Schoenfeld act marks 30th year

Leader of Empty Oil Barrel Band taps folk music's political roots

Posted: Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Empty Oil Barrel Band - headed by Ed Schoenfeld and featuring Peter Anderegg, Riley Woodford and Cam Byrnes - will be performing political parodies and other humorous numbers tonight starting at 7:30 p.m. at the 36th annual Alaska Folk Festival at Centennial Hall.

Schoenfeld, the group's mastermind, has performed in every Alaska Folk Festival since 1980. Soon after moving to Juneau in 1979, he attended the fifth Alaska Folk Festival, helping to record the show for a national program on NPR. A Juneau newcomer, Schoenfeld thought it would be hard to become an act but quickly changed his mind.

"The first act up was a woman who said she was going to sing a Pete Seeger song - it was actually a Phil Oakes song - and she was kind of out of key and I thought that's okay I've sung out of key too. And then a great bluegrass band came on and singers, songwriters and other folks... so it hit me after a while that... gee, I could do that too. So I started the next year and I've been doing it ever since," said Schoenfeld, who emceed the event Tuesday at Centennial Hall.

Schoenfeld works in public radio as the Coast Alaska regional news director and says his strong point is humor.

"I'm not a great musician, I'm not a great vocalist, I'm certainly not a good instrumentalist, so all I have is the humor and I love the fact that people get the jokes," he said. "It's a very friendly audience."

The Empty Oil Barrel Band is constantly changing members in an effort to cover a variety of different musical styles.

"My band is almost never the same and that's just because I like trying something new and different. It would probably be easier if I had just stayed the same," Schoenfeld said.

He's had a lot of great musicians participate over the years; Robert Cohen, J. Althea, Peter Kenyon, and many others.

"Everybody that's with me this year has played with me in the past but not necessarily at the same time, so it's just kind of fun merging different people's musical abilities."

In addition to musical abilities, Schoenfeld looks for other qualities.

"All I need is somebody with a sense of humor and a lot of tolerance for the fact that I shove as many words into a line as I can."

Riley Woodford, a longtime Juneau musician, recording artist, and wildlife writer and producer for the Department of Fish & Game, said Schoenfeld writes the material for the group.

"He has a pretty good idea how he wants it to sound, and I think this is the funniest batch he's done," Woodford said. "I think these four songs are particularly good."

Schoenfeld, former city editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire for 18 years, was Woodford's boss when Woodford was a reporter.

"Because he's a journalist he's very tuned in to political satire, which is funny if you follow the news," Woodford said.

Drummer and back-up vocalist Cam Byrnes has performed with the group several times and is always happy to get the call.

"It is one of the most fun groups to play with and Ed is a very clever writer. We usually get a good reception," Byrnes said. "I like being onstage and performing so when I got the call I jumped at it."

Byrnes thinks the audience will enjoy the current take on political events.

Peter Anderegg played with the group for the first time last year and had a lot of fun.

"Ed is very funny and I get to play my accordion," said Anderegg, who will also be performing with the Possom Lodge Glee Club on Saturday. Anderegg added "Ed is always fun to work with and he's a clever writer, so he's very organized and scripts things well. We live in the capital city so what better source of humor than the politics?"

The group has had different names over the years but the concept arose from the recession in the mid-1980s.

"It started out as the Declining Oil Revenues Marching Band," Schoenfeld said. "We used to change it (the name) every year but it was one of the first years there were big cuts and the barrel price was down. It was me and Peter Kenyon, who is off covering Mideast news and international news for NPR, and Georgia Janick, who was a florist at a grocery store. We sang a tune called 'Oil' to the tune of 'My Girl'... 'We had Exxon, on a cloudy day... when it's cold outside we have Prudhoe Bay'," sang Schoenfeld.

The songs aren't all political; there are songs that make fun of Alaska, like the oil barrel poker they sang one year. "It was about how we spent all the money and we had a lot of fun doing it - was essentially the point of it," Schoenfeld said.

This year the group will perform a parody about former Gov. Sarah Palin, even though Schoenfeld vowed not to.

"This year I'd said I had done my last Sarah Palin song because I'd done several, but given everything that has happened... this year it's 'going rogue' again," Schoenfeld said.

Parnell and Obama won't escape either.

"I've got an Obama song although it's not really a protest song, it's just more of a statement of reality."

Schoenfeld doesn't make his political views public but said he admires Obama.

"I think it's amazing to see somebody from his background become the president of our country and I'm very glad to have seen that happen in my lifetime," he said.

One of his favorite folk festival moments was the first time he played.

"I played and there was kind of this pause where people were trying to decide whether I was trying to be funny, and then they decided I was, and after that it was great because once the audience realizes you're trying to make a joke then they will generally give you the benefit of the doubt."

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