty cool if Joan and the boys dropped by and hung out for a bit and maybe jumped in on one or two songs after they were done down at the State. The rumors were quietly circulating by late afternoon, and by the evening, things had gotten to a dull roar. Barangus was going to be packed.
I’m not sure how clear I made this – Barangus is the last place in Trumansburg where one would expect to find Joan Baez on a Friday night. I’m pretty sure the standard Barangus crowd either (a) has never heard of Joan Baez or (b) never did listen to her, seein’ as how she’s a pinko ‘n all.
So the State Concert ended. I climbed into one of the many Volvos that was headed up the hill from Ithaca to Trumansburg, and we pulled in. The place was already packed, and the band was kickin’. Honky Tonk music on a Friday night is about as All-American as you can get, and I was thrilled to be there. As we were clearly coming from the State Theatre show, we were immediately barraged with “is it true? Is she really coming?” and though I was pretty sure I had confirmation, it still seemed too weird to be true.
About an hour later, they showed up. Taking to the dance floor, Joan did a couple of two-steps with Dirk, while the road manager looked on, clearly not sure what to think. After a few dances and a beer (or two, maybe), the band waved Joan onstage, where she came up and duetted with singer Rich Hallett on a few songs, including “Long Black Veil” and “Wild Side of Life” (props to the people who actually remembered this on the following day, when my head hurt too much to think).
The beer was flowing, the joint was jumping, and every time you met eyes with one of your friends, they’d just shake their head in disbelief. Of all places, of all people…
Anyhow, it has been confirmed that Joan Baez is decidedly human. If she’s coming to your town, definitely buy a ticket to see the show, and if you can, assemble a honky-tonk band to play in the diviest bar in the county (it helps if one of your band members knows one of her band members), and she just might show up. It’s a laudable folksinger who’s game for total immersion in those bizarre little slices of Americana, and my respect for Ms. Baez couldn’t be more real.
You can find her current tour dates here.