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Rani Arbo: Method in the Mayhem

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted May 17, 2007

Seven years ago many thought that popular fiddler and vocalist Rani Arbo might go solo. Instead, she and bassist Andrew Kinsey formed Daisy Mayhem, a band with irony built right into its name.

It’s been an eventful seven years, to say the least. For starters, all band members are parents, which adds to the rigors of touring.

"Becoming a parent turns music into a guerilla art form. In fact, it turns the rest of your LIFE into a guerilla art form,” said Kinsey, speaking of the rigors of raising children while traveling to gigs.

"Having kids automatically turns you into a superhero who does the impossible, usually quite poorly," added Arbo. "So, yes, to continue touring when we are either — in Scott's and my case — bringing a child with us, or leaving families at home is nutty. But it is what we are choosing to do."

"Scott" is Scott Kessel who plays a strange looking, homemade percussion device that vaguely resembles a drum kit. It is affectionately known as the Drumship Enterprise.

Arbo's voice, which ranges from sweet to gritty, and her accomplished use of it are at the heart of the band's success.

Asked what her role as a fiddler is in the band, Arbo said, "As you know, we are not a band of traditionalists. We play some vintage music from various eras, and we bring threads of that music into our own songs; we also bring threads of modern music — New Orleans second-line horn rhythms, funk, jazz, Latin grooves — into older material. Since the fiddle is a 'traditional' instrument in several styles, my fiddling often ties down the roots of a song. It keeps the 'old' sound happening, where the song is otherwise pulled in many directions, maybe by Scott's Meters-derived groove, or Anand's funky substituted chords, or my unconventional delivery, for example.

"I don't pretend to be a stellar traditional player in any genre, but nevertheless, the fiddle has an instantly identifiable sound that recalls a whole era of dance music, Appalachian sounds, early swing, etc.," she said.

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The Daisy Mayhem voices are captured differently on the new Big Old Life CD, due partly to use of a different studio.

"I used an old ribbon mic for 'Gambling Eden," said Arbo. "A workhorse of the 1940s and 50s, it had a very smooth and beautiful tone. This time we experimented with a few different mics throughout the recording; in some cases, I used ones that were very honest and picked up more complete detail than a ribbon mic would.

"Overall, I think Chris Rival, who recorded Big Old Life, did an amazing job of capturing our live sound — especially the Drumship Enterprise — which is no easy thing to record."

On the new disc, Arbo's voice actually sounds younger in spots, and her singing seems changed in its rhythmic approach.

"I started out, long ago, as a choral singer — where the point was to blend effortlessly, never to stand out, to make a gorgeous collective sound. That idea is still with me — it's one of the reasons that harmony is such an intrinsic part of the music we do. However, for every year that I've been fronting a band, and interpreting songs as a soloist, I've gone deeper into making each song my own."

Big Old Life is an attractive group effort and friskier than Gambling Eden.

“We aimed, this time, to be really true to the band, to the point of keeping three — count ‘em, three — demo tracks from a session we recorded live, in one room, with no possibility of overdubs. We aimed to prioritize the energy and vibe of each song over getting every note right — and that attitude is definitely a result of having grown up a little, having played together for seven years as a band, and knowing — more than ever — that that energy is what really counts."

Big Old Life is strong throughout, and picking favorite tracks could be tough. But the most amazing cut is a Daisy Mayhem rethinking of Bob Dylan's "Farewell, Angelina."

"That arrangement is [guitarist Anand Nayak's] through and through, and it has a groove and a drive that is one of [his] strongest suits,” said Arbo. “Obviously, it's no longer the waltz Dylan wrote; it's a jumpy, wild, 4/4-time ride; suitably chaotic, I think, for the text of the song. My singing on it is sweeter than I think we'd all planned, but that's how it came out — it's an interesting contrast to the grit of the groove."

Asked for an experience that took her totally by surprise, Arbo said, "That would have to be the night that Steve Martin came to our Gambling Eden CD-release party at Joe's Pub in New York City — some friends of ours brought him but didn't tell us. He asked to play Andrew's banjo afterwards — and sounded great. I'm not sure what was more amazing — Martin's presence or the fact that I'd never seen Andrew tongue-tied before."

Arbo also had a fascinating recent listening experience. "Going to the annual Western Massachusetts Sacred Harp Convention in Northampton this past March," she said. "Nothing beats a roomful of 200 people singing open harmonies, at the top of their lungs, on 250-year-old songs."

Summarizing life in Daisy Mayhem, Arbo noted, "There is room for wild hopes, for plain old hard work, for failure and disappointment, and for serendipity and grace."

Be on the lookout, in particular, for those wild hopes, with maybe a little serendipity and grace, at the Middle Earth in Bradford.

Who: Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem
Where: Middle Earth Music Hall, Bradford
When: Friday, May 25, 8:30 p.m.
For more information: www.middle-earth-music.com, www.raniarbo.com/