Los Angeles Times - March 11, 2011
Cigar box guitarrevolution: 'It's like folk music turned inside out'
A quarter-century ago, when cigar-box guitar enthusiast Pat MacDonald was half of the Austin, Texas, alternative pop-rock duo Timbuk3, the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist’s moment in the pop spotlight came with the group’s breezy, wisecracking hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”
Now relocated to Wisconsin and rendering his name now as pat mAcdonald, the musician’s recent past, present and foreseeable musical future no longer revolves around a pair of Ray Bans, but around his beloved Lowebow cigar box guitar.
For mAcdonald and many others in the growing community of cigar box guitar players, makers and listeners -- including the high-profile likes of Johnny Depp, Steve Miller, Jack White, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme -- this throwback to primal instruments akin to those once played by blues musicians in poor rural communities offers an irresistible sense of liberation.
The Lowebow that mAcdonald plays in his new duo, Purgatory Hill, with singer melaniejane, was created by Memphis musician and instrument maker John Lowe, and it allows a guitarist to play bass and lead at the same time on the double necked — two broom handles, actually -- version mAcdonald has been using in the last few years.
“In a lot of ways, it was what I was trying to do on guitar for a long time,” said mAcdonald, who’s been known to drive hundreds of miles to be part of the burgeoning number of cigar box guitar festivals sprouting up around the country. “I was trying for a similar kind of effect on the guitar. I always found different ways of bringing out the low end on the guitar, tuning it low. My fret style on the neck was pretty slidy, sliding up and down neck on bass string. I’d move from chord to chord sliding, rather than going abruptly from one chord to the next, so I was really trying to do that on the guitar for a long time. This made it so much easier in a way.”
Not only has it given him a new mode of expression for songs he plays on tour, the cigar box guitar has affected the new songs he’s been writing since a fan handed him one following a concert several years ago and told him “Here, keep it.”
“I think every instrument you pick up has an effect on the kinds of songs you write,” he said. “This one really did release a flood of new songs for me, and it still is. I’ve got a whole bunch of new songs we’re going in to record [soon] and they really did come out of this instrument.”
One sterling example off his most recent album, also titled “Purgatory Hill,” is “Reset Me Lord,” a bluesy number about the gift of a new perspective on life — or in this case, playing music. (It’s a free download for those who sign up on the band’s mailing list.)
He’s posted that and other samples on the Purgatory Hill website.
So has Shane Speal, the creator of the Cigar Box Nation website that’s a focal point of the expanding cigar box instrument community and one of several passionate proponents I spoke to. Speal has assembled four compilation albums with tracks by cigar box players from around the world that are accessible at Cigar Box Nation. Here's an MP3 of Speal playing Jimi Hendrix's "I Don't Live Today" on one of his own cigar box instruments.
“Hobo blues” musician and three-string cigar-box instrument player Pinecone Fletcher became one of the grand finalists in last year's national “King of the Blues” competition sponsored by Guitar Center.
Depp's enthusiasm no doubt contributed to composer Hans Zimmer's decision to use one in his musical score to the Depp-fronted, skewed western animated film "Rango."
Said mAcdonald: “One key aspect of it is that it’s very earthy, very down to earth, but it’s also electric. You can play a brand new flashy Martin guitar that sounds bright and beautiful, and that is acoustic. A lot of people think of that as folk music: something based on acoustic guitars and banjos and something that’s really beautiful sounding acoustically.
“A lot of the cigar-box instruments, they don’t sound like much necessarily acoustic. Most people who play them plug them in, it’s very electric. It’s like folk music turned inside out, way more electric, yet way more primitive. The instrument itself, it’s hyper-primitive. When you electrify an acoustic guitar, you usually make it sound like a louder acoustic guitar. But these things, even the folk Nazis who are opposed to electricity, have to agree that these instruments are pretty [genuinely] folky.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of pat mAcdonald and melaniejane of roots-blues duo Purgatory Hill. Credit: Peter Lee.
Tuesday, August 11,2009
Purgatory Hill (DarkPresents)
Aside from numbers by PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop, a traditional entry and one co-written by others with MacDonald, the remaining nine songs are all original in every way conceivable-and so is the primary instrument utilized. The Lowebow Purgatory Hill Harp consists of a cigar box with two wooden rods that serve as the neck upon which ride three guitar strings and one bass string. It's an amplified, four-string guitar that, along with neck-rack harmonica and electrified foot stomp, result in a massive sound not unlike what one would hear in a log cabin on Mars. He is backed by Milwaukee's melaniejane on vocals and numerous instruments, including a Lowebow Shake Stick.
The song "Reset Me Lord" says, "This puzzle's got too many pieces/That there's no time to rearrange," and once the album begins there is no time for anything but what's arranged via its nine self-penned songs. They are sonic blues re-established as a fabric upon which rock music is re-designed. "Go on and take my addiction," "Reset Me Lord" continues, and a listener has no other choice. The album propels one through a world that is hypnotic yet, from pure performance thrust, totally alert. It's an entirely different place than the world of blues cover acts and emotionally slobbering singer-songwriters.
"All you critics, try to relax" goes a line in "Count To Ten." We can't. It's not possible. There's too much excitement out on Purgatory Hill.
Brew City Sludge - August 2009
by Lane Klozier
Although she has toured throughout the U.S. and currently resides in Sturgeon Bay, melaniejane will always be a Milwaukee icon. Singer/songwriter, cellist, guitarist, pianist, and yes…even accordion, mj has taken all of her talents to many definable places. Her full length releases “flower” and “billets doux” capture a lifetime of experience in a collection of introspective and inspiring music.
Over the past few years, she has reinvented herself by way of collaboration. She still performs as a soloist, but most often she can be seen on stage with heavy hitters such as Victoria Vox. Her latest endeavor has brought her together with Pat mAcdonald. mAcdonald, while probably best known for his work with Timbuk3 has, since that band’s demise in 1995 continued to work as a solo artist becoming a legend in the art rock/folk rock scene. What seemingly brought them together is their shared love of music, as well as their reverence for the steel bridges that connect the land in the Sturgeon Bay area. Back in 2005, mAcdonald co-founded the Steel Bridge Songfest bringing gobs of talent from around the world to help keep this amazing structure in tact. Since that time, mj and mAc have been touring relentlessly as well as spending significant amounts of time in the recording studio. Live, they are a mesmerizing duo with mAcdonald’s swamp blues style of rock being accompanied by mj’s haunting cello and ever present tambourine. mAcdonald’s love of the cigar box guitar and droning, resonate vocals are the perfect compliment to mj’s airy background vocals and edgy instrumentation.
mAcdonald’s latest release is entitled Purgatory Hill and features mj on backing vocals and sundry percussion. From the opening number with it’s swampy drawl intro, this recode has you hooked. Dark and dirty, these tracks would be best listened to while driving a 67 Caddy down a dark country road at 2 a.m. on a hot August night. The drive continues on with songs like No One’s Daddy and Count to Ten urging your right foot to go a little faster…and a little more recklessly. Stand out tracks such as Shut Up and Meet Za Monster represent all that is swamp, guts and glory. The key to a record such as this is in understanding the depth and complexity of something that is seemingly one dimensional. Heartbreak, joy, anger, lust and countless other emotions simmer just under the surface of songs that take the simplest of instruments to a very complicated conclusion. It was suggested to me that I should listen to this record at a very high volume. I did. And, I was happy to have done so.
That’s all for now my Darlings. Remember. School will be starting soon and the kiddies will be out and about…so stop driving on the sidewalk!
(mj's) recording debut is a surprisingly driven, vividly textured collection of original material that commingles styles and transcends genre yet seemlessly celebrates the inspiration of its folk, rock, pop, counrty, blues, jazz and even classical roots. And it's easy to dance to.
...a charismatic writer of her own songs as well as an elaborate interpreter of other works...
.... haunting countermelodies wrapped around a straight-ahead folk drive, peppered with tasteful effects ... many have fallen in love with her soulful, country pop-rock style....
Time for a triple treat I've seen this next performer as a solo artist open up for a daughter of rock royalty and one of the hardest rocking bands in the Midwest. In a group setting, she has performed classics alongside dozens of serious-looking people in formal wear. She has shared her talents with stars of alt-country, alt-rock and alt-whatever you've got. Melaniejane is a triple threat singer/songwriter, guitarist, keyboardist and cellist. She's also one of the nicest people in the business I've run across. I guess that makes her something like a six-time threat.
It hasn't taken long for the public to catch on to the talents of melaniejane, a local singer and songwriter who has caught the eye of audiences and fellow musicians...
"melaniejane writes arresting pop songs and has the guitar skills and plaintive voice to carry it off with charm, grace and gusto!"
2004 was a good year for music in Milwaukee, and, no matter what your tastes may be, there was a little of something for everyone.
Hey, I'm just like you, and I like it fast loud and greasy; but, for something on the softer side I can highly recommend the latest release from Milwaukee's sultriest songstress Melaniejane. The follow up to her 2002 release Flower is an introspective celebration of pure song writing entitled Billets Doux. The album is a bit of a departure from her most recent work that relies on her mastery of the cello, guitar and her own vocal prowess. From the opening track Somebody's Fool, the listener is haunted by strings and enchanting melodies. High points are achieved with the delicious melody on Over and Over and heartbreaking tenderness on Painted Smile. MJ assumed full control with this endeavor writing, recording, producing and playing all instruments. For an evening of ambience or a long drive, this release is a must have.
"...a passionate and gracejul voice with powerful acoustic guitar effects..."
...you will notice that her lyrics hit you right where you expect them to... there is no extra space. Her words always match right up with her melodies. Not many songwriters can do that. It takes a tremendous talent...
"melaniejane's up-tempo songs take on a jangly, almost folkish quality... (she) really shines with solw-motion near-dirges... favorable comparisons to The Cowboy Junkies aren't out of line..."
"... a confident performer and inspired songwriter......"
Listening to melaniejane's album, "flower," is nothing like hanging out with the 20-something singer, songwriter and musician. On the record, she bounces between bluesy-and-ballsy and folky-and-fiery, but in person, she is quiet and shy, a self-described "homebody" and so unassuming you want to whisper all of your secrets into her delicate ea