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Clip: Hasil Adkins and the one-man-bands of Uno-a-Go-Go

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.chireader.com/hitsville/020927.html [Post No Bills] By Peter Margasak September 27, 2002 Playing With Themselves Listening to the radio in rural
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 27, 2002
      http://www.chireader.com/hitsville/020927.html

      [Post No Bills]
      By Peter Margasak

      September 27, 2002

      Playing With Themselves

      Listening to the radio in rural Madison, West Virginia, in the late 40s, an
      eight-year-old Hasil Adkins heard the DJ credit some songs to Hank Williams
      and assumed the country great had played all the instruments. He tried to
      replicate those sounds with an old water bucket and other household
      objects, progressing to toy guitars and kazoos. By the time Adkins got his
      first real guitar in the mid-50s, he'd learned that Hank hadn't done it all
      himself, but he couldn't find any reliable coconspirators. So he
      jury-rigged a drum kit that allowed him to play rhythms with foot pedals as
      his hands flailed away at raw rockabilly licks and he sang about the WPA
      and eating candy on the moon in a demented hiccup. In 1981 the Cramps
      covered Adkins's "She Said," and the previously obscure rocker became
      America's most influential one-man band.

      This week a phalanx of single-headed groups, many influenced by Adkins's
      innovations, marches into Chicago for the Uno-a-Go-Go one-man-band
      festival. Organized by Jake Austen -- the underground pop culture maven
      behind the public access dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, masked garage band the
      Goblins, and the obsessive music zine Roctober -- and Fireside Bowl booker
      Brian Peterson, the six-day extravaganza features performances by more than
      50 acts as well as a full day of movies and videos. Austen and Peterson had
      been discussing such an undertaking for the last few years, but didn't get
      down to business until six months ago. The event coincides with Roctober's
      tenth-anniversary issue, a "One Man Band Encyclopedia," featuring more than
      1,000 entries, from Abandoned Pools to Buh Zombie.

      "I totally remember watching guys on the street -- more traditional one-man
      bands -- and being fascinated by them when I was a little kid," says
      Austen. "I really like `show.' I like anyone who is perpetuating a
      spectacle." As he writes in the new Roctober, the earliest one-man bands
      were musical freak shows, buskers doing whatever it took to reel in an
      audience. To honor this tradition, Austen booked the well-known Chicago
      street performer Tampico, an Argentine woman who plays a hybrid
      guitar-violin in downtown el stations while tap-dancing and whistling.

      Austen's definition of a one-man band is broad ("It has to be just one
      person and it has to be vaguely musical"), but he discounts the
      conventional guitar-toting singer-songwriter. "That seems like the
      antithesis of what makes a one-man band special -- there's nothing to look
      at. As a rule, a one-man band will have something remarkable and
      captivating about it." For Austen, "one-man band" can refer to anything
      from the art-damaged country karaoke of LA's Honkitonkioke to the
      electronics-and-trumpet abstractions of Ernst Karel to the human beatboxes
      who'll compete in a contest held Wednesday, October 2. (For a full listing
      of Uno-a-Go-Go events, please see sidebar.)

      Austen isn't the only culture broker with one-man bands on his mind.
      Toronto filmmakers Derek and Heather Emerson spent three years completing
      their one-man-band documentary, Let Me Be Your Band, which premieres at the
      festival, screening for free at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday,
      October 3, at 6 PM. "As you start talking to one-man bands or people who
      know about them, everyone has a story about another one that you haven't
      heard of," Derek says. "It never stops, which is one of the reasons it took
      us so long [to make the movie]." A 1998 performance by Chicago's Lonesome
      Organist (aka Jeremy Jacobsen) gave the Emersons the idea for the
      documentary. "When he did a song with field drum and tap dancing, that
      pretty much sealed it," says Derek.

      Like the festival, the Emersons' 74-minute video showcases the variety of
      one-man bands. Wild man Bob Log III plays raucous blues-punk guitar while
      wearing a motorcycle helmet fitted with an old telephone that functions as
      a vocal mike. Boston's Eric Royer is an accomplished bluegrass picker whose
      hands alternate between banjo and dobro while his feet lay down bass lines
      on a custom-built contraption: his left foot controls various fretting bars
      while his right triggers a pick. And Canada's charismatic Washboard Hank is
      a street performer who strikes the bells and other hunks of metal that
      cover his body while he strums a guitar or banjo and toots a kazoo.

      As the documentary shows, necessity drove most of these performers to go it
      alone. "Definitely, absolutely, 100 percent, I did it because I couldn't
      find anyone to play with," says Jacobsen, who sings and alternates between
      keyboards and guitar while playing drums with his feet and, sometimes, one
      hand. He was living in New York when he developed his Lonesome Organist
      identity, then moved to Chicago in 1996 to play with the instrumental rock
      band Five Style. But his solo stuff really got him noticed; within a year
      he'd released an acclaimed Thrill Jockey album and begun touring as a
      one-man band. (The Lonesome Organist performs Saturday, October 5, at the
      Abbey Pub.)

      Not all one-man bands are technically accomplished musicians like Jacobsen.
      David Boyden (aka Earwig Spectre) is an untutored exhibitionist who bashes
      keyboards frenetically as he howls about insects. "I didn't set out to be a
      one-man band, and I'm still open to further collaborations, but I guess it
      just kind of happened," he says. "Now that I've been doing it, I enjoy the
      freedom. If I want some slowed-down satanic cackling, I just throw it in."
      (Earwig Spectre will participate in a battle of the one-man bands, which
      starts at 5 PM on Saturday, October 5, at the Abbey Pub.)

      Boyden's rants make him as much outsider artist as one-man band. But Austen
      blurs such distinctions -- Roctober's encyclopedia draws heavily on Irwin
      Chusid's study of outsider musicians, Songs in the Key of Z.
      Coincidentally, Chusid will appear at the Intuit gallery on Thursday,
      October 10, at 7 PM, introducing outsider music videos to kick off the
      "Intuitive Music Series." For anyone whose appetite is merely whetted by
      Uno-a-Go-Go, the Intuit series will also feature even more one-man bands,
      including Tampico and Thoth, the New York street musician profiled in the
      Academy Award-winning documentary bearing his name. For a complete schedule
      of "Intuitive Music Series" events, go to www.outsider.art.org.
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