Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dancing on Thin Ice

Well, it was a kind of dance that Patrice, Erik and I were involved in early on Sunday morning. Following a wonderful contra dance at Tapestry we discovered everything outdoors was covered with a thin but dangerous coating of ice.

We had expected some freezing rain around midnight and Erik and I had arranged to stay over at Patrice and Al's place, but the storm came through a little earlier than planned. To make a very long story short, it took us over an hour and a half to travel from Tapestry to Apple Valley. We were extremely lucky that we decided not to try and cross the Mendota bridge. We have heard that traffic was at a standstill there for hours.

We hope that all of the dancers who came out to hear us on Saturday made it home safe and sound. We promise not to let one winter weather event deter us from making the trip back again in January on the 15th.

We are especially looking forward to working with our good buddy Ted Hodapp. This will be the first time in many years that the Hodapp/Contratopia combination will be together for a dance in Minneapolis and we are confident that it will be a special night.

In the meantime, enjoy the holidays.

Friday, October 08, 2010

By any other name....

Barn Dance Minnesota is a new venture from our own Pat O'Loughlin and his friends including, sometimes, other members of Contratopia. If we aren't all available for a particular event Pat can pick from the cream of the Twin Cities musician crop to "provide traditional live music and calling for your barn dance, square dance, contra dance, or Irish ceilidh." The Barn Dance Minnesota site can serve as a good way to see how to reach Pat and arrange for your event to be something that will be remembered as an especially good time by everyone involved.

Our geographical distance (Contratopia North: Pat and Patrice, Contratopia South: Erik and John) often makes it difficult for the four of us to play together for special events. Erik and I also have our own website aimed at answering some of the questions we frequently get about playing for local weddings and special events. If you are looking for music in the Decorah area don't hesitate to contact us.

The whole band, however, will be present at the Armory in downtown Northfield, MN  two weeks from tonight to play at another great Harvest Stomp dance. It will be our first time back together since last April (although Pat, Patrice and I reunited with our favorite alter-Erik, Linda Breitag, last week in St. Paul) and we will definitely have a great time. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Falling into the New Season

I just got around to updating our dance calendar over at the Contratopia website to include the dates we have booked so far for the upcoming 2010-2011 Season. It's true that a certain pattern has emerged in recent years, thanks to our friends at Tapestry and in Northfield, but I can assure you that this doesn't mean that we are bored with our play. It's amazing to me that we are able to manage to get together as often as we do given our various families and jobs.

One thing missing in this year's calendar is significant travel. We had to turn down a couple of really attractive offers (plus we're still trying to pay off the hotel damages from our last end-of-tour party) but I'm sure that we will be out on the road again before I turn 65.

We will probably add a date or two in the spring to the calendar as well. Hopefully we will see many of you at one or more of these dances.

If you are a tune monger, in addition to a dancer, you might be interested in the new jig I posted today over on my So Many Tunes website. I'll see if I can't get the band to give it a go sometime this season.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Huffington Post / Maria Rodale

While not exactly full Contratopia news I figure that friends of the band might find this interesting:

For the last several years Erik and I have been the nucleus of the band that plays for the barn dance on the Saturday night of the annual Seed Saver's summer gathering just outside of Decorah. Seed Saver's Exchange is a great organization doing vital work and their conference attracts people from all over the country. (I think that all friends of Contratopia should at least consider joining SSE, check them out and see what you think.)

This year's keynote speech was shared between Diane Ott Whealey and Maria Rodale. As you can read on her blog, Maria Rodale is CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., "the largest independent publisher left in America."

Her blog is also featured on the Huffington Post and today's Huffington Post features a story from Ms. Rodale's blog about her visit to the conference. In her blogpost you can read all about how much fun she, her husband and youngest child had at the barn dance and you can see a nice picture of me and Erik, along with our friends Bill Deutsch (caller and banjo man) and Rob Hervey (bass). The first paragraph appears at Huffington and the rest of the story (and picture) are at her own blogsite.

I promise that Erik and I won't let our international notoriety go to our heads. Contratopia is busy arranging its fall/winter/spring schedule as I write. I hope to have news to share about dates and places soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Minnesota Spring weekend

Time, as ever, flies. Suddenly our 2009-2010 season is days away from its ending.

Join us, if you can, on either Friday (at the Armory in Northfield, MN) or Saturday (at the Tapestry Folkdance Center in Minneapolis) for our final public dances until next fall.

If we don't get a chance to see you this weekend we will look forward to seeing you sometime during the 2010-2011 season!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tapestry Tomorrow!

(Contratopia at Antietam)

Tomorrow night we'll have our tour homecoming dance at the Tapestry Folkdance Center in Minneapolis. We hope you can drop by and see what we have in store.

Below are a few photos from our tour out east. Thanks to Pat and Margie for the great shots!

(Glen Echo on Friday Night)

(Glen Echo on Friday from the stage)

(Ted and Lynn in conversation)

(Shepherdstown, Saturday Night)

(The Spotlight Dance)

(Pat takes a camera break)

(w/Jamie Platt, Ted & Lynn as we bid farewell to the
Spanish Ballroom after the Sunday dances.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Glenside, Glen Echo, Shepherdstown 2010

Right about now one week ago Erik, Patrice, Ted, Lynn and I were all piled into Ted's car leaving Mt. Vernon, Virginia. We had enjoyed a short visit to the Washington farm and were headed back to Takoma Park where we would gather our instruments, meet up with Pat, and head over to Glen Echo to play at the afternoon Waltz Time dance and the evening contra.

The night before we had played for a very high energy group of dancers in historic Shepherdstown, WV, after a visit to the Antietam battlefield. I'll spare everyone the step by step description of our tour but I can honestly say that it was as much fun this time as it was the first time we played in the region over ten years ago.

This was the first tour that we were joined by Very Significant Others and, from my perspective, this made the whole thing even more fun. Of course Lynn and Margie didn't accompany us up to Glenside, or to Shepherdstown, so they were spared an episode by episode recounting of the intricate plot developments of a certain cable TV series. These tales provided us with the actual title of the 2010 Tour but, in the interest of not being sued by HBO, that title remains a band secret.

Musically we had a great time. Everyone was playing with lots of invention and energy and we enjoyed a little nostalgia by playing some of our older, tried and true sets more often than usual. We enjoyed great sound at every stop, especially at Glen Echo where the phenomenal Jamie Platt once again made us sound great, despite our constant experiments. Ted Hodapp called night after night of great dances and had the crowds enthralled with his physics jokes. He also played some first rate hambos with Erik and taught us all a great new schottische.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the dances and made them so fun for us. Special thanks to Ted and Lynn for sharing their home. Lynn even revealed to me the existence of a nearby fast food hamburger joint that Ted had neglected to mention over the years. Thanks also to the good folks at the House of Musical Traditions for all of their help. Rumor has it that we may be able to head east again in the winter/spring of 2012. We'll keep you posted.

(P.S. While there were several excellent, even professional, photographers snapping photos on this trip none of them have delivered any pictures to me so far. So the photo above is taken off of my cell phone from a week ago Friday while we were visiting the Mall.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Touring into Spring

(Park Sparrows, D.C., photo by Cene Ketcham)

In about a week we will all be converging on Ted and Lynn's place in Takoma Park for our first visit to the D.C. area in nearly 2 years. We have been making these trips, responding to the siren call of the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, for nearly a decade. This has prompted a little nostalgia on my part.

In November-December, 2000 Contratopia took a chance and recorded our Hands Four CD with the expert assistance of Matthew Zimmerman at his Wild Sound studio in Minneapolis. Most readers of this blog probably have a copy of this CD somewhere in their collection. However, before we recorded that CD we recorded a trial version of some of our tunes at our friend Jody Koenig's basement studio in Decorah. I think this was probably sometime in the summer of 2000, although I'm not sure exactly when. I seem to remember it was a Saturday afternoon and maybe we were playing a dance that night.

Anyway, I recently came across a CD of the mixes from that demo session and I have permission from the band to share them here. To my ears they sound like we had a lot of energy that day and I think that Jody did a great job of capturing that. One negative aspect is that Patrice had to use her electric keyboard instead of a real piano. So while her playing is great, as usual, her sound isn't quite what any of us would prefer. You can compare a couple of these versions to the ones that appear on Hands Four and see what I mean.

So here are the tracks we recorded that day at Jody's:

1. Revelry Reel / French Sneakers / Maggie in the Rain (mp3)
2. The National Road (mp3)
3. Sandy River Belles / Liza Jane (mp3)
4. Sweet Music / Christmas Past / Fairbanks (mp3)

I'll also post these on our Contratopia free downloads page for future reference.


A week from tomorrow we'll be playing the Thursday Night Contra in Glenside, PA; one of our favorite places to play. The last time we visited there I was very excited to buy a copy of the SPUDS tunebook, Tuneadelphia. It's a great book full of good tunes and I highly recommend it.

I remember having a nice chat with Sarah Gowan, the editor, and she suggested that some of our Contratopia tunes might have been an influence on some of her own compositions. So I thought it would be fun if we would learn a Gowan tune and play it next week.

Last Friday at the great Winter Stomp in Northfield we tried out a new set that begins with Sarah's tune "Nancy in a Shirttail" followed by a recent tune of mine called "Lawn Chair Night" and closing with an old favorite of Erik's, "Splinters on the Bannister." Erik's tune had fallen off of our setlist so this is a great way to bring it back. If you are at the dance in Philly next week be on the lookout for this new set.

We hope to see many of you in Glenside (March 4), Shepherdstown (March 6th) or at Glen Echo on either Friday night (5th) or Sunday afternoon and/or evening (7th). It's our only big trip this season so we are really looking forward to getting to play several nights in a row. Hope to see you there.


When I posted this entry late last night I had no idea that Philadelphia was going to see another 8-12 inches of snow today. I see that this week's dance has been canceled. I fully expect that spring will be in bloom next Thursday when we arrive and that folks will be ready to dance.

(Just to put the weather in some perspective, it was 5 below zero here last night and we have had a foot or more of snow on the ground since mid-December.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Northfield! Winter Stomp!

In just a few days, Friday the 19th, we will convene with Robin Nelson and all of our Northfield friends for our 4th (or is it 5th?) Winter Stomp! dance at the downtown Armory. The above slideshow (with music, "Mason's Apron" and "Maggie in the Snow", by Contratopia) gives a pretty accurate picture of what to expect. Lots of energy, lots of fun.

Here's a short video from the 2008 Stomp with the same message:

It sounds to me like we are playing "Ross' Reel" in the first half of the video and a tune of mine called "Ain't Broke" in the second half.

Hope to see you in Northfield on Friday night. It's going to be fun.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Snow Elsewhere

The members of Contratopia are no strangers to snow. Here in Decorah we have had a good foot or so of snow on the ground since early in December of this winter. We have not, however, had a significant snowfall for many weeks. We are also well equipped with snow shovels, plows, icemelt and the other necessities of winter life. It is a little unnerving to realize that we intend to be gathering in Takoma Park, MD in exactly one month when I see what is going on in the mid-Atlantic region today.

We are scheduled to play the Friday Night Dance at Glen Echo Park in four weeks but tonight's contra there has been canceled. The fate of this weekend's Sunday Waltz Time and evening contra dance is undecided. We are booked to play those dances in a month as well. Hopefully this will all be a fond memory by then and large crowds of happy dancers will flock to the park on the first weekend in March.

When we head east this time we will be bringing a new "product" with us. We now have digital download cards from CD Baby available for sale. For a modest price you will be able to purchase a wallet size card that will be printed with a code that will allow you to go to the CD Baby site and download an mp3 version of our first CD, Hands Four. It will be interesting to see how many people are interested in this way of buying our music.

Winter snows always lead to thoughts of summer. Summer, for many, is the wedding season. Contratopia rarely gets to play at a wedding as a group because of our hectic schedules and geographical challenges but all the members are active as wedding musicians from time to time. Pat and Margie O'Loughlin also serve the needs of brides and grooms with their Sandhill Photography business. They have recently launched the Sandhill Photography blog and I highly recommend subscribing to their posts.

Erik Sessions and I always play a handful of weddings every summer in Winneshiek County and we have now taken the sensible step of creating an Erik & John website (with the expert help of Karen Goodin) to hopefully simplify the process of finding us and figuring out what we can do. Give us a holler if you are planning on getting married in the Decorah area and are looking for some lovely and lively acoustic music for either the ceremony or the dinner/reception. We are also pleased to be associated with the new Welcome in Decorah website that is promoting Decorah as a great place to hold your wedding.

Apart from winter storms and summer weddings we also want to remind everyone that in two weeks, Friday, Feb. 19, Contratopia will meet in Northfield, MN to play at another wonderful Winter Stomp! contra dance, held downtown at the city armory.

We hope to see you there!