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From the apalachtimes.com website…
By Jennifer Sheffield, photo by David Adlerstein
Published: Wednesday, January 14
He opened with Bob Dylan’s, "Ring Them Bells," and sent the crowd home with a Louisiana Creole song, that he crafted from the daily calls of a watermelon peddler on the streets of New Orleans, where singer-songwriter Spencer Bohren calls home.
But it wasn’t just his music that filled the Dixie Theatre on Saturday night.
The freshness of his storytelling also took the audience back 40 years, to the two months Bohren spent at the Gibson Inn sweeping floors and singing songs to old timey shrimpers in the bar.
That was 1975. He and his wife were living as hippies out West and travelling along the coastlines of America when they found Apalachicola. Back then, he recalled the Inn was painted, "something like red," and a woman named Martha was tending to it.
The town, he recalls, was in a state of, "beautiful decay," but the Gibson Inn? "That place…it was a revelation to me," Bohren said, adding, "I thought that I was so worldly…but how worldly can you be at 26?" He also acquired one of his favorite instruments in Apalachicola – a stripped-down 1928 National Triolian brushed steel guitar.
The story goes that a man named Arthur was so moved by Bohren’s music one night after a few Millers and whiskies that he drove him to get the guitar at the historic house where his wife lived. Except, Arthur wasn’t legally supposed to be at the house, and during a hurried getaway, the guitar was flung through the air and down a flight of stairs where Bohren was standing, and caught it. The tale is full of hilarious outtakes, and the lively audience at the Dixie laughed along with him, as he recalled the details.
Bohren’s road instruments, used on his award-winning "Down the Dirt Road" blues concert, also include his trusty 1955 Gibson J-45 guitar, a 1950 Tonemaster lap steel guitar and a banjo. The show at the Dixie was a solo gig, but Bohren said, "I get my band jones other ways." He is currently playing and singing with The Write Brothers.
Producing Director Dixie Partington said Bohren "found her" and asked to play this homecoming concert in Apalachicola. It was certainly a night that captured many miles of a 48-year professional music career and showcased a blend of Virginia blues and ragtime, classic country, folk, roots and gospel, along with familiar covers like Bobbie Gentry’s "Ode to Billie Joe," Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," plus a little hit of Hank Williams.
Bohren ended, slowly strumming the lap steel, with a thought, that he could have ended up being a shrimper had he stayed long in Apalachicola. The audience was pleased, though, that night that he had not, and decided to bring his music here instead.
Bohren promised, "If you come back, then I will too." Time may pass, but he can’t make the good stuff up.
Keith Spera wrote a nice article about Spencer bringing his lapsteel music to the 2013 New Orleans Jazz Festival.
You can view the video below.
From the article:
Spencer Bohren and his wife Marilyn are spending a rare day at home in their cozy brick cottage on Esplanade Ridge. It’s a steamy August afternoon and the world seems to move in languid rotation as a huge black and gold monarch butterfly floats and glides amid the drying laundry hung on a line next to the house. The barefoot Bohren offers us iced tea and Marilyn’s homemade cupcakes before he begins pulling neatly stacked guitars out of a closet and piling them on the kitchen table. Every guitar has a story. “This one I found floating in the house after the storm,” he says, cradling an 1897 Bruno parlor guitar. “I thought it was ruined, but a friend told me to just keep it in a dry place and it would be okay. Sure enough, it came back.
SPENCER BOHREN/ BLACKWATER MUSIC
Released April 2011
Spencer Bohren has always had a keen sense of how to turn the everyday events of life into meaningful songs that touch listeners on many levels. His latest recording gathers eleven original songs that explore a variety of issues and musical styles. His son, Andre Bohren, plays drums on six tracks and piano on another. Some of Bohren’s friends from the New Orleans musical community help out on five cuts.
Three tracks feature Bohren in the solo format. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” starts out with Bohren on lapsteel guitar, picking out a delicate melody. The lyrics tell a darker story about big money overpowering love as Bohren preaches that we can still prevail against the odds. His intricate picking on “The Old Homestead” frames the tale of a wandering soul yearning for the comforts of home and family. The title track is a highlight as Bohren draws otherworldly tones from his lapsteel guitar while describing the effects of the “holy ghost boogie.”
“Bad Luck Bone” finds Bohren’s taut guitar licks weaving around the snaky rhythm his son coaxes from his drums. Andre takes you to church with his gospel-influenced piano behind his father’s stirring vocal on “Your Love.” The duo hit the mark on “Old Louisa’s Movin’ On” with Andre laying down a shuffle beat that Spencer cuts through with a thick tone and ringing notes from his guitar. Matt Rhody’s fiddle creates a mournful tone for “Has Anyone Seen Mattie,” Bohren’s moving tale of the ravages and human suffering unleashed by the failure of the levees.
Reggie Scanlan, from the Radiators, joins the Bohrens on bass for “Borrowed Time,” another look at the darker side of life with Spencer using a National steel guitar. Bohren lightens the mood by switching to traditional New Orleans jazz on “Take Me to Rampart Street” with Aurora Nealand on soprano sax, Amasa Miller on piano and Tim Stambaugh on tuba helping to make this track worthy of its own second line.
Two members of the Iguanas, Rod Hodges on electric guitar and Rene Coman on bass, bring depth to the ballad “Your Home is in My Heart.” Their contributions and Bohren’s earnest vocal make this performance another highlight rather than just another maudlin love song, Nealand returns, this time on accordion, for the closing number. “Listen to the Wind” is a somber look at our nation’s treatment of the Native Americans. The combination of Bohren’s lapsteel and the accordion creates an eerie sound that will linger in your soul.
The attractive package includes a list of the vintage guitars Bohren used for this disc along with pictures of some of the instruments. Combined with striking material, Bohren’s expressive vocals and remarkable guitar playing, this high-quality release is highly recommended to anyone who appreciates blues music that successfully celebrates the music’s traditions while addressing the issues of our modern world.
Crossroads Blues Society / Rockford, Illinois
SPENCER BOHREN – Blackwater Music
Blues Review, October 2011
Spencer Bohren, a Wyoming native now based in New Orleans, has traveled all over, yet still possesses a strong sense of place. He mounted an almost never-ending tour throughout the 1980s, but did so in an Airstream trailer with his wife and kids.
In keeping, the spare and simply put Blackwater Music is a family recording in the most complete sense of the word, with son Andre sitting in on drums and piano, wife Marilyn co-writing on the CD opener, and son Django designing the CD package. This homey sense of vernacular makes for a welcome embrace, in particular on a troubadour blues like “Your Home is in My Heart.”
Yet when the album moves into darker themes – as with the opening of “Old Louisa’s Movin’ On” or on “Bad Luck Bone,” with its echoing portent – Bohren’s lived-in authority carries a similar weight. Often accompanied by nothing more than his own Delta-infused guitar stylings, Bohren sings with a humid closeness, like an old friend sharing stories on the other end of the swing on a late-summer night. He recalls bad times and worse, as on the post-Katrina elegy “Has Anyone Seen Mattie?” with its lonesome accompaniment from violinist Matt Rhody. He wonders what it would take to right his many wrongs, as a lapsteel curls around each carefully sung lyric on “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” He considers salvation and what comes next on the National steel-driven “Borrowed Time” – referencing again, this shattering memory of a flooded New Orleans: “The water is rising, and the night is deep” – then lets loose another soaring lapsteel moan on “Blackwater Music.”
“Listen to the Wind,” which closes out Blackwater Music, laments a land and a lifestyle, lost forever by the Native Americans. Andre Bohren makes a memorable contribution, adding a thrumming drumscape that sounds like a repeated accusation. Before long, however, Bohren is skipping along with a tuba-honking quartet on “Take Me to Rampart Street,” celebrating a life-saving relationship on “Your Love,” then settling in for a comfy reminiscence on “The Old Homestead.” As happy as he is talented, Spencer Bohren remains that rarest of things, a talent who’s made a life of blues picking.
– Nick DeRiso –
Jersey Arts Centre, St. Helier, Isle of Jersey, UK
June 27, 2008
It was over two years ago that Bohren last performed at the Arts Centre and a great deal has happened to him since then, in particular, his home in New Orleans was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It was wonderful to hear that like so many fellow residents he has overcome that tragedy with great courage and optimism, and it was a particular delight to see him perform with such tremendous energy and commitment.
This was a magical evening enjoyed by an enthusiastic audience who were spellbound from the very start. This was the first gig of a short UK tour, which also included a festival held at The Hawth theatre in Crawley. The two-hour acoustic concert was not only a show of tremendous music but Bohren showed that he is also a humorous storyteller.\There were titles from the likes of Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and Son House, all backed with superlative guitar playing. There was some intricate picking on the classic tune “Maple Leaf Rag” performed on a gorgeous vintage jumbo Gibson guitar, and his slide guitar work, played on a borrowed vintage National steel guitar, was gutsy and commanding. It was his atmospheric lap steel guitar playing that really captured the attention of the highly appreciative audience. His version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah, Hallelujah” was one of the very fine moments where his lap steel guitar really came into its own and I, for one, would have been quite happy if the whole set had been played on it!
There was much to enjoy about his concert in which his anecdotes and stories added much to the enjoyment but it was Bohren’s very compelling vocals that made the greatest impression. It is his singing that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries and, since he was here last, it has become even more powerful and committed.
This was a very engaging and thoroughly enjoyable set where Bohren truly illustrated that he is not only a strident and distinctive blues performer but is equally at ease with other genres, all performed with tremendous commitment and energy. Bohren is a unique performer and if he comes your way you should certainly check him out.
– Bob Tilling, Blues in Britain
- Spencer’s exhibits Petits Mysteres at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper, WY. February, 2008
- Casper Star Tribune – Read about Spencer’s daring collaboration with opera singer, Karen Clift. April, 2007
- Listen to A Prairie Home Companion with Ralph Stanley and Spencer Bohren. February 17, 2001.
- Hear Spencer with his mom and brother on A Prairie Home Companion in Laramie, Wyoming on May 19, 2001.
- Listen to A Prairie Home Companion Live from the Saenger Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana. February 16, 2002. [ APHC bio for this show ]
Every New Orleanian knows about the long black line, the dirty bathtub ring left by receding floodwaters. Folk/blues troubadour Spencer Bohren threads that indelible image through a post-Katrina landscape laced with the menace and moan of a slow-crawl, doomsday acoustic slide guitar. His unflinching narration resonates with the authority of an Old Testament prophet. “The Long Black Line” could serve as the soundtrack to a Katrina documentary, but video footage would be redundant – Bohren’s song paints an all-too-vivid picture.”
Also performed are an array of topical songs that give the listener the feeling of reading the news of the day.
– Keith Spera for the Times Picayune.
Cafe Lena review
By David Greenberger
Spencer Bohren Cafe Lena, Saratoga Springs, Sept. 20
Mixing, gospel, folk and blues, Spencer Bohren has a similar sensibility to Geoff Muldaur. Equally affecting as a singer and guitarist, his vocals are resonant and believable. Last Saturday’s show at Caffe Lena found him alternating between electric slide guitar, an acoustic Gibson and a banjo. Adept at each, his playing and singing were intermingled in the best possible ways.
Performing since the sixties and now based in New Orleans, the Wyoming native spent the better part of the eighties touring the country in an Airstream trailer with his wife and children, towed by their ‘55 Chevy Bel Air. Not surprisingly, Bohren’s got a troubadour’s eye for detail, taking notice of the towns he passed through and the people he continues to meet. His two sets mixed originals with worthy covers. The former included his “Night Is Fallin’,” which sounds like the classic it deserves to become. The latter ranged from Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” to Fred Neil’s “Blues on the Ceiling,” a couple by Hank Williams (”Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and “I’m So Lonesome I could Cry”) and the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.”
Bohren’s first set ended with one of numerous stories he told with a hypnotic ease. This one recounted a road trip he’d made which took him past the infamous Parchman Farm prison. This led into an acapella blues he learned from a tape a friend at the Smithsonian supplied him with, and which he was listening to when he happened upon the facility. It was a searing number originally recorded by Alan Lomax at Parchman decades earlier. With his eyes closed and his voice moving from a whisper to a wail, Bohren captured his own personal connection to the song as well as the dignity in the performance that inspired him.
In fact, Bohren’s storytelling had a life of its own. While most stories prefaced specific songs, one did not and it reveled in a life of its own. This tale of a woman named Dawn Petty from Bird City, Nebraska had the masterful strokes and unforced confidence of a natural storyteller. Free of the hyperbole of a raconteur and nuanced with the subtlety of music, Dawn Petty came to life and wanders around in *my* memory now.
METRO SANTA CRUZ January 29 – February 5, 2003
Call me a godless heathen and a musical philistine to boot, but I just assumed nobody could make me want to sit through old-timey standards like “Amazing Grace” or – sweet Jesus! – “Gospel Plow” ever again. But, friends, Spencer Bohren has changed all that, and I’m here to testify that his Carry the Word is no mere history lesson. With an ear for uncanny arrangements and an otherworldly acoustic and slide guitar style, Bohren has injected this roots music with the same rawness that turned the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack into a shocker of a success. The topper is a bone-chilling, pitch-black version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Kind Favor” (a.k.a. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”) that drives the song through Springsteen’s Nebraska on its way to the haunted graveyard of Howlin’Wolf. Henfling’s $8-$10; 8 p.m. (Steve Palpoli)
LAST DECADE IN PARIS
By Mike Zwerin
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
– Paul Simon
When I first met Spencer Bohren, the Paul Simon line above was not yet a cliche. And it had taken Bohren a while to come to terms with the idea that journalists are more interested in his lifestyle than his music. I think I was the first journalist to put that on the table with him.
He was an excellent guitarist, sang with conviction, had a warm low-keyed stage presence and ‚ along with John Hammond Jr. ‚ was one of the few white solo blues singers who made a living at it. He would drive a total of a thousand miles to get to four or five one- nighters a week and when he started to raise a family he realized that he’d either have to start bringing them along or lose them. His wife, Marilyn, was a midwife in Louisiana, delivering babies for circus people. The circus people recommended the mobile-home life. Bohren saw that what these people lacked in space and privacy was made up in rich relationships.
The Bohrens first hit the road as a family when their oldest son, Django (named after the Gypsy guitarist) turned six. There were four children, the youngest was seven months. They were all born at home and the older ones were home-schooled. They started with an old Chevrolet towing a bottom-of-the-line trailer. Bohren learned how to repair the engine “with a flashlight in my teeth. I’m a hell of a mechanic on a small-block Chevy engine. I learned in the School of Hard Knocks ‚ or rather valve knocks. I dug us out of some major holes.”
But before I met him, the blues business had begun to look up. He had recently bought what he described as a “maxed-out silver Airstream chrome- home deluxe,” 35 feet long with three axles, a hardwood interior and cedar closets (”it’s a real dish”). And then there was also a new Ford van that was “made to tow, it’s a killer vehicle.”
The fact that the loan officer was a blues fan is the only explanation Bohren could think of for approving a $31,000 loan to someone with $91 in the bank and without “what most people consider a job.” He called it a “dream life, that endless American highway åOn the Road’ thing. We’re not really political, we just know a lot of people who don’t fit the envelope exactly. I think we’re only taking advantage of the freedom America offers.”
It was the old Huck Finn vision of freedom in America, free of school, free of prison workplaces. He ran into some resentment and jealousy, but also a great deal of respect and generosity. A shrimp fisherman in Florida who was touched by his music gave him a mint condition 1928 National guitar. He told Bohren this incredible wartime story about his friend Shorty, who said, just before he died: “Arthur, take this guitar and give it to…” Another time, Bohren was buying a Toyota part from a funky biker who was running what appeared to be a fencing operation in New Orleans when he saw this black 1958 National that looked like a compressed Buick leaning against a wall. The biker said to take it home.
“I guess it’s my good looks,” Bohren said, laughing. He was born and grew up in Wyoming and you get a touch of the prairie when he laughs. They traveled by the old blue highways, driving slowly, stopping often, the kids were always looking out the windows, interested, thinking, asking questions. It took Django four years to learn his multiplication tables but he learned them.
The family was thrown together, they’d become friends. And returning over and over to the same towns, the family accumulated a lot of outside friends, although they only saw them a few at a time. Kind of a horizontal crowd. “My life is horizontal,” Bohren said. “I may not be famous but I’m working everywhere, I’ve got all the local gigs in America, I’m a local everywhere.”
Six weeks a year he worked in Europe, mostly Scandinavia, and then he left the family behind. Early in 1989, he recorded an album with Totta Naslund, a Swedish blues singer, and so that tour was longer than usual. He refused to do it until the record company agreed to pick up the tab to bring over the family. The music has to fit family life rather than the other way around.
On a later tour, while Bohren was working in Paris, Django was sitting in the Airstream, which was parked in his grandfather’s driveway in New York state reading “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Django read four or five books a week. They had no television. If there happened to be one somewhere, Django would turn it off in order to read. “I guess a kid growing up in America without television is rather unusual,” Bohren said, understating up a storm.
He grew up in a church-oriented family. His father was a deacon. He sang gospel songs with the choir. From there it was a short step to the folk movement in the å60s. Moving to New Orleans, he discovered the vast difference between white and black gospel. It was another short step to Robert Johnson.
He lived in Denver, Hollywood, New Orleans: “I had bands, played with bands, endless bands, bands, bands. Then I went out solo, started to build my own circuit. It got better every day. I wasn’t famous but I was popular in blues circles. I used the genuine Delta, Georgia ‚ whatever you want to call it ‚ blues as a jumping-off point. I love the feeling of early blues. It’s so informative, almost like reading a newspaper.”
About once every two years he worked Medicine Bow, Wyoming, close to where he grew up: “It’s a crossroads for two highways nobody ever travels on anymore, 90 miles from the nearest town. Windblown, open range, no fences, mid-Wyoming. My mother stands next to me and points to elderly people saying things like, åThat’s Mrs. Mills, she was your kindergarten teacher.’ I draw tons of people. They tell me what a charming little boy I was. They forget all about the time I was åa nasty drug addict’ and they just about threw me out of town.”
He produced two of his own albums and then sold them to small record companies that barely get them distributed, let alone paid royalties. His wife, who had a business degree, was his manager. Gigs were usually self-promoted. They had a regionalized mailing list and sent out periodic postcards to keep in touch between appearances. The kept a telephone answering machine in a friend’s house and rented a mail service (a packet once every 10 days or so) two blocks from Fats Domino’s mansion in Arabi, Louisiana.
One day they got a letter from Ojaste and Christian Di Natale, an English teacher and a physiotherapist who had started a label called Loft Records in their spare time, of which there was plenty, in Vichy, France. The partners had stumbled on one of Bohren’s records and wrote to the address on the jacket. Bohren became a Loft artist. He said he thought it was “pretty hip to have a record company in Vichy.”
So after Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Jerry Lewis and Samuel Fuller…Ladies and gentlemen, Spencer Bohren. The French are always pleased to discover American talent from under American noses. Business had been better than good, media play out of sight, when he opened at the Platinum Bar of the Meridien Hotel in Montparnasse for a week. “They seem to think I’m some kind of star over here,” he said. “I’m beginning to believe it myself.”
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.
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