Windsor Lake, the glorious new CD by The Flying Garbanzos, is the result of the kind of offhanded collaboration that can only thrive in a rich and diverse music scene. In the last decade, that scene has been quietly cultivated in North Berkshire.
Dale Ott, 50, started playing harmonica in high school. Later he took up the electric bass and played in rock and blues bands. When Savories, a former restaurant in Williamstown, began its Acoustic Brew open mic nights on Thursdays a few years ago, Dale wound up accompanying bluegrass and folk bands.
“I made a lot of friends with musicians in the area,” said Dale, when I interviewed him and the other three Garbanzos at his house in Clarksburg recently. “We started having a song circle at my house once in a while. Eventually, we did it once a month. It’s been going on ten years in this room now. You never know who‘s going to show up.”
One of those musician friends he met was violinist Eric Buddington, a Connecticut native who settled in North Adams in 1997, when he was 24 years old. In an interview published in Disappearing Into North Adams, Eric reminisced about it:
“When I graduated from college (Wesleyan), I landed an associate position in Woods Hole with the US Geological Survey. The work was good, but I wanted to move around a bit more. So I left after a year. I went on a bike trip for about three weeks in New England. On my way, I passed through North Adams. When I was coming back from my trip, I decided I would stay in North Adams for a while. I didn’t know there was anything going on here musically. I mentioned it to my landlord, and he told me about these monthly gatherings at Dale’s house. I went there and met everybody.”
Tony Pisano, 48, the band’s guitar and mandolin player, saw Eric play one night at an open mic session in CC’s Café at MCLA. “I didn’t want to play by myself, so I asked Eric to accompany me. He invited me to come to Papyri Books for Acoustic Night. I was going down to the Appalachian Bean on Fridays to have breakfast, so Eric and I got together there, and the Bean seemed like a perfect place to play. It was so big and laid back. I asked Audrey Witter (the owner), and she said she didn’t mind.”
The Celtic music they started playing was a new adventure for them. Eric grew up with classical music and Tony fooled around with Beatles songs. “There was a band from Ireland that played at Drury High School about five years ago,” Tony recalled, “and the energy of the fiddle and banjo was exciting.”
Eric’s experience was similar. “The trigger for it was getting a CD by Mark O’Connor (a Nashville-based fiddle player) as a going away present from my job. I started to imitate it. I was pretty much the only fiddle player here when I started playing at the Acoustic Brew. This type of music is easy to play and have fun with.”
Tony’s son Josh soon joined them for breakfast at the Bean, and then Dale brought his newly acquired upright bass. Josh, 22, plays percussion on instruments with exotic names like the ashiko. “The first time I heard this music was from a band called Kila that played at the Clark. They were incredible. When my father asked me to play, I jumped at the chance.”
This summer, they recorded their first CD together. Tony explained what happened:
“Eric is on the site crew at Falcon Ridge (an annual folk festival in Hillsdale, New York). In the winter, he said we ought to do a CD, so we could take it to Falcon Ridge and introduce people to our music. Then we forgot about it. A couple of weeks before Falcon Ridge, Eric mentioned it again. I was going on a camping vacation at Windsor Lake, so we recorded it at my campsite. Dale has a mini-disc recorder. He brought that up and set a few mikes on a picnic table. We did it all in one take. We didn’t have a set list or any arrangements. That’s kind of the way we usually play anyway.”
Dale added, “We did two mini-discs. Eric recorded it directly onto his computer, and then we edited it down to about 75 minutes. We changed the order of the songs.”
There’s a list of the songs on the CD cover, but a note that warns, “The songs are not really in this order. That would be too easy.” Eric explained that he had made the label before the CD was edited and then didn’t have time to change it. He joked, “If someone wants to know the name of a song, they should come and hear us live and ask what it is.”
Since I picked up Windsor Lake from the guys at the Bean in August, it has taken over the CD player in my car. The simple recording process results in a natural sound that you don’t hear in today’s high-tech world. The instrumentals, which Dale describes as “mostly jigs and reels,” and Tony characterizes as “Celtic with some Latin-style rhythms,” are irresistibly warm and tuneful. They sound perfect on my frequent drives over the hills from Florence to North Adams.
A favorite of mine is “Connaught Man’s Ramble,” a plaintive melody dressed up with some haunting major seventh chords from Tony, an unusual touch for traditional Celtic music. “What I like about having a small group,” explains Eric, “if Tony wants to do something weird with the chords, he may have to coordinate it with Dale, but it’s not like five people have to simultaneously agree on it. And I can do crazy things with the melody without affecting what everyone else does.”
The 12 tunes flow seamlessly into one another, infectious and toe-tapping one moment, melancholy and rhapsodic another. On track six, a red-eyed vireo from a nearby tree warbles in perfect time. On “Pickin’ at the Hoosac Tunnel,” a hypnotic melody written by Tony, Josh bangs on a little-known instrument called a tent pole. “Spootiskerry” boasts a duet between Eric, who plucks the fiddle like a mandolin, and Tony, who plays the real thing. On several cuts, Eric takes a turn on the flute.
The spontaneity is obvious, and that’s one of the recording’s greatest assets. Tony hits the nail on the head with his comment: “If we had gone into a studio, we would have been under pressure to do it perfect. At the campground, we had fun.” Eric notes: “If you want to sound good, the best way is to practice, not to touch things up after the fact.” Josh offers insightfully: “You hear a lot of bands that sound great on their CD. Then you go and see them live and they just don’t sound as good. You see us live, and we’re going to sound like the CD.”