Candlelight, the Canada Cold …and Adeline
by Susan Marquez
Musicians feed off the energy of other musicians. So, it was difficult for John Showman, a fiddler and founding member of the Lonesome Ace Stringband, to be isolated from other musicians under a total lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In Canada, we weren’t allowed to gather. If we had been quarantined and tested, we were allowed to form a bubble.” Chris Coole, who plays banjo with the Lonesome Ace Stringband, got together with John in November to record some music.
“We talked about how it would be great to get a bluegrass band together,” says John. “Chris suggested we put together an instrumental project, a la John Hartford.”
Thinking it would be a hard sell to potential band members, both John and Chris were surprised that it wasn’t hard at all. “We were lucky that Mark Kilianski (Golden Shoals) was in Canada with his girlfriend, as he is exceptionally good with the guitar. Adrian Gross (The Slocan Ramblers) was available to play mandolin, and Sam Allison (Sheesham & Lotus), who lives a couple of hours away, was available to play upright bass and bass harmonica.” Five musicians from four bands began communicating with one another via email on potential songs for the album they planned to record.
After getting tested, the group gathered for three days in March in the 70-year-old cabin of John’s mother-in-law on the shores of Beaver Lake in the heart of the Kawartha Highlands of Ontario.
“Adrian and I went the night before to prepare everything,” says John. “There is a 400-foot driveway that had to be shoveled, then we had to carry the equipment to the cabin.”
John served as the sound engineer for the project. He set up mics around the room.
“It was a very simple set-up. We had six channels, with an extra mic on the bass. A friend lent me some vintage gear that helped us get the sound we were looking for. After each cut, I played it back and got feedback from the guys.”
A professional engineer friend of John’s mastered the LP. Each member of the group had songs they wanted to record. “We decided on our list of tunes about three months out. We started with a list of 30 tunes, and we probably recorded about 20 to 25 of those.” In the end, 14 songs made the LP. “I didn’t know some of them, so I ended up learning new tunes I never played before,” recalls John. “I practiced the heck out of them before heading to the cabin. The good thing about this album is that everyone had a say. It was all very democratic.”
The group wanted to record an old-time album a la John Hartford’s “Windows System.” John explains that the rhythm stays consistent, and instruments that are not playing solos are in the background, playing the melody. “For example, the fiddle or banjo plays the tune straight down the middle, changing what they are playing every eight to sixteen bars, so the backup is constantly shifting. The first track on the album is a Bill Monroe tune, “Evening Prayer Blues,” which shifts like crazy. Playing it was like standing in musical quicksand! Everyone had a good sense of rhythm, but you can hear the pent-up energy as well.”
While they were organized going into the project, there were a few glitches that proved to be fortuitous. While recording the “Evening Prayer Blues” track, John says “a lot of weird stuff was happening. We must have done six or seven takes. We recorded the last take around 2:00 in the morning. When we played it back, we heard sounds like chair squeaks, and yawns that sounded like notes on a bass. But in the end, it really added to the music.”
Another glitch was the loss of power caused by a bitter storm. “It was -18 degrees on day three of recording,” recalls John. “The power went out and we were worried it would end the session for us.” They lit candles and picked tunes in weird tunings while drinking beer. “We decided at one time to go outside on the frozen lake, and we took a selfie. It turned out great!” The power was restored after six hours, and the recording continued. For some of the members of the group, it was the first time they’d met one another, let alone played together.
“It was such an exciting and unique experience,” says John. “We kept it very fluid. Mark had great ideas that didn’t interfere with the melody but kept the beat so well. Adrian just picks things up so quickly. Both just jump out of the speakers. Sam is such a great singer and so good on rhythm. Of course, Chris and I are in the same band and are used to each other’s playing style.” They all went into it knowing the album would be a one-off. “We aren’t going to tour it. We just all like playing fiddle tunes and it was a fun project to put together.”
The album gets its title from the last track, “Adeline.”
“It was my idea to put the title track last,” laughs John. “The idea is to get people to listen to the whole album so they can get to the last or title track. To me, it’s the best track on the album!”