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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2006/08/18
by John Zinkand

Musing on Black Sheep and Canoofle

Sometimes youve got to dig a little bit to find a hidden gem. The Black Sheep Family Reunion is an event Ive heard about for years and had been invited to attend, but for whatever bullshit reason had never experienced in person. Canoofle on the other hand, is something Id never even heard about but was very much pleased to have blindly stumbled upon. Who are the Black Sheep and what is a Canoofle, you ask? Im not sure I really know the answer to that question. In short, the Black Sheep Family Reunion is a small private annual party/music festival held here in Oregon and Canoofle is a purely improvisational band. Those brief generalizations would make a pretty shitty article, so Ill try to elucidate. Sit back, get comfortable, and enjoy the uninformed ramblings of a virgin Black Sheep and Canoofler.
If you are jam music loving freaky type person living in Oregon, you probably have heard about or have direct knowledge of the Black Sheep Family Reunion. The event has been held annually, usually on the last weekend in July, for quite a few years now. The location has not been in the same place (although it has been held in the same place for the last two years, I believe), and the name has changed over the years as I believe the initial event was called the Family Affair. I hear it is put on by glass blowers who work hard all year making beautiful and functional glass art and this is the way they blow off some steam during the summer time. And this year, while cruising the lovely and wooded grounds, I did spy one infamous glass artist by the name of Mr. Snodgrass.

This is a smallish private party that doubles as a groovy little music festival each summer. It is very cool on many different levels. So cool, in fact, that it is an invite only affair. So if youre moving to Oregon and think you definitely want to attend, keep your pants on. First you must know the right people. In such a close knit community as the Oregon freak scene, this is generally not that difficult. There are probably only about one or two hairy, patchouli-scented degrees of separation between you and the Reunion if you are really into the scene. Ask around at a show, be outgoing and meet new freakish friends, and in no time you will have yourself a personal invite to this intimate rager. Due to the invitation only nature of the event, it is always intimate with attendance somewhere between 700-1200 people.
The Family Reunion has been held on the sandy beaches of the Oregon coast, in the woods near Eugene, and most recently at an undisclosed location in the coast mountain range near Newport. Once within spitting range of the top secret location, an observant freak will notice a small non-descript sign reading simply Family Reunion. I love the stealthiness of it all! Joe Blow driving down the road would think nothing of such a sign and might think a local family was chowing down on barbecued pork, baked beans, and potato salad. But in actuality the freaks are grooving down to tunes, partying hardy like one reads about, and chowing down on mostly vegetarian fare. Since this is a private event, there is no police presence whatsoever and not really any security per say, just a few people who kind of help direct other people where to go. The folks who attend this event are a courteous, responsible, and self-policing bunch. Its a very free environment where brothers and sisters look out for one another. People carry around their own party favors in small coolers or whatever else and no one litters. Its pretty much Oregon hippie Utopia for a few days in the woods.
The site this year was a lovely wooded plot of land with rolling hills, a little pond, a few very nice houses tucked in amongst the trees, a sandy volleyball court, a few vending stands, and one clunky little music stage in the main area. People set up tents anywhere they felt like it. There were tents right next to the stage, tucked in amongst the heavily wooded areas, or next to cars in the small parking lots further up the hill towards the entrance. Whereas some past years had musical acts as big as Les Claypool performing, this year was more of a low-key musical affair with mostly regional bands kicking down for the heads. I really enjoyed the gong show that was held on Saturday afternoon at this years event. Random people got up on stage to do their thing and, if the panel of four judges disapproved, the performer in question got gonged and pulled off the stage with a cane (a soft one, mind you). A woman got gonged for performing a very out of tune version of Standing on the Moon on acoustic guitar, while a little girl nearly received a standing ovation for her solo a cappella rendition of White Rabbit. The gonging was in good fun and the panel of judges made hilarious commentary throughout the show.
The musical highlight of the event this year was a headlining two set performance by Porter, Batiste and Stoltz. Unfortunately, I missed most of the show due to my excessive daytime revelry. I had never been to this event before and got a little too excited and had a few too many alcoholic beverages. I struggled to stay awake for a few tunes in the first set, but after enjoying a veggie egg roll from a vending booth, I succumbed to sleep and spent the show napping in the grass on the rolling hill in front of the stage. I sure did have funky good dreams, though! In the morning, my friend reported that the show was incredibly good and Porter in particular really dazzled the freaky masses with his seriously funky bass playing abilities. Next years I will simmer down and pace myself like I do at most festivals. Being a newcomer, this thing just seemed so much more like a party then a musical event to me, I guess.
Last weekend, however, I did not fall asleep when I took in a performance by a band called Canoofle at a small local diner/bar/venue called the Twilight Cafe. A friend of ours, Jason Mayberry, drums in various small ensembles in Portland. He told us we should come and check out a project he hooked up with recently called Canoofle. The music was described simply as improv. I fancy myself quite a fan of improvisational music (this column is even called Improvise), so I was puzzled I had not heard of this band before and wondered what was meant by the description, exactly. Was this jazzy improv, was this vocal improv, or was it instrumental improv? To answer that question in a nutshell, yes. This was one of the more fun and interactive shows Ive seen in a long time.
After a short set by the Eclectic Bastards, an entertaining little band in its own right, Canoofle took the stage. The band consists of 4 people. A woman named Kelly Goodwin played keyboards, squeezebox and other little trinkets, a guy named Sammy Lett was on sax, wind instruments, and percussion, our buddy Jason Mayberry hit the skins, and the creator of the whole concept Curtis Settino played bass, keys, percussion, banjo and anything else lying on the stage from which he felt like trying to emit sound. Canoofle has been around with a varying cast of characters since 1992. They perform a purely improvisational set of music which relies heavily on the audience.
With no audience, there is no Canoofle. But unlike Matt Butlers Everyone Orchestra where signs are held up for the band designating when to change keys, vamp, or go into a solo (and also for the audience to make sounds in unison), Canoofle asks only for a song title or concept from separate audience members to start off each improvisational song. If someone yells Bush sucks monkey balls the band will briefly huddle and then break into an odd bouncing melody which can vary from circus music to punk or to jazz while the various members improvise lyrics. The lyrics are, more often than not, down right hilarious. Its a given that sometimes the songs fall flat and the lyrics kind of suck, but at the show I saw, the good far outweighed the bad.

The thing that really appealed to me about Canoofle was the fact that the songs could be highly personalized to the audience. For instance, a group of girls yelled out Tracy is the hottest girl in the room and she doesnt even know it! This led to girlish giggles from around the table in question and one very red-faced and attractive girl by the name of Tracy snickering self consciously. The band broke into a very funny tune about Tracy and her modesty. Much hilarity throughout the small crowd ensued. Then my buddy Chris got up and yelled Zink thinks hes better than everyone else at work! The band then busted into a rant about me and how I am the coolest guy at work, I think everyone else is stupid, and that all the girls at work want to get with me (ironically hitting the nail right on the headnot). Sometimes the band would do little percussion solos in a song, sometimes they would do extended keyboard or sax solos, and other times they would do extended scat vocals – all to the delight of the attentively dialed in crowd. This is a band that never puts on the same show twice and that truly must have audience interaction. I wonder what would happen if absolutely no one showed up to a Canoofle show. Maybe the band would just sit there quietly for an hour and then pack up and leave. For more information on this strange little band, check out their website.

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