The Okee Dokee Brothers Bring the Magic of the River to Life
The river has long served as a metaphor for poets, mystics and troubadours. The Okee Dokee Brothers, invite children of all ages to join them on their own musical discovery of the richness of this metaphor on their new release, Can You Canoe?There’s an idyllic, romantic and purely American dream of rafting down the Mississippi River once envisioned by Mark Twain. The Okee Dokee Brothers-not actual brothers, Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing have been best friends since age 3-bring this dream to a reality. Along with it they engage us with a new sense of playful curiosity, discovery and wonderment on their canoe adventure captured on video during the summer of 2011. The songs were written entirely during their trip. The album was recorded later at Dean Jones’ No Parking Studios in Rosedale, New York. The album is filled with inventive, organic and colorful instrumentation along with harmonious vocals and consistently inspired lyrics. Along the way, The Band’s Garth Hudson and his accordian join them on songs which show the influence Pete Seeger, Bill Monroe and Spike Jones.
In a recent phone conversation on the eve of the release of the CD/DVD package, Joe talked about the thirty day adventure that took the familiar river metaphor to the next level. They experienced the lesson of tolerating the entire circle of life including those less than desirable moments that are inevitable along the river. According to their friend, wilderness river resident/hermit, Kenny Salwey, known as The Last River Rat, nature brings unpleasant creatures he calls the ‘unhuggables in life.’ “Like water snakes or mesquitos,” explained Joe. “Kenny taught us that if we learn to tolerate them and give them the space they need, maybe we can also learn to tolerate each other.” The song, “Rosita (Mosquita)” illustrates this in a musical and enteraining way.
Unhuggables include moments as well. There were times when Joe and Justin had to stop paddling because a big stormblew through.” If we can learn to tolerate these moments we may learn some valuable lessons. Maybe we can learn not only to tolerate the hard times, but to accept them. And we can also accept each other as we learn to allow for unhuggable moments and creatures,” Joe reflected.
Among the many moments of play caught on video on the accompanying DVD there are infectious moments of the Brothers exploring the mystery of the river and its impact on them. According to Joe, the most enduring message they found was their own sense of surrender to the flow of the river. “Even though at first, we only skim the surface, we find as we flow with the river, the current is deep and strong,” he explained. “To fight it is a waste of energy. As we let go, we move with the river and in harmony with each other as well.” The song, “Brother,” the highlight of the album, brings this message home. When asked if a message like this is comprehended by the fans Joe said, “The kids really get it. It especially hits them when we’re playing outdoors. The songs live outdoors. Then the kids begin to see that nature is just as cool as the computer or television.” The songs also speaks to the durability of the brother’s friendship. All though they are not blood-related, they are kin by way of their life-long connection through music. According to Joe, “there were plenty of times when we were laughing, creating and singing. But there was also times when we’d just paddle in silence for hours. Our friendship was like the way we described the river in that song,’Brother.’ And we were able to trust each other enough to let those moments be too.”
After the trip, the next step was to bring the songs to life in the studio. For this the Brothers traveled to Rosedale in upstate New York with producer, Dean Jones. They spent two weeks at work on the record. According to Joe the first four or five days were focused on experimenting with the variety of instruments available in the comfortable and playful workshop setting of Jones’ studio. “It was like a laboratory of sound,” Joe said. “We tried different instruments to find the right sound for each song. Some needed a Zydeco rhythm. Others needed a train sound or a marimba to get to the nature of the song. The song “Mr Mississippi” showed the influence of Spike Jones,” Joe said.
Being in upstate New York, producer, Jones’ mentioned that the musical wizard, Garth Hudson of The Band, lived nearby.“In the back of our heads we were thinking, ‘The Band is one of our favorites and we’d love to have him on this record.” So, through a series of emails with Hudson’s wife and business manager, Sister Maud Hudson, the details were worked out for him to help with the project. “Even though they were really busy, they made it work for us.” Joe said. In a phone conversation Garth Hudson said, “We jumped at the chance to work with these guys. Anything that’ll make children happy. Their creativity moves, it has wheels. We liked their music. The canoe trip down the Mississippi River was a good idea. There’s only a few ways to become a kid again. Canoeing is one of them. Their music makes it good to be a kid. They make it fun to grow up.” Both Sister Maud and Garth went on to emphasize how important they felt it is for grown-up folks to canoe with kids and for all of us to give attention to orphans who could use this experience with other families in the wildnerness.
When Joe was asked about working with Garth Hudson he replied, “It was one of the craziest times I’ve ever had in the studio. We had been working all day and Garth came in at 10:30 pm at night,” he laughed. “He had a cup of coffee so we figured he must be nocturnal. We ended up staying up listening to him tell these great stories. He’d play old Italian songs on the accordion, tell a story about them, then he’d take some passes at the song, “Haul Away, Joe,” and then he’d get up and play the piano for a while. He had this thing about pianos. He said they’re all different. He told us that every piano has got to be played. Then, he did ‘Roll On River’ in just a few minutes,” Joe explained. “We got this feeling, like he was passing on a tradition to us. It was cool to have someone so legendary at his age passing these stories and songs on to us.”
Whether it was with the very huggable Garth Hudson or flowing down the mysteries of the Mississippi River, The Okee Dokee Brothers offer a fresh sound for young and old. This is one of those rare records for kids that transcends its own audience. That’s not to discount the postive Pied Piper-like influence this duo have on children. Bringing kids good music while inspiring them to experience the thrill of the natural world is invaluable. The music and the songs are so engaging, it will appeal to adults as well as children. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling motivated to get out and experience the huggable and unhuggable summer delights of Mother Nature during the summer of 2012.
(photo credit of Garth Hudson: Garth Hudson lecture/concert Lund, SE.
© 2012 Max Adolfsson)