Charlemagne in England.
For many Madison bands, the open road is beckoning. And not just the American freeway-the Autobahn, the English roadway, even the Japanese superhighway. More and more, Madison musicians have been taking advantage of international distribution, exposure via the Internet or record deals in other countries to find success abroad, sometimes at a higher level than they are able to reach in their own country.
Carl Johns is one of those musicians who seem to be better appreciated internationally than he is in the U.S. Currently at the helm of the pop outfit Charlemagne, Johns got a lot of attention in England with his previous alt-country act, NoahJohn. The band had a deal with England's Loose Records and earned positive press, including raves from the Sunday Times of London and Mojo Magazine. Johns capitalized on this success to cross the ocean with NoahJohn in 2001 and again two years later. With Charlemagne, he headed over in 2004 and 2005.
Johns managed to schedule concerts without the benefit of a European booking agent. His label set up some shows, but he also easily set some up himself. "It was really easy, but I was given names of folks who already knew the music and regularly promoted shows," Johns says. He was able to set up most of his European shows via email.
The result was what Johns calls "high-class gigs": shows at clubs like the Barbican in London or at festivals. Because of his higher profile in England, he was able to tour as a headliner, with substantially larger guarantees than here in the U.S. Another plus, at least in England, is that headliners tend to go on by the civilized hour of 11 p.m.
Like Johns, the members of the Cash Box Kings found themselves playing a better class of shows when they toured France and Belgium last November. "It wasn't the typical experience we have here in America," says Joe Nosek, the blues group's vocalist and harmonica player. "The crowds were really attentive, hanging on every note we played, clapping after every solo."
The Kings didn't even go looking for a tour of Europe - it found them. They were invited over by a European blues critic who had seen the band briefly ply their trade ("somewhat illegally," according to Nosek) on a Chicago street corner during the Blues Fest before being hustled away by the Chicago PD. According to bassist Chris Boeger, they'd only sold a couple hundred CDs in Europe before arriving, but they managed to sell out most of the shows they played.
This overseas success is partly due to the fondness of non-Americans for any type of music they perceive as being truly American, be it country, blues, funk or jazz. Says Tim Whalen, keyboardist/singer for the funk band Phat Punktion, "They love American music played by Americans, especially funk or soul or jazz. They just love it because it's our music."
Like the Cash Box Kings, Phat Punktion didn't pursue the chance to play abroad. Their 2004 CD, You and Me, found its way into Tower Records in Tokyo and, without press or promotion, mysteriously took off, eventually selling 12,000 copies by the end of last year. Invited by a Japanese label, the band headed over for a week in February.
Whalen says it was "kind of a fluke," and he still marvels that the trip actually happened. He partly credits the looser style of radio programming in Japan: "The radio there is freeform, so we were able to get airplay. More than half the audience was singing the lyrics to our songs during shows. That never happens here."
Hanah Jon Taylor started his career outside the U.S. in 1973, when the jazz flutist and sax player played in Venezuela and the West Indies, among other spots. He's traveled abroad to play many times since. Generally, says Taylor, "I go to Europe twice a year, once with a band under my own name and once with a band called the Hanah Jon Taylor European Ensemble." The latter band is made up of European players.
This year, however, Taylor is doing something different. He's leaving Sept. 7 for a three-week tour of Belgium, France and Turkey with a jazz pianist named Jobic LeMasson.
"The difference for me as a jazz artist," says Taylor, "is that there my music is considered an art form instead of entertainment."
The gigs he gets overseas reflect that difference. "I play concert halls and midlevel clubs. I don't play taverns. That's all right with me because people in taverns are not there to listen to the music."
Taylor believes that America doesn't really respect its artists. But he also thinks it's a function of human nature: "We can be so close to something that we don't respect it the way we should."
D.H. Skogen of the Youngblood Brass Band isn't so sure that European audiences are necessarily any better than those they've played for in the States. "I don't think there's a huge difference in the people," says Skogen, a drummer and lyricist with the horn-powered hip-hop band. "There's just a difference in quantity."
Skogen says young people in Europe generally have more access to live music and other cultural experiences than American teens do. So by the time potential audience members are in their late teens or early 20s, checking out live music of one type or another is much more of a priority than it is for their American counterparts.
Youngblood has spent three or four months touring in Europe each year since 2003. Skogen says the paydays are bigger: "We come home from a European tour with twice the money we get from an American tour." The group generally gets the chance to appear at a combination of festivals and club shows.
One of the most memorable Youngblood shows occurred in Berne, Switzerland, during their first European tour in the winter of 2003. They happened to appear at what Skogen describes as a "giant artists' compound" right at the time of the G8 Summit in Geneva. About 2,000 protesters who had taken the train to march were turned back by the police and decided to spend their evening at the band's venue instead. The protesters were eventually accompanied by police in riot gear.
"An enormous riot ensued right around the perimeter of the club," Skogen recalls. The venue filled up with teargas, and the band eventually went on stage at 3 or 4 in the morning. What happens when musicians exposed to teargas for several hours take the stage? "The horn players had a really hard time flexing their lips," reports Skogen.
Klezmer band Yid Vicious landed an upcoming trip to Japan in an unusual way. "It was very random," says horn player Kia Karlen. "One day in April I got a call from Rick March at the Wisconsin Arts Board." A delegation was taking a trip in October to Madison's sister state in Japan, Chiba, and they wanted a band that could produce "festive, raucous music" at the Sawara Matsuri Festival. Yid Vicious quickly enlisted.
Their official duties will also take them to schools and senior centers throughout Chiba, a prefecture near Tokyo. They'll be staying with local families as a way to further the cultural exchange. Members will need to come up with airfare, but all of their other expenses in Japan will be covered.
Is there a market for klezmer in Japan? "The band has been invited to play festivals in more likely places for klezmer," says Karlen, mentioning Eastern Europe and Argentina, "but none of those shows came with any financial assistance. I think it'll be new for most people."
After four tours in England and Europe, Carl Johns sounds a little blasé about the wonders of playing internationally. But he is still appreciative.
"When I tour in the U.S.," he says, "I feel really lucky if the gig goes well. It's kind of a crapshoot. In England, there's a higher likelihood the gigs will be good." Johns, who's relocating to Philadelphia, is planning another short tour in England and possibly Europe in November.
Youngblood Brass Band is planning on two European tours in 2007, in addition to two American tours. The band generally spends about six months of the year on the road.
Phat Phunktion will head back to Japan this fall, with a plan to do extensive touring. The Cash Box Kings are angling for another European tour in the summer of 2007.
Even if the Cash Box Kings never cross the seas again, they all have a story to tell for a lifetime. The timing of their Paris show happened to coincide with the riots there.
The band, says Chris Boeger, took advantage of a day off to spend hours walking around in Paris. They blithely jumped on the Metro around midnight, not realizing they were on the last train of the day, and then accidentally got off a stop early. Like the Youngblood Brass Band had, they found themselves smack in the middle of a riot. It was only with the help of a kindly stranger that they made it back to their digs safely.
"We were so freaked out," says Boeger, his enthusiasm for another tour not dampened in the least.