Monday, April 27, 2009

The Mad Maggies

Certainly one of the greatest joys I have running NeverEndingWonder Radio is discovering new music by new artists that simply delights and amazes me to the point it becomes part of my life - music that I consider all time favorites, that I can visit any time when I want to feel that sense of belonging, that sense of being at home, of being centered. These new musical masters join the world of musical icons that I grew up enjoying- Donovan, Melanie, Spike Jones, Perrey & Kingsley, Philip Glass, Frank Zappa and so many more. New delights I've discovered via submissions to NeverEndingWonder Radio include The Mod-Est Lads, Shari Elf, Troy Lukkarila, Lucid Dementia, the prime time sublime Community Orchestra, Coyote Poets of the Universe, Veronique Chevalier and many others. They speak to me on a personal level. Their music reaches inside me and opens a smile in my heart.

I've recently made another such discovery- The Mad Maggies. Their music could best be described, I guess, as "alt cabaret" though, really, they defy categorization. The Mad Maggies utilize instrumentation that by any means should be considered out of fashion, or at the very least "quaint" - trombone, cornet, tuba, clarinet, and of course accordion. What they manage to do instead is fashion a sound that is timeless. You might find them at a dockside bar in some elder time singing a lonely sea shanty, or you might find them at some Oktoberfest accompanying drunken revelers. You might find them in a coffee house in the 60s singing a beautiful folk tune. You might find them in your town next week setting the crowd on fire with a instrumental that is nothing short of thoroughly contemporary.

A track from their first release, "Crazed and Enthused" (a title which pretty damn well describes the band itself), "Luna Marie," does an excellent job of outlining their musical territory. With the tuba oomphing away in the background, songwriter, accordionist & vocalist Maggie Martin sings the lyric that sends you on a journey into a timeless era, in some far away star-crossed land:

"With moons in her finger and moons in her toes
A faraway look in her starry eyes
Luna Marie was the belle of the ball
In a town with a lonesome past
Her nights were spent in the old dance hall
Stepping to tunes from a bygone time
Her heart was heavy yet it skipped a beat
When she saw the stranger come in...
Oh Luuuna, Luuuuna we're spinning around in a cold dark sky
And loving makes that seem okay"

Such deftly crafted lyrics evoke images, time, place and emotional context like a great poet, and Martin knows just how to deliver those lyrics with her voice that tugs at our hearts. It's a beautiful thing.

And then, a few minutes later she's singing a song about love with short people that features a sax riff by J.X. Jones that's right out of some 1950s roadhouse. The Mad Maggies refuse to be type cast. They seem to delight in turning musical styles on their end. "Heaven on Earth" presents a syncopated, almost Calypso beat. "Furey's Polka (The Furious)" puts you back there at that Oktoberfest and dares you to remain stationary. "Hearts Ride a Big Wheel," with its driving electric guitar from Gary Wium and wailing sax show us that The Mad Maggies can hold their own and rock out when they want to. "Sleepy Maggie" even puts drummer Billy Dee Boom up front. There are no slackers in this band! Every member is accomplished and passionate.

Their second album, 2007's "Magdalena's Revenge" opens with an instrumental that reminds you just who you're listening to. There are a number of these somewhat somber instrumentals that reveal to us various influences- Balkan, Celtic, Klezmer, Cajun. Even within a particular style The Mad Maggies can't help but being eclectic. In fact, of the eight tunes offered on this album, only three have lyrics. Of the three, "Are Ye Sleepin' Maggie?" is the standout. It's a terrifying tale of magic and mayhem told in the mode of a sea shanty:

"Fearfu' soughs the boontree bank
The rifted wood roars wild and dreary
Loud the iron yett does clank
The cry of hoolits makes me eerie
Oh are ye sleepin; Maggie?
Oh are ye sleepin' Maggie?
Let me in for loud the linn
Is howling o'er the Warlock Craggie"

Based on an old song from the 1700s, The Mad Maggies know exactly how to deliver it.

Their third album, "Skull and Magpie," released this year is their most accomplished and eclectic. One song in particular, "Fair Winds," has grabbed my attention. A wistful love ballad penned by bandleader Maggie Martin, and sung with such sweetness and longing it brings me to tears:

"As the hours pass on a shadowy night
her thoughts drift towards the ocean
where moonlight draws a silvery sword
across her lonely heart
He sailed away one wintery morn
to work along the southern coast
They’d sworn their love with a fiery kiss
And the promises all lovers make
I will return
I will come back to you
I will return to hold you
in my arms
May a fair wind blow
to speed your way
and bring you back, back to me
safely, back to me"

Sung to the simple accompaniment of guitar, accordion and drums, with perfectly timed accents from the rest of the band, the song is a masterpiece, touching, effective, hopeful. It almost brings hope back to my heart. But Mags doesn't rest with one magnum opus, she gives us more. "High Seas Lament," sung in the same hopeful, wistful voice, and accompanied by the same simple instrumentation, catches my imagination just as strongly:

"If I could live my life at sea
I'd spend my days in mutiny
Rising up when'ere I please
No land or Lord could hinder me
As I made my way across the sea
Free from tyranny and toil"

Who could not be touched by such sentiments? It cries to our inner pirate. And Mags' impeccable phrasing betrays a talent of the highest degree. "Navigate," another wonderful song from this release carries a more contemporary sound, and a jazzier style, yet features the same hopeful message of the joy to be found in the journey of life. "The Folly of Fame," with its wordless vocals conjures the image of a mad cabaret band on the road, searching for the next gypsy camp.

I would be doing a great disservice to the band if I didn't mention every member. Everyone contributes equally to this magic sound- Michael Ashby on bass, Johny Blood on Tuba, Lawrence Jarach on trombone, Rhian Robinson on whistle and clarinet, Adrian Gormley on sax, Billy Dee Boom on drums, Gary Wium on guitars, and leading the whole ragtag crew into musical adventures unknown, Mad Mags Martin singer, songwriter and accordion player. Together since 2004, there have been some changes to the personnel, but the band remains the same entity. The eclecticism of the music helps here. The vision and spirit of adventure get stronger with each release. If this band ever heads north from their Bay Area home base I'll quit my job to go see them.

Do yourselves a favor and go check them out:
The Mad Maggies

And tune into NeverEndingWonder Radio to hear them.

NeverEndingWonder Radio
Or- on iTunes, in the radio section, look for NeverEndingWonder Radio in the Eclectic category.

No comments: