For the past 24 years, on every first Sunday after Super Bowl Sunday, a jug band competition has been held at the Cabooze, a bar in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis.
I discovered the Battle around 2001. In those days, my hatred of Minnesota was deep and corrosive, and it seemed my only choices were to leave the Twin Cities or burn them to the ground. But several years earlier, I'd become obsessed with old blues and folk music. The decision to finally go out into the February cold and check out the Battle of the Jug Bands seemed like a concession — it felt like finally sitting down at the negotiating table. The Battle became a part of giving myself permission to forgive Minnesota.
The organizers refuse to take it seriously. Like hockey's Stanley Cup, the winner's trophy travels with the winning band for a year and is engraved with the winner's name — but unlike the Stanely Cup, the trophy is a 1936 Holliwood brand waffle iron. A campy silliness pervades nearly everything about the proceedings — excepting some of the bands, the tortured souls of the overworked soundmen, and me. My contribution to the absurdity of the proceedings is to be Some Guy Who Takes This Seriously.
I'm blown away by the expansive repertoire delivered from the stage during the course of the Battle — songs that I once thought only I knew suddenly spring from college kids in silly costumes, and the audience knows the words. The Battle of the Jug Bands is like some kind of Return of the Repressed, a sign of something hidden away in the basements along the side streets of the Twin Cities.
Below are highlights of the notes I took at my barstool during The 2006 Battle of the Jug Bands. Obviously, this goes on much too long — but if you manage to read it all, imagine how much more stamina is needed to actually attend the eight-hour Battle.
I arrived about four bands into the 23-band competition.
The Jug Refugees are called to the stage before most of their members have arrived. Spectators hop onto the stage to help fill in, further frustrating the sound guys. This ad hoc band struggles through a terrible version of Elizabeth Cotton's Shake Sugaree.
In the name of fairness, the Refugees are later given a second set, and do a much better "Wagon Wheel" by the Old Crow Medicine Show (and Dylan). After several songs, the juggist notices a little liquid at the bottom of his glass jug and eagerly chugs it down — only to realize it's his own saliva.
Gramdma's Saggy Jug Band. Five 20-somethings dressed as four grannies and one feller. They're great — the fiddler is very fine, and the band knows how essential a good rhythm section is to a jug band. (Too many bands make the mistake of handing the rhythm section over to the least experienced musicians.) They play washtub bass, washboard, fiddle, parlor guitar, jug, and kitchen implements. Their repertoire is on the obscure side — the Mississippi Sheik's "Please Baby," Cannon's Jug Stompers "Pig Ankle Strut," an old radio duet they heard reissued somewhere, and "Cock-A-Doodle, I'm Off My Noodle" by Harry Reser's Six Jumping Jacks.
To me, each member of Grandma's Saggy Jug Band seems to inhabit a distinct character — not just relying on their costume — and the characters get developed in little exchanges between songs. I interview them off-stage and it turns out they work mostly as puppeteers (which makes sense, given their theatrical vividness) at Bedlam Studio on the West Bank, where the group is best known for their annual Halloween show. They hadn't been especially familiar with the Battle of the Jug Bands before that night.
Bacon Equity. Looks like a family operation — washtub, tuba, tenor banjo, banjo ukulele, harmonica, toy accordion (played by Dad?). The first song is brilliant, like James Brown and Tom Waits with a jug attack. The crowd catches on to the band's reggae/funk influence, and some on the dance floor love it, go nuts. About four frat boys in the back wearing their baseball caps backward hate what they hear, and start calling for the hook. (They don't understanding that the hook is used on bands that go seriously over their time limit, not for bands that the audience hates). They chant "HOOK! HOOK! HOOK!" I shout at the band, "A little too black for these crackers!" Bacon Equity's tuba player is a young girl, and she's fearless, tireless, pumps out a great groove. They're given an encore — they add two saxophones and a Middle Eastern flavor, pouring gasoline on the frat-boys' fire. God love 'em. A boy with a saxophone, maybe 14 years old, goads the crowd (in the hip-hop and reggae fashion) to stamp their feet, sing along, clap hands. Incredible chaos ensues.
The Fat Chance Jug Band has a regular gig on Wednesday nights and is surprisingly bad compared to these amateurs. They remind the audience that "when you hear the tornado siren tests, you know it's jug day!"
Hump Night Thumpers (humpnightthumpers.com) from Chicago are clearly professionals, and not just because they have a website. They're "genuine revivalists," if such a thing is possible, and understand the jug band concept. They do the old "Hey lordy mama mama, hey lordy papa papa, talk about that Mobile line" and The Memphis Jug Band's "What's the Matter?" Jerri Wagner, who's a good singer, a good juggist, and attractive, takes the stage wearing a strip of tape across her chest, like the banners worn by women at beauty contests. It reads "Police Line: Do Not Cross" — not a bad idea at the Cabooze. Sings "Rag Mama."
Mighty Wind Breakers. The band leader is extremely picky with the sound guys during set-up. No wonder — their sound turns out to be very sumptuous, all atmosphere and spaciness. They have a plinky aimless xylophone, harmonica, fiddle ... they sketch the outlines of complex polyrhythms, which is lovely, but not right for this crowd. The frat boys chant "Hook! Hook! Hook!" but their lyrics are intended to be calming Ken Nodine-like mantras — "Love life, give life, give love, live long, long live, long life," blah blah blah.
Jook Savages. Always a high point, transcendent. Their leader looks exactly like Carl "Oldy" Olsen from Conan O'Brien, but is named Dave Morton. Huge band (19+ members), so it takes forever to set up. Morton pays no attention, just eventually starts singing and playing guitar. The band eventually realizes what's happening and, ready or not, assembles some kind of sound around him. Completely mad, but with a great, heavy rhythm — bass saxophone and at least 3 jug players. Morton then suddenly starts singing a different song, and the sound falls apart (not that it was ever very together) until the band can figure out what he's singing and the sound reassembles itself as best it can. The performance basically amounts to an endless medley, like a drumming circle, undifferentiated and somehow basically coherent. Average band member's age about ... 54?
At some point, my wife drops by the Cabooze and informs me that Dick Cheney has just shot a guy during a hunting trip. I spend the rest of the night informing other people, and they treat me like I'm handing out $100 bills.
At least three excellent, young jug bands take the stage in the last third of the Battle — The Como Avenue Jug Band, The World's Fattest Twins, and The Hog Town Stompers. For the first time in my experiences at the Battle of the Jug Band, I begin to get confused and puzzled over who might win possession of the waffle iron. The Hog Town Stompers are very fine, tight, and danceable — but will they win? There is too much else happening here — and just what exactly IS happening here? A revival, as I keep reminding you.
I talk to a couple who has been to every one of the Battles since 1982. I ask them how it's changed over the years, and they reply in unison: "It's gotten bigger!"
The night ends with Kazooie Okie, which consists of five kazooists and one washboard player. In fact, he surely must be among the best washboard players on Earth — Mikkel Beckmen, well-known in the Twin Cities as the washboardist for such great acts as Charlie Parr, Lonesome Dan Kase and the Crush Collision Trio, and The Brass Kings. What the hell is he doing with these clowns?
The kazoo orchestra begins their set with "25 or 6 to 4" from Chicago's Greatest Hits. Next, they do "My Girl" by The Temptations and wrap up with "I Feel Good" by James Brown. Actually, it's surprising how well it comes off, although the assistance of Mr. Beckmen is much needed.
Afterwards, I ask Mikkel how he got roped into this — did he owe somebody money? He just shrugs and says, "When they told me they were gunna do some James Brown, that was good enough for me."