A last chance for Crabgrass until the fall

Fans can catch band at Alaska Folk Festival before members take summer off to fish

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005

In a state where, by necessity, all the old-time and bluegrass festivals are in the summer, Juneau's Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band is on its own clock.

Andy Ferguson (fiddle), Johnse Ostman (guitar) and Sean Tracey (harmonica) fish during the summer, so the band mostly shuts down from April to September, peak touring season. They meet up again in the fall, and if you didn't catch one of their many bar shows this winter, then maybe you saw Maridon Boario (bass), Erik Chadwell (banjo) and Tracey in The Splinter Pickers, their Thursday night project at the Imperial with two mandolin players.

If you missed that too, well, the seven-day 31st Alaska Folk Festival starts Monday, and here's your last chance for a while. Crabgrass has its second CD, "Rolling Six," coming out and will have a release party at DocWater's from 3-6 p.m. Thursday, April 14. The band's also appearing on "Juneau Afternoon" on KTOO from 3-3:30 p.m. Wednesday, performing its 15-minute Centennial Hall set on Thursday night, playing the Imperial until close on Friday and partying all night at the Alaskan on Saturday.

As a band, that's as far ahead as they've planned.

"Who knows what's going to happen down the line," Ostman said. "We want to keep it going. I think we're going to be a Juneau-based band, and we might be able to play in the festivals in the summertime again, at some point in our lives."

For this week at least, Crabgrass is more than content to crank out their meshed style of bluegrass and old-time music, twinged with a little bit of punk and influenced heavily by the Pabst and Homer brewing companies. The band is somewhat isolated by their schedule, and by the geography of Southeast, but they seem to like it that way.

"We do our own thing, and we are inbred in that sense," Ferguson said. "We just crank out the tunes. We know what the form is like, and we know what we want to do with it. That isn't much, but it's our own thing."

Crabgrass has sold 1,400 copies of its first CD, "How 'Bout Now," with former mandolin player Ethan Abbott. For "Rolling Six," the band tried to capture its live sound and trying to avoid logging too many hours in a studio. Skatebottom Sound engineer Albert McDonnell recorded the album over the course of three days around Christmas-time on Perseverance Theatre's main stage.

Crabgrass used one microphone and cut everything live, with no overdubs. Most of the songs were done in three takes, though "Big Sciote," one of the band's longtime staples, and "Bristol Racing Record," written by Ferguson, were knocked out in the first try.

"There were definitely times when I would have loved to seen the track like on the last album," Ostman said. "But then I thought about it, and that's just a little bit too much polish for what we do. We're looking to get people on their feet, dancing, swinging, having a good time, hosting glasses and enjoying the music."

The band ended up with 24 songs, 16 of which made it to the record. Most are fiddle tunes. Tracey wrote two, "Everything Was Cool," a lament on firearms, and "A Word From Our Sponsor," a 21-second ode to the Homer Brewing Co. Ferguson wrote one, "Bristol Racing Record."

"Sail Away Ladies," a traditional fiddle tune and the 16th and final track, is actually a tribute to Boario's uncle, Ray Garrity, and the so-called "Council of Elders," the Fairbanks and Interior musicians that influenced Crabgrass to play old-time music.

"The words are 'Don't she rock them, Daddy-O,' and one year, at this party that (Garrity) hosts in Homer every November, everyone was drinking Homer beer and it got turned into, 'Don't sheet rock the patio,'" Tracey said. "We view that as our salute to those guys.

The new album's title, "Rolling Six," refers to a dice game called "Ten Thousand" that involves six dice and a cumulative scoring system. They learned it in Bellingham, Wash., while waiting for a chicken to roast on the first day of their 44-day, January-February 2004 West Coast tour. They played it for the next 43 days, all the way to San Francisco.

That tour ended at the San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival. Crabgrass returned this year, and played two shows in the city and one in Alameda.

"Up here, we're used to getting people up on their feet and dancing," Ostman said. "Down there, you have a lot more people sitting and listening."

"In the bigger cities in America, it just seems like with the resurgence of old-time music, people have gotten into it, but academically and in terms of the history," Boario said. "And then old-time people don't play bluegrass, and the bluegrass people don't play old-time. In Alaska, now the hardcore bluegrassers are playing old-time, and the hardcore old-timers are playing bluegrass."

In Juneau, Crabgrass may be able to claim some credit for sparking a resurgence in old-time over the last four years. The band has played on winter Sundays at the Alaskan for the last few years.

"When we first started playing, it didn't seem like there were that many people playing old-time music in Juneau, but right now, there's a jam going on over at the Alaskan Hotel, where every week at 4 in the afternoon on a Sunday, people show up and play," Ostman said. "Everybody from Gerry Fiscus, who's probably in his 50s, to Leif Saya, in his 20s, they're all playing the same tune and they all have their own takes on that tune."

The first version of Crabgrass evolved out of a weekly jam at a cabin out by Thane, sometime in 1998. Ostman and Tracey organized a show with nine other people at Valentine's Coffee House. At the time, almost everybody in the group was still learning to play.

The band morphed into a nine-piece, before whittling itself down to a six-piece. Boario replaced C. Scott Fry on bass for a tour of the Interior and was soon in the band full-time.

Crabgrass recorded "How 'Bout Now" and held a release party at the Alaskan in Sept. 2001. Abbott departed the band soon after, and with Ferguson's fiddle assuming the lead from the mandolin, Crabgrass quickly veered into more old-time tunes. The band has about 175 songs in its repertoire and nearly half are old-time fiddle tunes.

"I think there's something about this band that makes people drop their guard entirely," Ferguson said. "I know none of us are taking this stuff too seriously, yet we're playing music that makes people like Joe Page feel like it's okay to crank out old-time tunes."

"If you want to preserve the old traditions, you stay on the East Coast or you stay in Ireland or you stay in Virginia," he said. "I think it's a beautiful thing that something that old can be preserved orally like that. But when you hit the West Coast, you can get away with things. We aren't trying to get away with much. We just love old-time and we love bluegrass."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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