It was the true spirit of mobility, a genuine adventure. Rooting around a dark alley for a power source, decent light, bright sound and a clean-ish, flat surface for the Presto and for the ladies’ fancy shoes.
It was late at night, and there was an energy, a happiness, a spark still glowing from the show The Wandering had just played at Joe’s Pub. They slipped out the back after their encore was through to make a record with us in the alley. Five voices with the fife as their sixth, bouncing joyfully off the concrete and mixing together in the warm spring air.
Did we feel it? We hadn’t noticed. A train went by, fast, beneath our feet. The Wandering, more accustomed to standing on solid ground than we New Yorkers, felt it rumble. The Presto felt it, too. Leaving a pretty-looking zig and a zag on the groove to mark it’s passing, a note stuck forever to the surface of the record telling exactly what their tapping feet had sensed.
We might have never gotten to sleep that night, it’s true. The excitement of the glorious recording lit us all up so, band, crew and friends alike. Had The Wandering’s flipside not been just the right reverie, the perfect song for the night’s end, we might have vibrated right through till morning. It was so beautiful in its calm, so right in its gentle longing, “Rock My Soul” brought us fluttering right back down to earth.
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There are things that the Presto seems to know inherently, surprising and wonderful things that pop out of our recordings when we play them back. The tapping of a foot on a floorboard, the chirping of a bird filtered through glass, the high praise-pitch of a fife brightly bouncing down a dark alley.
The Wandering assembled late one May night on the concrete behind Joe’s Pub in New York to play the classic gospel “Glory, Glory,” the five members of the Memphis group carefully shuffling themselves around to mix the sounds. Luther Dickinson, Valerie June, Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere each found their place, and the voices and instruments mixed beautifully as it all came together. Everywhere Shardé Thomas stood, however, the Presto seemed to hear her fife particularly. It’s the fife that her grandfather, the great Othar Turner, made with his own hands. And it was almost as if the Presto knew that sound, like the voice of an old friend carrying across a room.
It reminded us that the fife and the Presto both had lives before we were born, have a history we can only imagine, might have known each other in another life as contemporaries.
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As summer drifts away in a shimmery breeze, it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be truly cold in the winter months. But listening back to the recordings we made in February with Valerie June we were instantly reminded of the chillness in the air that made the warmth in her performance so especially lovely.
Valerie chose “Happy or Lonesome” to pay tribute to a performer from the past who might just be her namesake. But as she sang her long-distance longing with such a hopeful tone, we had to wonder if she had Memphis on her mind, too.
Valerie is effervescent when she plays a happy song, so buoyant and free that it fills you with a heady happiness to hear her. For her flipside she chose a love song, “Raindance” – maybe to offset the murder ballad she’d done earlier in honor of Valentines Day – but definitely to bring a little light to the dark winter evening.
Where ya headed? We meet like fellow passengers at the end of a nearly abandoned train car in Brooklyn. But the train doesn’t budge, because we’re not there to travel, not really. It’s dark inside, and we light candles, it’s chilly outside so we bundle up. It’s silent at first, without the chugging of the engine and the tripping of the steel wheels over hundreds of miles of track, so we fill the space with music.
She’s a New Yorker now, but Valerie June brought her Memphis along in her reedy, bouyant voice. And as she sings the sweet longing for a long-distance love in “Happy or Lonesome,” we almost expect her hometown to answer. But it’s the Presto that does, in the end, with a satisfying click.
This train’s not leaving the station, but it doesn’t need to. So what if we’re rooted in place, we’ll still get carried away.
Thank you so, so much to Pete’s Candy Store for giving us such a warm Brooklyn welcome, and for mixing our 78 Sours so strong!
The elation at the end of a long day of recording mixed with the sweet burn of a 78 Sour as the bar moved into happy hour and we moved into the bar.
Some of the gathered crowd knew what would happen, some wondered what we were doing. They lingered nearby, craning their necks to get a better look at the mesmerizing Valerie and the strange old machine on the table in front of her.
Valerie was a pro by this time. “Wildwood Flower” was the fourth side she’d sung in one day, the fourth time she’d watched our needle drop, the fourth wild mass of chip she’d displaced with her wild voice. And she kicked off of that momentum, straight into a final song so spirited that it hushed and entranced an entire Brooklyn bar.
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Thanks again to Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, NY, for letting us in, and inventing our new signature drink.
Thanks to all who were able to join us at City Winery on Sunday, May 20. It was beautiful to see our New York Series artists take the stage together to celebrate the shared experience of field recording. And we couldn’t have been more honored to have Marshall Crenshaw join us onstage to record a 78 acetate live with the stage monitors silenced and the eyes of the audience upon him. It was a most moving moment in a night filled with many a momentous feeling.
We’ve posted photos from the show on our Facebook here. And you can listen to the digitized versions of Marshall’s acetates, “More Pretty Girls Than One,” and “Passing Through” below.
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So as not to sound unbecomingly contrary, or morbid for that matter, let’s just say that the love songs of The 78 Project so far have been torn from the book of hard-living. They have ranged from the practical to the downright bloody, and that fits right in with our gleefully unsentimental folklorist’s view of the prospects of love.
Because we would be spending February 13th with Valerie June, and because her voice sends us into the rapturous state we imagine Chaucer intended when he wrote about Cupid’s arrow, we hoped she would be willing to record a song for our Valentine’s Day greeting to you.
We were sheepish and shy in asking, “Would you…?” She didn’t have even have to think about it. She had the perfect thing. The song sprung from her guitar as her cold, silver slide trailed it’s red scarf across the frets. And the words came from the darkest part of her heart, confirming what we suspected: Valerie is our dream girl. A matchless murder balladress.
It’s a handwritten, handcut Valentine, from Valerie and The 78 Project to you. Unlike flowers and paper, an acetate is forever.