A Brief History of Louisville Music As It Pertains to Freakwater
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A Brief History of Louisville Music As It Pertains to Freakwater.
Freakwater was formed simply because two girls enjoyed singing country music together. Originally, the creative force behind Freakwater was Catherine Irwin, whose interest in hillbilly folk music predates the period described in this document - she ALWAYS played hillbilly music, whether publicly or not. Nonetheless, the background from which Freakwater arose was Punk Rock.
The first series of Louisville Punk bands were for the most part East End/ Middlin' Bourgeois and comprised of, for want of a better term, freaks and what used to be called "art fags". The Louisville School of Art was the original locus. No Fun came first, then the short-lived I-Holes, then Babylon Dance Band, The Endtables, and The Blinders. Probably the most significant figure among the musicians involved was guitarist Tara Key (No Fun, then Babylon Dance Band, and eventually Antietam).
The more-or-less official gathering spot for early Louisville Punk was 1069 Bardstown Road, a run-down rental property surrounded by fast food restaurants and moribund businesses. The Babylons, Blinders, Dickbrains and various other bands rehearsed there, and residents included, at one time or another, Stuart Campbell, Tari Barr, Doug Maxson, Charles Schultz, Catherine Irwin, Michael O'Bannon, and other musicians and artists.
The connection between East End/Art School Punk and the later South End/Hard Core scene was established in 1979 when the Abromavage brothers and Kenny Ogle wandered into a Babylon Dance Band gig. Shortly thereafter they became Babylon "roadies" (nominally) and subsequently formed their own band, Malignant Growth. They also became regular guests at 1069.
That's the general background. What follows is a bare bones listing of bands and personnel, with some elaboration as concerns Catherine, Janet, and others of specific interest to Freakwater devotees.
The Dickbrains (roughly 1980 - Catherine would have been about 17 at the time)
Catherine Irwin - guitar
Alec Irwin - bass
Douglas Maxson - vocals, keyboard
Charles Schultz - drums
Tari Barr - vocals
(a full-fledged teen-aged garage band - loud, electric, and primitive but frequently melodic)
(Editorial note - "agent_lance_link_secret_chimp" interjects: "Although it affected nobody else in the world, before The Dickbrains was an unnamed folk trio, which sometimes considered debuting but never did, consisting of Cathy and her brother and me--noteworthy mainly for having played Dreadful Snake, Little Black Train, Make Me a Pallet Down On Your Floor, and an assortment of other semi-familiar three-chord strummers--Fixin to Die and Take a Whiff On Me are the ones I remember, with Play With Fire tossed in for nothin. Cathy set most of the repertoire and I readily concede I had no business there except that I was around the house a lot, our fathers both had vast libraries of Irish folkies (except that her father's actually Irish), and I owned a Woody Guthrie record and a fiddle.")
In 1981 three inquisitive teenagers showed up at Tari Barr's door at 1069, apparently curious about the cadre of freaks and mutants who frequented the place. These three were: John Bailey, Wolf Knapp, and Janet Beveridge Bean. Bailey and Knapp almost immediately formed Orange Orange with Barr on drums (and this band later transformed into Your Food). Some months later, Bean joined Skull of Glee as a percussionist.
(in October '82 O'Bannon fired Bean for missing rehearsals. He subsequently fired Luthi and Dickson, then everybody else.)
By the summer of '82, Tari Barr had been replaced in Your Food by ex-Dickbrains drummer Charles Schultz (Doug Maxson had also joined that group). She and ex-Blinder Michael O'Bannon put together a studio-only project (The Trouser Snakes), then attempted to form a working band with Catherine Irwin and Michael's brother Wink (operating simultaneously with Wink's Skull of Glee group). Catherine insisted on calling this group Bunny Butthole, as a result of which the humorless Wink quit before the band ever played out.
In '83 Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean first appeared together on stage, performing "Stand By Your Man" with Bruce Witsiepe (No Fun, Circle X) on snare drum, Steve Crume on lap steel guitar, and probably Gary Stillwell (Bodeco, the Kentucky Travelers) on guitar. Catherine also performed on stage with S.Rigot and Wink O'Bannon in an ad hoc set which consisted, as memory serves, of a very long song called "We Are Same" (which were the only lyrics) and some other improvised songs that sounded pretty much the same as that one.(It was probably at about this time - at any rate, between '83 and '85 - that Catherine recorded a series of four-track demos with former Skull of Glee bassist Eric Smith. These were folk songs in the Carter/ Guthrie mold, several of which eventually made their way into the Freakwater repetoire.)
(From this point of it can be assumed that Catherine and Janet have formed a loose and intermittent partnership of sorts.)
During this period ('83 - '84), Bean joined the Zoo Directors with ex-Babylon Dance Band musicians Tara Key and Tim Harris, and guitarist Mike Weinert. Key, Harris, and Weinert subsequently relocated to New York and formed Antietam. Bean, meanwhile, met guitarist Rick Rizzo (who attended school in Lexington, Ky.) and moved with him to Chicago, where they formed Eleventh Dream Day. (The core of Dream Day was always Rizzo and Bean, and, later, Douglas McCombs. Numerous other musicians have performed and recorded with them, including Baird Figi, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Tara Key of Antietam, and Wink O'Bannon. In that there are a number of Dream Day web-sites where information concerning that group can be obtained, further references to them in this document will be brief. I will note, however, that among their early songs was a piece called, as I recall, City of the Seventies, composed by Catherine Irwin. It was never to my knowledge recorded, and I have only a vague memory to go by.)
An attempt was made circa '84 to form a band comprised of the O'Bannon brothers, Charles Schultz, and Catherine Irwin. Catherine called this group Catbutt/ Dogbutt. The attempt failed, and no one remembers anything whatsoever about the project.
In 1986, Catherine's brother and former Dickbrain Alec Irwin returned to Louisville from school and formed Butt in the Front with Wink O'Bannon, Tom Dumstorf, and Catherine, who, strangely, played electric lead guitar. Most of the material was written by Alec, although Catherine wrote some of the lyrics. (This is the only one of the "Butt" bands to actually play in public.)
Butt In The Front (1986-87)
Catherine Irwin - vocals, electric guitar
Alec Irwin - vocals, acoustic guitar
Wink O'Bannon - bass
Tom Dumstorf - percussion
(For years O'Bannon claimed that this was the best band he'd ever been in. They recorded a four-track demo., of which there is currently one known copy.)
(Editorial note - "agent_lance_link_secret_chimp" interjects: I've got a copy of BOTH Butt in the Front demos, as well as The Snot Song, Something I Saw in the Sky Last Night, and the Hidden/Cathy/Tom endless afternoon jam with a lot of shouting about squirrels. I was thrown out of Butt in the Front because I didn't want to practice if I had to play drums. Fool me twice, shame on me.)
(Editorial note - "Earth A Tit" interjects: I have a copy, I know someone else who has a copy. So this is false rumor.)
At about this same time ('85-'88), Catherine's ongoing (but somewhat erratic) partnership with Janet Bean was gradually becoming more concrete, and they occasionally played out, usually "opening" for friends. In '87, for instance, they opened in Louisville for a garage band called The Bulls (John Bailey, Charles Schultz, Wink O'Bannon, ex-Babylon vocalist Chip Nold), calling themselves "Penny and Jean". At some point, probably '88, they became "Trippy Squashblossum and Mojo Wishbean", and then Freakwater per se.
(Editorial note - "Earth A Tit" interjects: Another thing I remember is that Cathy and Janet AND OTHER FRIENDS used to sing together. This was around 1986. Specifically , I remember seeing Cathy and Janet and two others singing in an elevator at University of Louisville. This was before Freakwater (the moniker) was even thought of, but I think it is important to note that the early formation was not such an exclusive thing between Janet and Cathy.)
(Editorial note - "agent_lance_link_secret_chimp" interjects: "I do believe the incarnation of Cathy & Janet which performed with Bruce Witsiepe and The Bulls was Mojo Wishbean and Trippy Squashblossom already.")
Initially, Freakwater and its variously named antecedents were strictly duos, accompanied only by Catherine's guitar. Only occasionally did other musicians join in. For instance, Wink O'Bannon was drafted to play lead guitar at a gig in Louisville circa 1989 or '90, at a tiny coffee shop called the Café Dog (run by O'Bannon's sister-in-law Tari Barr - and, if memory serves, the girls were warming up for the South End Hardcore band Kinghorse, whose vocalist, Sean Garrison, eventually became a contributing Freakwater songwriter). Dave Gay joined Freakwater with the recording of their first album, and is the only musician to appear on all of their records, but, originally, Freakwater was Cathy and Janet by themselves, or augmented temporarily by whoever they could dig up (and in those pre-No Depression, pre-Insurgent Country days, hillbilly musicians were hard to come by in Indy Rock land).
Freakwater was from its inception intermittent. It was never a constantly working band, and is perhaps best perceived as a "project". (In Chicago Freakwater was always seen as a "splinter" of Eleventh Dream Day, although, as this document makes clear, the relationship between Irwin and Bean, both personally and musically, pre-dates the formation of that group.) The geographical distance between Irwin and Bean (or Louisville and Chicago) is perhaps not as much of a significant impediment as is sometimes assumed, particularly when one takes into consideration that Catherine is and always has been a ramblin' girl, moving frequently from one part of the country to another, and sometimes out of the country altogether. (This seems a likely point to mention that Dream Day itself was always a more or less intermittent project, and were it not for Dee Taira and the Rainbow Club most of the musicians in Wicker Park would have ended up pawning their instruments - but that's another story, I guess. Suffice it to say that Rick Rizzo, Catherine Irwin, and every member of Tortoise have at some time been employed by Dee, and a job was always waiting when the tour was over.)
(editorial note: "Earth A Tit" interjects: Sean Garrison never saw Skull of Glee. That is certain.)
Garrison is the point where South End Blue Collar Hardcore (as pioneered by the Abromavage brothers and Malignant Growth) meets (or re-unites with) East End Art Punk. It stands to reason (in an irrational cosmos) that he would end up writing country music.
In the mid-80s, Squirrel Bait was the first of the East End (and Brown School) bands to achieve anything like a significant national following. Louisville punk bands before them had an extremely limited audience (usually other punk rock musicians - very insular and incestuous). Drummer Britt Walford, typically perverse and inscrutable, quit Squirrel Bait after their first recording sessions and formed [[Maurice] with Garrison. From Maurice came, on the one hand, Slint (the quintessential Indy "post rock" art band) and, on the other hand, Kinghorse (the quintessential tougher-than-nails HC band). Walford went with Slint, Garrison went with the Horse. Slint almost never played in Louisville, and gained a significant national following. The Horse played in Kentucky:Louisville frequently, and never got out of town. Slint was widely influential, in the U.S. and beyond. Kinghorse was influential only in Louisville, where they absolutely dominated the local HC scene for years.
(editorial note - Earth A Tit interjects: I saw three Slint shows in Louisville, one at Tari Barr's Cafe Dog. They also played at Tewligan's, etc.)
Garrison's transition from frightening punk to frightening hillbilly may have been inevitable. Be that as it may, his acquaintance with such exotic characters as Catherine Irwin and Wink O'Bannon helped things along. His girlfriend bought him a cheap acoustic guitar, and O'Bannon showed him how to use a capo. 4000 painful country songs ensued.
In the mid-'90s, after the final break-up of the Horse, Garrison formed a series of bands called Driftin' Luke (until Hank William's estate stopped him!). The first version of the band, a studio project, included the Kinghorse rhythm section and guitarist Dave Bird. Mach Two, which began in 1996 and continued intermittently for two years or so, was a more acoustic/ folk unit, with Garrison on guitar, Corey Roederer on bass, and Wink O'Bannon on "lead" guitar. Other personnel came and went: Dave Bird was in and out, as well as members of a local band called The Pennies. The last incarnation of the group included mandolinist/ vocalist/percussionist John Paul Wright, but for most live performances the band was a trio.
After '98, Luke faded away. During the course of the next four years, however, interest (primarily local) in Garrison's hillbilly period resulted in the compilation and eventual release (Summer, 2002) of the '97-'98 material, culled from studio sessions, rough demos, rehearsals, and live performances. In 2001 Garrison assembled an ad hoc band for a performance under his own name (rather than a group name) with Rising Shotgun (a band fronted by Garrison's friend Brett Ralph, veteran of Malignant Growth). This new and temporary group consisted of Garrison, Dave Bird, Wink O'Bannon, Gary Stillwell, and Freakwater bassist Dave Gay.
Some months later Garrison played a solo set as a sort of "tribute" to a local record store owner (not coincidentally, the same record store which is releasing the Luke album), and was so disappointed with the results (bad p.a., low volume, luke-warm reception) that he put away his acoustic guitar and vowed never to appear in public again unless backed by the loudest hillbilly band on Earth.
That group has scheduled its first appearance at an in-store performance in support of the Luke-era recordings compilation. Whether the loudest hillbilly band on Earth or not is undecided, and probably beside the point.
Sean Garrison] and The Five Finger Discount:
Sean Garrison (Maurice, Kinghorse, Driftin' Luke) - vocals
Dave Bird (Hedge, Out., Driftin' Luke, Speed To Roam, Fire In The Saddle) - guitar
Mike Seymour (Red Sun) - bass
Matt Odenweller (Out.) - drums
Wink O'Bannon (The Blinders, Skull of Glee, Bodeco, Eleventh Dream Day, etc.) - guitar
A second, "real" debut is scheduled for late August, on a double-bill with Catherine Irwin (in what I suppose will be her first solo performance since recording her upcoming album).
Part Three: Those Wacky O'Bannons
Artist Michael O'Bannon (Blinders, Little Elvis, Pure Jesus, etc.) composed a song for each of the first two Freakwater albums (at that time, Janet was not writing much material of her own). His brother, Matthew "Wink", played guitar on one song on the first Freakwater album (which also included a performance by former Squirrel Bait vocalist Peter Searcy on cello). Wink also played on the obscure "War Pigs/ Goddamn mouth" single. He has occasionally performed with Freakwater live, usually with disastrous results.
Part Four: Miscellany
Although this has nothing whatsoever to do with Louisville, one ( which means "me") is inclined to mention Catherine's work with the Unholy Trio, the Sadies, and other bands. And did she really sing "Ode To Billie Joe" with noisy uber-garage band Juanita? I don't know, even though there's a good chance I played bass at that gig….