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!