Gary Primich RIP

It is with a deeply wounding sense of loss and grief that I report the passing of my friend Gary Primich. Details are sketchy but his website will remain up with details concerning his funeral and whatever memorials and tributes that I am sure are to follow. All I know today is that Gary was dog sitting for his ex-wife over the weekend, and when she returned this morning she found him dead.

I have a hard time putting into words what Gary meant to me, both professionally and personally. I was honored to play on 3 of his CD's, playing what I consider to be my very personal best blues ensemble work ever. His playing was always a wonder to behold, either recorded or live on stage, being able to intuitively recreate everything good that there was about the blues harp; a major feat when you think about how degraded the instrument had become in the wake of the Blues Brothers and Bruce Willis and similar ilk found clogging the lists of blues jams worldwide. Far more than a simple mimic, he was able to balance the public desire of familiarity by mastering the styles of the greats, yet all the while forming and then setting his own unique sound.

Additionally, he was the best country blues straight harpist that I ever encountered, period. And his work on several Steve James CD's, that I had the great fortune to be on as well, rank up there as the best music I've ever been a part of.

Truth is, the last few years had been mighty rough for Gary. It would be a cheap blues cliche' to say that he was tortured by inner demons, but the rumors that he had fallen into a nasty drug habit had turned out to be shockingly true. A divorce soon followed as did a downturn in his music career. I got him on the phone last year when I heard that he had a successful stint in rehab, and let him know that I would play with him anywhere, anytime if he ever needed a bassist. He seemed genuinely surprised, "You'd play with me?" he asked, as if he didn't think his music worthy. Such was the man.

Not but 2 months ago, guitarist and band leader Steve James was back off the road and I was going out for a bit myself. We sat down at his place, cracked open a bottle and listened to those records again, marveling at every single moment of his playing. We both agreed at how lucky we were to be able to make music at that level, and how he made us sound very good indeed. We both made note to call him just to see how he was doing, and we both did, though he never called back.

Needless to say I am really furious at his exit.

Do yourself a big favor, and get you a Gary Primich CD like Travelin' Mood or Mr. Freeze or anything with Steve James, so that you too can recognize the sense of loss that we who knew him all have now.

"The Travis County Medical Examiner’s office has yet to release a cause of death pending toxicology tests, but Gary Primich’s ex-wife Tina Rosenzwieg, who found the body, said a drug overdose is suspected."


Week Two with the Youngers of Zion

As I mentioned earlier, we get out of the camps relatively unscathed, and I am now to be the guest of Mr. Sapoznik in his Upstate Hillbilly compound. Hank is the consummate host and an ace chef to boot. Once again, I am more than well fed.

The chef at work

Grilled Lamb, veggies, the Sapoznik Family recipe bulbes all served with the National drink of Texas.

A few days later, and several more home cooked meals and we’re off to the East Hampton to meet back up with Steve and Cookie, but with this time Cookie’s BF Josh Horowitz in tow. Hank got a speaking gig at the Reform schul there and he talked them into booking the whole Klez Kamp Roadshow to do a foreshortened version for the weekend.

On the way over there from Hank’s place, we decide to stop in and check on the old Klez Kamp location, the Paramount Hotel. Whoa. What a mess. You could see old place under where it burned down a bot and then the new building project that was basically abandoned in mid construction. It was more than eerie and we were glad to put our backs to it.

The drive to the Hamptons was amazing. 6 hours total and the last hour and a half were speant on the last 30 miles, traffic was so bad. We’re being housed in a fine old Victorian house conveniently located right next door to the synagogue. Our first service is to be part of their Kabbalat Shabbat, which was held right on the beach, not but 3/4 of a mile from the house. Not knowing how to dress for such, we are decked out in stage wear while the congregants are in “beach casual.”

They introduce us and we play a few dance numbers, out on the sands, with little kids running all around. Wild!

Afterwards and back at the big house, we cook up some leftovers found in the fridge from the Kosher cooking classes, drink a few of Steve’s signature martini’s and then sit down to pick a few tunes. Cookie and I work out a couple of really great Beregovsky collected tunes for a duet, though I usually play the string bass. Now I have to transpose to 3 string cello (tuned in 5th) and you all get to hear my thought process as we play down the number.

Shabbes tomorrow will be spent by us resting and by Hank lecturing. Steve, Susan and I make the Saturday morning service, chow on the fine bagels and schmear afterwards and then head off on foot to the beach. This is a rare occurrence for me. I haven’t frolicked in the surf in over a decade and that was the gentle beach of Galveston Bay. This is a beach of another type altogether and until I figure the breaks, I get battered by the crashing waves worse than I have ever experienced. It was, in a word, a solid blast. After a few hours we walk back to the house to nap and be prepared for our post Havdala performance.

Hunger and the need for treyf gets the best of us and we take off down the road in search of a new BBQ joint that just opened up. I had a real hard time being understood at the counter as the prices listed looked like by the pound where I hail from, but they only go by the plate (silly Yankees.) My inquiry about the sausage made the owner nervous, but he swore up and down it was his own version of Elgin (TX) style. Whatever. I order for the team getting ribs, chicken, fatty slices and even burnt ends, all served with taters, pickles and slaw on butcher paper (a technique that well heeled locals seemed to not be able to abide.) The house sauces were disappointing to put it charitably, but the meat was happening and the burnt ends a hit. For rich, disaffected East Coasters, it was just this side of alright However, it's the most I've ever spent on cooked meat in my life. And that was no part of Elgin sausage, btw.

Back at the Schul, they are expecting a big crowd as this band packed the place just 2 years ago. But for reasons unknown they’re staying away in droves tonight. No matter however, the expanded Youngers with PJ’s accordion sounds wonderful and Susan Leviton was great as usual, so the small audience was treated to a very intimate experience in a great sounding room.

The dance classes set for the next afternoon are similarly light, which only 7 or so folks showing up. We set up in a corner of the old schul there and Steve gives them everything he’s got, as if there were 100 of them. Our little quartet does the same, playing over these little gems of tunes from German Goldenshteyn and others. Really, can you beat playing for dancers, no matter how few?

Susan, Jerry, Cookie and PJ all head off for thier respective homes right after the show, leaving me with Hank and Steve. In the morning we find a diner on the way out, Hank hands me off to Steve who will be taking me back into the city. From there, I will catch a flight back to Austin, to languish 4 days at my violin shop.

Then it's back on a plane, this time to London to join the staff of Klezfest UK for a week. Then a stop over in NYC to play dates with Andy Statman. I'll be lucky if I recall half of what actually happened. What I do recall, I'll share with you soon.

Mad Cat Trio Sketch

Danny Barnes sent me this the other day. Didn't know the artist, but I dug how the scan was take right from his sketchbook.

Mad Cat Trio was a local, goof-off project that Barnes and I had with fiddler Erik Hokkanen. It was fun for a time and then it wasn't so we stopped. Did make a nice live CD that might actually get re-issued on CD Baby someday soon. We did the regular Thursday night gig at Jovita's, until they found some one desperate to underbid us by a third. Cornell Hurd and his 11 piece band has been down there ever since, god bless 'em. Good thing they all have dayjobs.

Both Erik and Dan are still out there slugging it out in the clubs these days, albeit in different time zones. You might do yourself a favor and pay to see them sometime. I'd be out there more myself playing that circuit, but the public has spoken about my contributions to the marketplace and I can't make the mortgage payments that way anymore.

Cool sketch though, huh?


Week One with the Youngers of Zion

AKA "Tis Sweet to work with Friends, ” July 26 through August 1st, 2007.

I caught the Block and Hexter shuttle bus out in front of the 92nd Street Y, which I guess is some kind of Jewish Community Center which puzzles me, as “YMCA” back home stands for Young Men’s Christian Association. New York really is Jew-ville after all, so Y means whatever they like up there. I waltz past the metal detectors (what the Fxxx??) and seek out a place to stach my gear. In no time flat, a stern matron kicked me out of the "community room," which had killer fast Wi-Fi and free bad coffee, so I relocated my bass, tuba and packpack to the the front steps of the place. In a town famed for its slice, I find a Israeli run kosher pizza joint and had possibly the worst slice of pizza I’ve ever had in my whole life. This will be an omen of things to come as it turns out.

Dance teacher-martini maker extraordinaire Steven Weintraub has wrangled a gig for the new “Klez Kamp Roadshow” concept at the Block and Hexter Center. They pulled it off a version of this gig last year without me, but this they budgeted enough to make it worth my while to head up there and I look forward to any opportunity to hang out with my Youngers of Zion band mates, no matter what the circumstances. After this week in the Pocono’s we’ll head up to East Hampton NY to glom onto a speaking gig that Henry booked and then subsequently got them to book the whole KK Roadshow experience for a weekend. That’s two whole weeks and I’m not sure my buds can take so much me in such a high dosage.

The week of instruction at Block and Hexter was a new skill set for me. We were essentially to be the live music for Steve’s dance classes and then provide entertainment at night, as well as give the odd lecture on differing topics associated with Jewish and Yiddish Culture. Kind of like a cruise ship gig when I think about it. Only this cruise liner has a median age of 80, keeps glatt kosher kitchen and runs on a fuel procured from incessant complaining. Don’t get me wrong, I dig old people. Just not in these sorts of high concentrations and especially not cranky old Yankees, frumme Jews to top it off. The complaints began even before the bus got to the campsite when the AC unit went kaput some 100 miles away from NYC. Gevault, indeed.

Ok, I’m not going to harp on any of the typical things that you can say about a summer camp arrangement. Anyone who has ever done time at a kosher Jewish Summer camp knows the drill. The food was exactly what one would expect to serve an elderly Jewish couple. That is to say cooked within an inch of its life and utterly devoid of any discernible flavor. But to speak to the positives, I had a clean room with an AC unit, Wi-Fi on demand, a lovely pool and an even lovelier pond which was well stocked with canoes and other water craft all of which I availed myself to. It was generally pleasant and run by decent, mostly happy people. In other words, it wasn’t anything like Circle Lodge.

There was a genuine wild card present however in the person of the camps staff entertainment director, a burly Israeli dame named Esther. Teaching folk dance and programming the evenings shows were her purview all summer and one got the feeling right quick that we were in her house and only just barely tolerated at that. She was all right and everything, but she was a force there when we got there and she’s still there now that we’re gone. Watching her lead dancing was truly a sight to behold, a mixture of enthusiastic prodding and borderline physical abuse. We reckoned she had become entirely immune to the cries of complaint from her elderly charges and had learned to simply manhandle them into submission and quiet, fearful subservience. (When one old lady came to her to tell her AC wasn’t working, Esther’s response was a loud “Are you threatening me!?”) Steve however has experienced working with her many times over the years and has developed his own system of coping mechanisms, which served him well all week.

The only controversy that occurred during our time there was on our very first evenings entertainment. We scheduled a staff concert of sorts where each of the guest lecturer-musicians performed a little something to give the attendees a taste of what to expect from our programming. Susan Leviton, our Yiddish vocalist and visual artist, was well received with her wonderful, unaffected singing. (She’s a real gem actually and was glad to have a whole week to hang out with her and her hubby Jerry.) Youngers played a tune or two and then Michael Wex got up and told a story from one of his books. It was damn funny too, something about having his first nocturnal emission make a stain in the shape of the Israeli flag, or something along those lines. Typically hilarious Wex material.

Funny to me maybe, but incredibly insulting to not but a few of the old frumme couples (not folks who had signed up for the Road Show I am quick to point out, but liggers left over from the week before) who stormed out in a public huff. Most of these people all turned up the next day at his lecture, hectoring him mercilessly with silly questions, and asking loudly I’m not making this up, ‘Why do you hate the Jewish People?” and “How did they let an Anti-Semite like you here?” It got even worse after his lecture when these nut jobs button holed him, screaming at him in English and then talking to one another in front of him in Yiddish AS IF HE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THEY WERE SAYING. When he responded to them in his native tongue they quickly switched to Hebrew, to which he again retorted to in kind. Ironical, as they say in my native Oklahoma. With this sort of crowd, Wex kept a low profile for the rest of the week and had lots of great material for his next article in the Jewish Week.

As the food there at the job site was a no go, we made several trips out into the countryside to find good burgers and booze. We were told of a particular joint called the Beacon Bar & Grill and after our first experience there, we came back again and again. Actually, I ate too much. No really, way too much. This whole being away from home and my regular surroundings and Mexican food and stuff, it was all catching up with me in this TV-less, shomer-shabbat rustic retreat. When I wasn’t working, I was writing this damn blog or eating and that was about it. The Beacon provided comfort food in every respect. We ended up there 3 nights in a row and with my taking pictures of everything ordered, I do believe the staff thought I was a food critic or something. It was midway into the signature Beacon burger, a massive meat fest made to resemble the Beacon's logo of a lighthouse, that I realized that I have as very deeply twisted relationship with food and it’s gonna screw me up if I don’t get a handle on it eventually. That said, here's what we ate:

The Beacon Burger, the house's signature dish, served with a side of chili cheese fries. "Angina on a platter." Seriously, I had a hard time downing this mammoth tower of meat.

Cookie contemplates the desert plate.

Hank goes for the Peanut Butter Pie, naturally...


and after....

Henry and Wex discuss the joys apple sauce and rare steak.

It wasn't on the menu, but I was craving a Patty Melt, which the chef made for me special. Again with the chili cheese fries....

Really, the Beacon was just that, a Lighthouse of well prepared meals in a vast sea of institutional kitchens. I'd drive 100 miles out of my way to eat there again.

We play every day for Steve’s dance class, we host lecture-talks on various subjects, including a lively talk about playing Jewish music in Eastern Europe and looking out to see mostly Holocaust survivors in the audience, and basically keep to ourselves. Cookie and I, Midwesterners by birth, avail ourselves of the private ponds many watercraft, including a hilarious attempt at a paddle boat. I redeemed myself later by taking a canoe out solo for a good long trip. The cool of the dark waters of the pond where a welcome respite to the heat of the mosquito-laden airs around the camp.

One evening after our labors, Steve shows up with a DVD collection of a 1950's era cartoon that I had never heard before. We loaded up on snack foods and liquor, moved a TV set into a unused conference room and the proceeded to watch episode after episode of Colonel Bleep. Evidently it was the very first color cartoon for TV, which is mighty odd when you consider less than 10% of the viewing public had a color TV to watch it on. Hank remembers seeing it as a young child, but in black and white. The episodes are in a word, pretty damn weird, with a mix of outrageous scripts interspersed with pointless "educational" content ("Today we go to the Belgian Congo....") Crude, bizarre and amazingly compelling. Especially if you are really, really high. Look it up on You Tube or some such and check it out for yourself, as could go on for hours about it.

Here's some stills that I took in a much addled state:

By the end of the week, we had won the campers over completely, even amongst the frum who gave us static at the beginning.The final concert went great, and even Wex's bit got laughs. Afterwards we experience the "let me tell you a story" session so prevalent at these sort of gigs.

Soon it was off to Henry's cabin in upstate NY to chill out and eat cooked meat for a few days and then we all regroup in East Hampton to do it all over again.

But for now, presented for your edification, Block and Hexter Camper Talent Night featuring Leon on the Accordion.


Manifesto for a New Year, 5768

As we’re fast approaching the Jewish New Year and as is our custom, it’s time to take stock of the follow year’s events and then see how we can learn from our mistakes and hopefully better ourselves and relations to those around us in the upcoming new year.

Miscommunication seems to me my biggest personal foible of the last year. And when my agenda runs contrary to those I work with regularly, feelings tend to get hurt and no good can come of that. (My own selfishness and insensitivity rank up there high on that list as well, and these are all issues I have to deal with as well.)

With that in mind, here’s a window into my thought processes, so that everybody around me will better understand my decision making process, in regards to music making locally here in Austin.

If you see my onstage in my own hometown, then you are looking at someone practicing for a gig somewhere else. I have established a working reputation as a first call tuba player and string bassist, so I need to keep my performance chops up and sharp as I will be playing nationally and internationally with some pretty heavy cats on a regular basis. Austin is a great town to be from, but it’s not where a professional plys his trade. The places where my labors are rewarded are very far from here in fact. “A prophet is without honor in his own hometown” to paraphrase the Christian bible. The famed Taraf de Haidouks, having toured the world for nearly a decade, played their very first concert in their native Romania only last year. My own Bad Livers were a headlining draw in Toronto and Chicago before we got our first press clipping in the Austin Chronicle. Ultimately, being from Austin has far more value than being in Austin, as any touring musician can attest.

Ridgetop Syncopators
If you see me with anything other than a bass or a tuba in my hands, then you are looking at someone basically pursuing a hobby. I will share with you a little secret that I've never told anyone. Many years ago, when I was touring with Bad Livers as a duo, my partner Danny Barnes become unable to sing. Up to that point I had learned how to sing back up and how to talk to an audience, but I didn’t have the skills to lead a show by myself. I was deeply humiliated by the experience, which had happened on more than one occasion and in different musical settings. I vowed that I would never be in that position again, and set about to start my own ban which eventually became the Ridgetop Syncopators. Here it is years later and all my stated goals have been achieved. I can front any gig that comes my way playing a variety of instruments. I’ve since been hired to front other peoples bands, play banjo in Veracruz, and most surprising of all, take the Syncopators to the Kennedy Center, and the Calgary and Winnepeg Folk Festivals. Pretty darn amazing achievements given the original context of the project. For the record, as its mission as been accomplished, I have literally no plans that group. I am taking the dates as they come to me however.

Any gig out of town beats any gig in Austin. This should be obvious. Not getting a crowd in town? That’s because this market is over saturated. I’d rather play a gig in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, or hell even La Grange, than at any of the “hip” Austin venues as it creates actual traction and gets your project down the road. Additionally, if someone doesn’t want to tour, they are telling you essentially that they are not interested in music making as a career, which is fine for someone who just wants to kick around town playing music as way to blow off steam and have a little fun. Austin is filled to brim with these people in fact. However you’d do well to avoid them if you wish to prosper in music making. Truth is, there’s more than one bandleader I know who pays great money and is coming up on the industry radar simply by never playing in Austin, and concentrating only playing where people actually pay money for music.

All bets are off when it comes to friends. There’s a maxim among the jazz musicians I work with in NYC use when deciding if they’ll take a gig or not. They call it the Gig Triangle. (It was even written about in Bass Player magazine recently.) On any date offered you have three major factors: the quality of the music being made, the amount of money being paid and then what we call the “hang;” best described as the joy one has with being around one’s friends. The theory is that you got to have at least 2 factors in the positive to do any gig. Therefore, if the music is inspiring and the folks are great but the pay is light, that’s just fine. But no amount of money will get me onstage playing crappy tunes with people I have no respect for.

All bets are off when it comes to culture. Music is a vital aspect of many cultures, some I’ve even a member of. When a member of my community calls me up to ask if I can play a simcha, I’ll do everything I can to make the date. Not for free mind you, as your own people should be made to understand the real value of your service. But if you wish to count yourself as a member of your own community, you really should work to fulfill the role in which your music was meant to be played. This is also why you’ll see me singing Czech polkas at the Kolach Festival in Caldwell, or playing Polish dances at the Wiesczonski’s anniversary party in Tomball as well.

And when I tell you “Your band sucks.” I mean it with love. Seriously, I wouldn’t have told you anything if I didn’t admire you and think highly of you. I just don’t posses a gentle, or even diplomatic, nature try though I might.

Hopefully with my intentions displayed as transparently as I can, my actions will not be misunderstood or misconstrued in any way. That is my humble prayer.

As humans, we’ve all been designed as incredibly complex creatures capable of both the greatest goods as well as the foulest of evils and I’m as capable of both ends of that spectrum as any other. Hopefully with the kindness of my friends, my family and the charitable nature of my compatriots and co workers, we will all enter into a New Year filled with only happiness and prosperity, baruch Hashem.