Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One of the most memorable things that Peter Ostroushko, Mike Cass and I did was to back up the national acts that would come to town and play at the Whole Coffee House on the University of Minnesota campus. We would have two or three weeks to learn the repertoire of the visitor, so we would get together and learn the popular songs that the visitor would play. The visiting star and the three of us local guys would get together at the coffee house early in the evening of the job, and cobble together a set list or two that included the repertoire of the visitor and filled out with standards that everyone knew from the common pool of music. Remember that this was folk music, so there was a vast list of songs that were commonly known by the musicians who played bluegrass and old time music.

One time, the booking people at the coffee house engaged us to back up Vassar Clements. Peter and Mike came over to my apartment and proceeded to show me the important tunes. Yes, both of those guys had the stuff either already in their fingers or they would learn it fast. After a couple of painful (for them) and aggravating (for me because I felt so stupid in comparison to them) sessions, we pretty much had the necessary tunes learnt. The big night arrived and it was off to play with the star. We played the gig Friday, went off to someone’s house afterward and picked until the early hours. Saturday we all played on “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor, then the final night at the Whole, followed again by more picking until the wee hours.

To say that the weekend went well would be an understatement. The musical energy was absolutely unbelievable. One of the evenings was taped, and I managed to hear it a couple of times. The music was amazing, just absolutely amazing. We were totally pumped to be playing with Vassar, and he is such a master that his energy could pace ours to any level. Twenty years later, in a completely different and non-musical setting, I met a person who asked if I was the same Jim Tordoff who played banjo. I said I was, and this person told me that they remembered me from playing at the Whole Coffee House with Vassar Clements. They said it was the finest night of music they had ever heard in their life. Well, in my humble opinion, I agree. The tape of that night was magical. If I ever find the tape I will post it on this site. I am still looking. Recently, I heard another tape of a group who was backing up Vassar and it was “deja vu all over again” as Yogi Berra would say. That group was cooking with the gas on full. It was probably the fastest Bugle Call Rag ever played in the known universe. I guess Vassar just has a way of energizing his back up band in ways that defy understanding. Those guys were great.

The three of us also played with Frank Wakefield and that was pretty fun too. No other night ever reached the fever level of the magic Vassar weekend though. Some things can never be duplicated or experienced twice.


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