— The longest period of time during which I had a steady, regular band was two or three years, and it was two or three years ago. For a long time I had wanted to perform a record called BABBLE, a record written by Kevin Coyne and sung by Coyne and Dagmar Krause. It’s one of my favorite records. It’s a daunting and challenging record to listen to, much less to think about performing. But I fantasized about touring this record one day. All I needed was to find a singer to sing Krause’s role to my Coyne. I’d thought about asking Chan Marshall, and Shannon Wright, and Polly Harvey. But I wasn’t sure that any of them would be a good fit and I didn’t want to begin a conversation that would ultimately go nowhere. I’d been playing music with Emmett Kelly for a few years and had begun to discuss with him my BABBLE fantasy. One day he called and said that he thought he may have met someone who could sing the woman’s part. He suggested Angel Olsen, who he’d seen and heard around Chicago. She came to Louisville and we said hello, and then she recorded a demo of one of the BABBLE songs and sent it to me. This took guts, and in her recording she displayed a tension and a range that felt strong and ready to spring. So we had the principle parts cast and what was next was to flesh out the band. I’d known Danny Kiely in Louisville for years, and we had played together when Oscar Parsons put together a deluxe line-up of his Thomas A Minor & the Picket Line band that included me as Bonny in order to play at a private lake called Funtown. Danny knew my mother through the Louisville visual art scene, and he’s incredibly solid as a bass player and warm as a human being. Van Campbell had put his power duo The Black Diamond Heavies onto mothballs and was looking for music opportunities. I had known his brother Ward for many years, and I’d met Van over in England when we both performed with the Oxes one afternoon. Van’s dad played drums, and Van brought an earned and inherited fluency to the kit. I’d met Emmett during late nights in Chicago, and after I’d seen him perform with Azita one night in Louisville I knew I wanted to see what we could do together. Our first work together was in Reykjavik, at the recording session for THE LETTING GO record. By the time of the BABBLE trip, we’d also written and recorded a record together called THE WONDER SHOW OF THE WORLD, with Emmett billed as the Cairo Gang. Emmett also introduced me to Ben Boye, who joined us first on a trip through the Mid-Atlantic states playing keys. I think the bulk of the BABBLE band was on that trip; it was a summer trip and we played Tom Culton’s organic vegetable farm in Lancaster, PA as well as recording a Sufjan Stevens cover with Dan Smith of the Danielson Family at his place in New Jersey. We had Meg Baird with us, and our tour manager was Sabrina Rush, and Sabrina joined in on the recording session playing the violin. After the Mid-Atlantic trip, Emmett brought Angel into the fold and we had our ensemble. We rehearsed the BABBLE record and booked a short run of shows with the Babblers, as we called ourselves, opening for Bonny Prince Billy, which was also us. I bought fleece hoodie-footie pajamas for everyone in the band (our Babbler costumes), and we told local promoters that we were traveling with an opening act from Shreveport, Louisiana (the Babblers). Each band member had to provide his or her own lighting on stage, and we didn’t use any other stage lights for the BABBLE set. We just performed the record in its entirety each night. The first show was Babblers-only (no Bonny set) at a former Mexican record store in Chattanooga called Discoteca. Van set that gig up. It was snowing outside, and the roof leaked. There was no dressing room, so we changed into our hoodie-footie suits in the van (the bathrooms at the ‘venue’ were pretty dismal, although the walls of the bathrooms had really nice graffiti). We took the BABBLE show up to New York City and played at Town Hall. On the way back to Kentucky we scheduled one last-minute Babblers gig in Columbus, Ohio and we got paid with pints (and pints and pints) of Jeni’s Gourmet ice cream. For me, these shows were all about the BABBLE set although we still did good long Bonny sets and put our hearts into those headlining sets. We didn’t mention to the promoters or audiences along the way what we were doing, just that the headliners and the support acts would be sharing equipment.
It was this band (Emmett, Ben, Van, Danny, Angel and myself) that began to slowly prepare for the recording session that would produce WOLFROY GOES TO TOWN. Between the Mid-Atlantic trip and the recording of WOLFROY, we did a couple of mini-band trips. Emmett and Danny and I went out west and played some shows in the Pacific Northwest. Happily we were joined by Phil Elverum playing drums and then Ashley Webber sang with us at a couple of shows. On another trip, Emmett and Angel and I traveled throughout the state of Florida playing at record stores and live on the radio. These shows were about getting our WOLFROY harmonies cemented, and about introducing Emmett and Angel to the wonders of Florida. In St. Augustine we were joined at our gig by Shahzad Ismaily (who banged on a Styrofoam cooler) and Aram Stith (who played guitar). It was a lot of fun.
We finally got the WOLFROY songs together and played a show of just that heap of songs. The show was at Millennium Park in Chicago on a beautiful Monday Summer evening. And around that same time, we went into the Poor Shelter in Louisville, KY and recorded ten of the twelve songs written for that session. This was all six of us, plus Shahzad, who ran the recording machine and played and sang here and there on the session.
At one point, Emmett, Angel, Ben and I went over to Europe and did some shows as a foursome, and then Emmett, Angel, Van and I went down to Australia and played some shows, including a show in a cave near Margaret River in Western Australia. It keeps costs down to travel as a smaller group, and we can also get perspective on the songs by bringing forces in and out of the rotation.
Our last big trip as that six-piece was similar to our first trip together in that we created a new band and once again opened for ourselves playing an entirely separate repertoire. This time we learned a good long set of Mekons songs and traveled as the Chivalrous Amoekons. For our stage costumes, I asked the great Nashville designer and tailor Manuel to create shirts specifically for each band member. Our first show as the Mekons cover band was in Lexington, KY at a benefit show for the radio station WMMT out of Whitesburg, KY. Also on the bill was the great Louisville-based Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Long Phanh Nguyen. A couple of days later we took our Mekons set and our Bonny set overseas and played a week in Switzerland and a week in Italy. The Mekons have three primary lead singers, and so did we on that trip. The Mekons have long been a crucial inspiration to me, and it was a joy to occupy some of their songs for a while in a legitimately illegitimate way. We had a night off between the Swiss and Italian shows and we spent that night in Parma. The next day we found a brewery out in the countryside outside of Parma called Panil. The lady of the brewery, Patricia, set us a table in the field next to the brewery. She brought us Parma ham and Parma cheese and some of the freshest most delicious beers I had ever had. Patricia told us that Panil has a festival every year in the springtime, and she said that we should come and play the festival the next year. I’d also visited the oldest covered theatre in Europe that morning, in Parma, and had begun trying to figure out a way to perform there. Over our beers and cheese and ham I promised the Babbler/Amoekon troop that we would reconvene the following year, in Italy, and that we would perform together at the Panil festival. However, that is a promise that I did not keep. One force or another wedged itself into our lives and that was to be the last trip (as of this writing) on which the six of us would travel and play all together. Ben has released a great solo autoharp record. Angel has put out a couple of full-length records under her name. There have been Cairo Gang releases and Bonny Cairo tourings. Van and Danny continue to play boatloads of music in and around Louisville. The Babblers and Chivalrous Amoekons bands were among the freest and funnest of times I have had performing live music, because I was traveling and performing with such excellent people while simultaneously embodying some of the music that has been vital to my development as a musical being.
This writing was inspired by Wade Hall’s biography of Pee Wee King, HELL-BENT FOR MUSIC.
Photo by Ashley Stinson
Photo by Connor Lynch
Will Oldham is a singer songwriter and actor, and a native of Louisville, Kentucky