Mad Juana at Berlin on St Patrick’s Day
Friday Night, March 17th, St Patty’s Day I made it back over to Berlin. It had been awhile. It is just a great little place. Hidden. Do they have a sign over the door even? The guy at the door asking what are you looking for? It is an interesting vibe. And then you are going down and it is quiet. They do have it soundproofed I want to say. Now I need to go back and check that. Regardless, you open that door downstairs and the sounds, the people, and this room with this over-sized bar and low hanging chandeliers, and even band, all pull you in.
Soundproofed or not, you come down those stairs, past the coat check and you open the door and it is a different place. It is more a speakeasy than bar. I am sure it has its liquor license, but still has that feel. It is small, intimate. You have to navigate the crowd. It is tight. It is loud. The lights are on. It is bar and stage.
So tonight is the Mad Juana show. Originally scheduled a week or two back. They made it. They been making it since at least 2005. That was when I first encountered them. That was a fundraiser for Katrina I think. At Arlenes. A quick search tells me they have actually been at it since 1997? And like nothing else I listen too.
At the end of the day it is rhythm. It is beat. Certainly at the shows. Rhythm and beat on top of rhythm and beat. Today, they are with a drummer that does not stop, and percussionist. Even the guitar is rhythm, is beat.
The guitarist was Sammy Yaffa. He has been MIA sadly. He was MIA on Friday night. I imagine he will return at some point. I do not see this group as a band, more a family. That said, only two of the folks on stage that night were original members. Karmen and Danny Ray. So maybe not. Regardless, it was Sammy and Karmen I think that put this together. Maybe?
I arrived in the middle of Strange Magik’s set. Imagine a mix of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Tommy Bolin. No no no. I am not talking guitar wizards. I am talking vibe. Stevie had that Texas blues feel, ZZTop with something more, and Tommy just had that funk thing going on. These guys had a little bit of both. They were a good tight band mixing it up with some rock n’roll, the blues, and funk. Very seventies or at least what we like to remember of that decade. Regardless, a lot of fun.
So next up was Mad Juana. I was at the back of the room for Strange Magik, but with Mad Juana I moved up. Now I was wedged between the bar and the stage, in front of or next to the horn section, which was Indofunk Satish and Danny Ray. They were almost off the stage. You had the percussionist, Rain Bermudez, and drummer, Mal Stein in the back, behind them. In front of those guys was Karmen Guy doing vocals, and melodica. On the Right of her was the bass player, Jimmy Caputo. And on the left, George De Voe on acoustic guitar. On the far right was Marni Rice on the accordion.
It was packed before, but now the crowd was dancing or trying to. It was tight. The area I was in cleared out for a moment early on. I quickly realized why, as I felt the crunch of glass shards. Somebody had dropped a glass. Annoying but the show continued, regardless.
They started with the song Stars from Acoustic Voodoo. One of their slower ones. Mad Juana has a few things going on. Karmen Guy singing is the obvious, and live, a few feet away even more so. Again that is the obvious one. The one that comes out in this song is the complexity and the intricacy of the tunes. You have the horns, and the trumpet on this tune. They just captivate and Satish with his trumpet was right there in front of me.
It does not end there though. You have the guitarist, George De Voe defining the rhythm. Many bands have a rhythm guitarist but here it is different. He is the rhythm, and rhythm and beat here are one. I always remember Kaki King in a video way back, how she slapped her guitar. The guitar became a percussion instrument. The same here. Not that George was slapping the body of his instrument like Kaki, but his strumming, his picking, was all rhythm. He is part of the rhythm section along with Rain Bermudez and Mal Stein.
And that is Mad Juana, the seduction of Karmen Guy’s voice, her presence, the hypnotic rhythms provided by the guitarist, drummer and percussionist, and then these luscious intricate layers of sound, which surround that rhythm. You have Satish and Danny Ray on one side, and Marni with her little hat and accordion on the other. (Though there was no hat this night.) The result is to just be consumed, to be mesmerized. You just join in. You cannot help but to participate and become part of that rhythm and beat. Dancing to such is natural.
Much of the tunes performed were from the second or actually I guess third album, Bruja on the Corner. This album is more up-tempo than the more reflective Acoustic Voodoo. Just compare Stars, from Acoustic Voodoo, to Keep on Walking, From Bruja, which followed in this set. Domingo, which again is from Bruja, with that lovely trumpet, and which is largely mid-tempo. Again part of this set. Mid-tempo, yet as we got to the end just hastened and intensified. Ending with those chorus phrases, and all in the audience joining in, singing,”There is no other day like today. . . “
Valhalla, with Danny Ray’s rollicking saxophone, was of course in the set. I always smile when I hear that song. I live in Valhalla. Literally. The zip code is 10595. The song though points to another Valhalla. It might have Nordic origins, with a reference to Helsinki, and the devil may still collect souls there, but this Valhalla is ruled and inspired by Dionysus. And yes it alludes to drink, lunatics, howling at the moon, but here again it is the rhythm, the beat that dominate. And the Dionysian is more than simple drink. It is ritualized madness. It is religious ecstasy. It is audience and musicians alike consumed by and driven by rhythm, drums, percussion, saxophone, and of course the bar behind me.
Lastly you have Revolution Avenue. They ended the set with this one. Started by George’s guitar, it is quickly Satish’s trumpet and Danny’s Saxophone that together carry the theme through much of the song. The bass-line, the guitar, the beat underneath, as always, are constant. Found on the their Bruja on the Corner album, the studio version has these quiet moments where they introduce various sound bytes, clips of violence. These are but distractions from the horns, from the bizarre. Live, however, it is quiet only to allow some musical soloing, and a finale where the beat overcomes all.
I hope I have given some representation of that night at Berlin, of Mad Juana, and their music. In the end, however, it truly requires attendance.
Do find Mad Juana on Facebook. And do check out Strange Magik, and Berlin. And for samples of Mad Juana’s music, check out the Setlist.fm page I put together for that night. And Mad Juana can be found on iTunes.
And of course, as is often the case, all photos are stolen. . .borrowed from Alan Rand.