Dem Bones Dem Bones

Midwinter Musings on Bones Fest VIIIKenny's 1st Advanced Workshop

In the middle of winter, at least in New England, we bones players don't go on picnics, we don't see parades, and we don't play Frisbee. Instead, we practice playing the bones! Shown above is Kenny Wolin's First Advanced Rhythm Bones Workshop, and his students practiced hard this weekend.

When we're not actually playing, we spend time wistfully thinking about Bones Fests gone by and the people we get to see once a year. At least, this is how it seems to me, snowed into my New Bedford house by what is being called the worst snowfall in twenty years. Thinking about last summer's good times makes a winter of chilly isolation pass more quickly.

Last summer, as I'm sure you all remember, was Bones Fest VIII, and was hosted by Sally and Terry Carroll. The idea that we've been doing this (as a group) for eight years running is pretty impressive. Bones Fests really started off as a backyard barbeque, and we've made a point, through the years, of trying to keep them fairly informal and more in the nature of a family reunion than a "real" convention. Of course, as the Rhythm Bones Society has grown over the intervening time (more than 100 members as of this writing), that family feeling has gotten harder and harder to balance with the challenge of simply dealing with that many people (and especially that many bones-players!) at once.

I mention this just to emphasize how much of that family feeling I found at this past year's Bones Fest. From the start, I saw people helping to set things up, to make signs, and to help people find various places. Our venue was the Lake Anne Plaza in Reston, VA (not far from Washington, DC), a collection of shops built around a brick courtyard. I myself hung out at the registration desk, so that I could see all the friends arriving that I hadn't gotten to speak with in a year. As more and more members gathered, little groups of passers-by started forming to see what this strange noise was all about. I would estimate that a couple dozen ordinary people learned the basics of how to play the bones, before the Fest even began! Some of them, I believe, even bought sets of bones from members who had brought their wares to sell.

The Fest got going with some food and jamming over at the Reston Used Book Shop. We were graciously accommodated by the store owner, Bud Burwell, who took the noise and the chaos right in stride, even when a sudden downpour forced us all to squeeze everything into the smaller indoor space. As I heard more than one person say, you can't have a real picnic without a little rain, let alone a real festival. Well, we got our share of rain that day and the next, not all at once, but enough to keep us indoors much of the time.

The next highlight for me was the workshops. Workshops had been attempted before in an impromptu way, but this was the first time we had ever tried to get a bunch of real workshops organized, so that everyone could have something to learn or teach. Kenny Wolin deserves particular mention here since he taught workshops during all three days of the Fest (read Kenny's follow-up article on page 5.) Ev Cowett and Jim Lande also taught the beginners' and bones-making workshops, respectively. Response to the workshops in general was very positive, and I'm sure we'll be doing more of them in the future.

As with every Bones Fest, most of the time was spent listening to our members take a few minutes to show what they could do with the bones, no matter what their level of expertise, musical style, or performing experience. Rather than look at each member's performance, as has been done in this newsletter in the past, I'd like to give a few thoughts about the performances taken as a whole.

First of all, it must be said (and in fact was said by many) that each year at Bones Fest raises the bar on excellence and innovation in bones-playing. The mission of the Rhythm Bones Society is to continue, promote and improve the playing of the rhythm bones, and we as a group of players are certainly doing just that, as anyone who attends these Fests can tell you. As usual, the variety of performance was impressive -- who would think, with an instrument as obscure as ours is, that you'd hear so many styles of music, played in so many ways -- some performers played with the Fest band (the Anthem Music band), some played to music they brought with them, some played with other members or even accompanied themselves. In some performances, the bones were backing up other music, and in others, the bones themselves had the spotlight.

The good humor of the performances stands out in my mind. Several of the acts were comedic, including Bill Vits' Spike Jones tribute, as well as Steve Brown and Steve Wixson's loving send-up of Jerry Mescher's and Bernie Worrell's amazing brother-and-sister act. In between numbers, we were usually laughing either at MC Al Cowett's introductions or at Mel Mercier's wit from the back of the room.

Every year, there's some pattern in the performances that stands out to me, and becomes what amounts to a theme for the year in my mind. At Bones Fest VII, in Louisville, that pattern was the number of family-related acts that were playing there. This year what struck me was the level of innovation in technique and the sharing of ideas and licks. We were gifted this past year with an increased number of percussionists. By this I mean people who have mastered a number of rhythm instruments in addition to playing the bones. Besides all the usual styles of playing (old-time, Irish, vaudeville tunes, and so on), I noticed that there was what amounted to a new style of playing, which incorporated elements and rudiments used in the playing of other instruments. Now, obviously, we've had plenty of fantastic percussionists in the gang up until now, but this year I have to say we reached some kind of critical mass, and there seemed to be a lot more "percussionism" (if you'll pardon the phrase) in general use. Kenny's workshops certainly helped me notice this, but there were a lot of performances where you could see that people were thinking outside the traditional confines of bones playing. I would see people comparing variations in the hallway, or back at the hotel under the gazebo (where we also got to see Mel's incredible dexterity with pretzel sticks). That is extremely encouraging, in the sense that it means that we're talking not only about preserving a set of traditions, but also about growing and expanding into new ones.

Sunday's public performance in the back yard of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Herndon (next door to Reston) took everyone's efforts to pull off, but was terrific, precisely because of everyone's help. Steve Brown deserves special mention for MC'ing the show, and Steve Wixson for bringing out his CD player so that people could play their bones backup music after the band had finished. A fair number of folks showed up from the local area, and were rewarded for sticking it out to the end by sets of Joe Birl's patented Rhythm Bones, raffled off as prizes.

To me, this scene illustrated the Fest: after a number of performances, Steve's CD player, which had to be manually spin-started like an old airplane propeller, finally died completely -- but no one stopped rattling! We ended the Fest with members playing bones along with a variety of instruments and singing, continuing the tune that had been playing, while dancing the (now traditional) conga line around the lawn. I remember thinking at the time that that moment was a perfect symbol of the Fest, or indeed of any Bones Fest: hard work, technical difficulty, good music, good fun, and most of all, good people.

Jonathan Danforth, February, 2005

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