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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Music

2013 was a banner year for Tribecastan and Milwaukee ex-pat musician John Kruth (second from left).

13's the charm for Kruth and Tribecastan

You know we like to keep tabs on what erstwhile Milwaukee musician John Kruth is up to in New York – between writing and performing his own music, working with his band Tribecastan and his always engaging biographies of groundbreaking musicians.

News arrived earlier this month that Tribecastan's latest disc, "New Songs from the Old Country" – released in October – had landed near the top of a respected readers poll of the best world music records of the year.

That honor caps off a stunning 2013 run in which Tribecastan toured Europe, made its West Coast debut and Kruth published an acclaimed biography of Roy Orbison.

We caught up with John to ask about this whirlwind of a year... Tribecastan has had a good year, right?

John Kruth: Yes my friend, lucky '13 was quite fine. I'm sure I'll look back at it fondly in the rear-view. Over the last few years my partner Jeff Greene and I have played Europe and Russia before, as a duo and with musicians from Croatia, Latvia, Austria and Hungary but this past August we took most of the band – at home in New York City we range from 8 to 10 pieces – on tour of Germany, Czech Republic and Holland and were received warmly wherever we played.

OMC: You went on your first West Coast tour, too. How did that go?

JK: Oh, that was a blast. Never had so many people dancing to the music before as we did in Northern Cali. Some folks were even doing Tai Chi. What more could you hope for? We did nine dates in nine days from San Fran to L.A., including playing live on a couple of radio shows, so it was an action-packed week and a half for sure.

OMC: Is it difficult taking a fairly large group on the road, financially and logistically?

JK: To quote Sri Henry Rollins, our mantra was, "Get in the Van!" There were eight of us in the tribe on this jaunt, so as you can imagine there was a bit of cat herding going on. But y'know most of us have done this for many years and so for the most part everything was cool.

OMC: Any chance you guys will make it out this way someday?

JK: I hope so! It's looking like this spring we'll finally get to the Midwest. I think this band would levitate Summerfest, so Bob Babisch or Vic Thomas, if you're still booking the fest and reading the alternative press ... give us a shot.

OMC: The new record has landed on a respected list of nominations for best World Music records, that must be pretty exciting.

JK: Indeed. We've been getting a lot of great press and airplay on the latest disc. Like many great empires in history TriBeCaStan will continue to expand its borders until the world succumbs to, oh, never mind. But yeah, the word and the music is getting around.

I also just did the soundtrack for a new indie film on Nepal called "Mustang Rising" that's coming out soon, featuring tracks from a few past TriBeCaStan discs, as well as some solo Kruth music and a couple fun collaborations with my old friend cellist Gideon Freudmann, who played with me back in my Milwaukee days in a group called the Raging Peasants.

OMC: Tell us about the significance of the name "New Songs from the Old Country."

JK: Our music is inspired by traditional folk forms and instruments across the globe, which, once filtered through our individually twisted heads comes out as something new yet somehow familiar. Both Jeff and I love to travel. He's always picking up new instruments from whatever country he's visiting and they often spark new songs or melodies that I'd never have thought of or come up with if I just stuck with the mandolin or guitar.

The new album features a bright shimmering Portuguese guitar and although I love fado, the tunes I wrote on the instrument have nothing to do with the traditional music of Portugal at all. One is like a mad Bollywood rambling raga while the other is a bossa nova ballad. I guess some people could take offense at bastardising their traditions but my experience so far has been very positive. The Indian cab drivers who stop to hear my neophyte plunking on the sitar when I play in the park have actually been very encouraging.

OMC: And tell us a bit about the record itself.

JK: Well this our fourth in five years, not including our very whacked Christmas EP, "The Twisted Christmas," which came out a year ago. So TriBeCaStan remains inspired and quite productive. Sometimes Jeff and I write together, like on the album's opener, "Bwiti," which began with a part he came up with on an African raft zither. He's really into exotic textures and rhythms where I'm always searching for the melody. So then I added a flute line to that and we built it from there. The song is very prayer-like.

Other tunes we write alone. Like every other TriBeCaStan album there's a lot of different styles and influences within our borders. We mix it up a bit, from Celtic to Indian, a bit of kickass Russian surf music with "Communist Modern" and, of course, there's a strong Eastern European klezmer/gypsy vibe going on as I am primarily a mandolin player who juggles a number of stringed instruments and flutes.

Hey there's another Wisconsin connection going on with this album. I met a wonderful oboe player named Kathy Halvorson from Oconomowoc and she played on a few tracks, giving the album an exotic Arabesque feel.

OMC: Finally, can you tell us about progress on your latest book in progress or is it still a secret?

JK: My most recent book "Rhapsody in Black," was on Roy Orbison, which is pretty mainstream compared to my earlier biographies on Rahsaan Roland Kirk – which is coming out again – and the tragic Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt.

The new one, "This Bird Has Flown," isn't a biography. I teach "History of Rock - Parts 1 & 2" at the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York and one of the key moments in the class is 1965, when Dylan goes electric, and the Stones really take off with "Satisfaction," "Last Time" and "Get off My Cloud" and the Beatles get hip with "Rubber Soul."

And as I was telling the students about this incredible time it suddenly dawned on me that "Rubber Soul" is going to be 50 years old in two years! So I called up Hal Leonard/BackBeat Books – another Wisconsin connection – who published my Orbison book and talked them into taking a ride on this idea. I love the time period – I was 10! – and the album in particular. It should be finished and out by the fall of 2015, to celebrate the silver anniversary of the album's release.


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