Sawdust Boogers and Folktronics Hit Austin's Cactus Cafe
by: Sarah Hagerman
Danny Barnes :: 01.15.09 :: Cactus Café :: Austin, TX
Towards the end of his Folktronics set, after a tears-in-your-beers take on Mel Street's classic country slow dancer "Borrowed Angel," Danny Barnes said with a grin, "Boy, I just can't get enough of picking this five string banjo." The tightly packed audience at the Cactus Cafe clapped loudly, stomped their feet, and hollered up a storm in response. Barnes has some ingenious tap into the collective musical unconscious, churning the crackling static of an old timey station with pieces lovingly picked from avant-garde and Americana roots, broadcasting from some far-flung border where wild electricity shoots sparks through a steam-powered heart.
If John Hartford were still with us today he would be madly applauding and gape-mouthed like the rest of us. Barnes is another wily innovator that pushes the perceived limits of acoustic music, pulling a love for the past into a wry future gaze. This night at the Cactus was a chance to explore his eclectic, ever-evolving career in some of its varied incarnations – from classic bluegrass cuts in a special Sawdust Boogers opening set to the crafty left turns of his very own Folktronics to a Bad Livers set with his fellow Liver and multifarious musical madman Mark Rubin.
Sawdust Boogers was a name Bad Livers used to hold jam sessions under the radar back in the day, (there is also a psychobilly band from Belgium that presently sports the same moniker). Barnes joined Rubin and Tim Kerr (guitar, formerly of highly influential hardcore pioneers The Big Boys, garage punk legends Poison 13 and numerous other intriguing projects since) in snaring us with, as Rubin put it, "songs of heartbreaking beauty and breaking hearts." The three sonic heroes captured timeless bluegrass soul, wings beating in midair like a hummingbird, while letting unfettered flourishes, sneaky deconstructive asides and a hearty helping of cheerfully irreverent humor run free.
Introducing traditional "Down in the Willow Garden," Rubin described it as a story of, "boy meets girl, boy kills girl, boy gets hung. It's the American experience!" And then without skipping a beat, "And there's a SABER involved!" The expression on Rubin's face when he sang the said line, ("I drew my saber through her") and then his aside of, "fat chance!" after the line, "My father often told me money would set me free," elicited guffaws. Who doesn't love a good ole murder song? But the weight came with the apt choice of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More." Although the song was written over 150 years ago, its chorus sigh of "Many days have you lingered around my cabin door/ Oh hard times come again no more," is a timeless declaration. With the economy and environment crumbling to pieces all around us, it hit especially hard. I noted a few watery eyes, myself included. Sawdust Boogers drew the tune out with fine delicacy, the splintery banjo and Kerr's tinny strums traveling over the thumping bass. These songs of survival, part of our shared national conscious, are only going to become more relevant.
But, the music was the constant bailout to our troubles, whether it was the off-kilter mini-jam at the end of a moving "Stone Walls and Steel Bars," a great Stanley Brothers tune, or the vigorous take on Bill Monroe's "On My Way to the Old Home," where Kerr's harmonica jumped and jived while Barnes played a lightning fast lick on the banjo without even looking at the instrument, his eyes closed and face up as if in a trance. Barnes let the notes tail down, landing in unpredictable places and then leaping up to dance around the main line. Rubin's bass has a gnarly snarl. It's coolly unpredictable, riding a driving river rhythm one minute and then breaking down with quick thwacks and thuds the next. Kerr slid and strummed with some nicely rough 'n' tumble guitar playing, befitting his well-traveled looking instrument. The ending song, the Livers' "Uncle Lucius," featured some nimble, throaty banjo plunking and made me wish it wasn't a sit down venue. I was itching to dance, but the folks behind me probably wouldn't have appreciated that too much.
There was a brief break while Barnes set up the equipment for his Folktronics set. Before opener "Raise Four," from Thelonious Monk's Underground, with Benny Goodman's "Benny's Bugle" sandwiched in the middle, Barnes held his little electronic metronome up to the mic, grinning at the pleasant electronic heartbeat. Barnes has quite an impressive technical set-up. I'm about as technologically savvy as your average 80 year old (What do you call that new fangled contraption sonny? An iWhat?), but I managed to get the rundown of his equipment after the show was over (Boss RC-20 Loop Station – "That's the heart of the deal," he said - Super Octave bass pedal, Maxon overdrive, Ibanez delay pedal and a SP-404 sampler, not to mention his custom made banjo). Barnes sets devilishly clever kindling alight with the mere flick of a switch, utilizing technology as a red-blooded entity. When I had the great fortune of seeing his Folktronics show last year it was incredibly engaging, but seeing it a few months later, the approach seems even more sharply tuned by comparison, an exciting evolution organically welded together with outlaw genius. The journey that Folktronics takes you on as the layers unfold is some pretty wild architecture to dance around.
"Pretty Daughter" began in a chilling mire of distortion, reflective of the twisted mind of the protagonist. Barnes stalked the stage with his banjo, the instrument jolting in an eerie deep growl that wouldn't be out of place on an Aphex Twin record. His voice intoned deeply and dryly, "Six o'clock they locked the lock/ Threw the key away," looped to a skin crawly, hypnotic effect. Then, in a near-whisper falsetto, he stretched out, "Pretty daughteeeeer." A sample dropped in that made a vinyl popping sound, the surface noise over which he siphoned out, note after note, each one tumbling quicker then the next. And then, it spiraled down to rest on a vocal sample of Jimmy Martin telling the story of getting fired for singing on the job and going back to tell his boss, "You can hear me on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe."
Barnes creates a tonal vocabulary on the banjo that you just haven't heard before. On "Misty Swan," he dialed it down to a thump, a synthetic systole, so quiet you could hear the metronome ticking. Then, a sudden trickle of bassy goodness down the spine, the blood cells snapping to attention. His head nodded with the rhythm, playing a wandering blues guitar-style solo and then with a quick sprint up the neck of the instrument – zing! He started speaking snatches of Biblical Genesis and then wandering away from the mic while scatting, riding on a trance-like level that was riveting to witness. I kept trying to take notes, but I couldn't keep up. I was spellbound. Then, he picked up a finger slide, provoking an accelerated glide of string friction before the music finally faded back into the buzz. When it was done, he looked at us and grinned. "37 years – still taking lessons," he said.
In the midst of Folktronics, you never lose sight of the fact that Barnes is an incisive songwriter. He brings reflective wit to the human condition in "Caveman," and askew hilarity to "My Baby Works for the TSA." On the latter, Barnes molds the characters - the narrator, a guy who works a vending machine route, lovin' a gal in airport security who "ain't missing a lot of meals" - into flesh and blood creatures, while still offering some wry commentary ("that good paycheck helps to seal the deal"). The TSA, as he recounted with amusement, like to rifle in his banjo case and leave him those search slips. Then, he played the flat-out pretty "Big Girl Blues" from Get Myself Together, where his lost love ("I miss her at the strangest times/ I didn't think she was on my mind") flickers through your head like an old home movie reel. His body of work gets disseminated by some fine company – Yonder Mountain String Band ("Funtime"), Infamous Stringdusters ("Get It While You Can") and Keller Williams ("Corn Pone Sally and Her Hay Baling Wagon Wheels" – say that three times fast). Barnes grinned at the whoops "Funtime" elicited, and mentioned the artists who cover his songs with a keen sense of gratitude. Finishing off the set with a genuine, audience reaction-inspired encore, he went back to the old school with Flatt and Scruggs' "Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee," but with his fast foot pedaling and "Dueling Banjos" teases - a winking comment on the mistaken stereotype of his chosen ax - the song became Barnes' own animal.
I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, that more folks didn't stick around for the Bad Livers set, a rare thing since their disbanding in 2000. Barnes and Rubin breezed through five songs that hit on some favorites and provided the perfect nightcap to the evening. Springy opener "Saludamas a Tejas" was followed by the low, swinging rhythm of the Livers' take on Don Reno and Red Smiley's "I Know You're Married," with powerful swathes of Rubin's scattershot bass. We got a good n' greasy helping of "Crow Black Chicken," where Rubin dug into the meatiest part of the bass, pulling out the guttural thwack. Then, some rapid-fire banjo picking during a propulsive "Corn Liquor Made a Fool Out of Me" before ending with an unearthly "Horses in the Mine." Barnes rendered a gorgeously haunting, slippery lick as Rubin's bass rumbled, their voices dialed to ghostly levels. They channeled the sparse darkness, stalactites dripping cold ground water in sopping echoes as goosebumps run up your forearms. There's a casual symbiosis between the two that's a real privilege to witness, born out of hours in a van, lugging their equipment from gig to gig through the dangers of I-35 over the course of a decade in a shared musical mission. These true legends and proud weirdos continue to shine a light, searching for the sounds and stories that live in the shadows of shiny American dreams.