Tao Rodriguez-Seeger fuses music traditions

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (photo by Taylor Crothers)

If you were performing with a bluegrass banjo legend known for his “jaw-dropping solos,” you might be understandably dismayed if you glanced over during your own banjo solo and saw him covering his ears with his hands.

Tao Rodriguez-Seeger had a different reaction.

“I thought, ‘I got him!'” he said, with mischievous glee.

As Pete Seeger’s grandson, Rodriguez-Seeger is in a good position to subvert music traditions, fusing folk with rock, tradition with experimentation. He will show off his unique blend of new and old at a free concert in Hudson Saturday night, part of the city’s Quadricentennial celebration.

“I like AC/DC as much as I like Tommy Jarrell” Rodriguez-Seeger said, referring to the rock band and the folk fiddler and banjo player born in North Carolina in 1901. “I’ve always tried to marry the two styles.”

The heresy that unnerved banjo maestro Tony Trischka was a combination of distortion, delay and a phase-shifter to create a feedback effect, like Jimmy Page on a banjo. Trischka, who was a teacher of Bela Fleck, and Rodriguez-Seeger’s band, the Mammals, were performing at a Februrary 2005 benefit concert headlined by Railroad Earth in Teaneck, N.J., when the younger musician pulled off the electric solo during a performance of the Mammals’ “Railroad Boy.”

After telling the story, Rodriguez-Seeger said he didn’t think he actually upset Trischka, who he has known since he was a teen. “Pushing the sonic boundaries of an instrument is just good fun and Tony knows that,” he said.

The technique isn’t as much of a stretch as it may seem — the banjo’s hollow body acts like an amplifier and “wants to feed back,” if plugged into an electric amp.

Tao said he doesn’t usually try to use electric banjo tricks around Grandpa Pete, but did get some positive feedback from the elder Seeger, who lives in Beacon, about a month ago at the Clearwater Revival festival.

“Half way through [a] song I started singing and yelling into the back of the banjo with some effect pedals switched on,” Rodriguez-Seeger recalled. “He said it sounded like Bach and whale songs. I’m pretty pleased by that.”

Rodriguez-Seeger, 37, was born in Poughkeepsie and spent part of his early childhood in Nicaragua, where his Puerto Rican father made documentaries about the Sandinista revolution. After nine years of speaking Spanish in Nicaragua, he returned to the U.S. and moved in with his maternal grandparents.

“I became a little annoyed at this gringo grandfather of mine singing songs in Spanish pretty badly and I told him so,” Rodriguez-Seeger said. Seeger responded by inviting Rodriguez-Seeger to help him out by singing with him. Their first performance together was in Japan in 1986, for an audience of more than half a million people. They’ve performed together many times since, and Rodgriguez-Seeger is now a full partner in his grandfather’s concerts.

He has performed two big-ticket events with the elder Seeger this year, Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration and a celebration of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater’s 40th anniversary on May 3 at Madison Square Garden in New York City — an event that doubled as a 90th birthday party for Pete.

Performing as part of the Quadricentennial celebration has a special meaning for Rodriguez-Seeger because of his family’s long history of activism on the river.

“My family’s been involved since before I was born in the struggle to clean up this river,” he said. “I’ve been sailing on the Hudson since I was a little kid.”

Despite an enthusiasm for touring that led him to average over 150 gigs a year in a few years with the Mammals, Rodriguez-Seeger, who now lives in Highland, said the concert in Hudson will be a sort of homecoming.

“It’s my home, the Hudson Valley. I’ve moved away, but I always come back.”

When asked if being Pete Seeger’s grandson came with any extra pressure to live up to his family’s legacy, Tao said “No. If anything it makes me feel a little mischievous.”

His grandfather’s musical and life lessons included a philosophy of going his own way, and learning from him gave was the equivalent of a first-rate education. “It’s sort of like going to Harvard,” he said.

Rodriguez-Seeger described his music as “rootsy” and “psychedelic” – “fiddle and banjo tunes in an amped-up, rock ‘n’ roll way.” His free-spirited attitude extends to his plan, or lack of one, for Saturday’s performance. He knows what he’ll open with, and what he’ll close with, but, he said “the middle is a muddle.”

At the inauguration, the cold weather caused Rodriguez-Seeger’s guitar to crack, which he noticed just before the performance. “U2 is playing ‘In the Name of Love,’ and I’m [telling myself], ‘don’t think too much about it.'” After the performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” with Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, the new President met the musicians, and signed the cracked guitar: “This land is your land. Barack Obama.”

Rodriguez-Seeger doesn’t have a lot of faith in politicians, calling them “just a bunch of greedy bums, like the rest of us.” But he saw in Obama a more recognizably “human” leader, and it inspired him to try to be a better citizen.

Politics is not a focus of his music, he says, but at the same time, people and politics are linked.

“When you sing about people and their stories, you’re essentially singing about politics.”

He once asked his grandfather how many political songs to include in a concert. Pete Seeger answered “One, as long as its the right one.” Rodriguez-Seeger took that advice to heart. “You can get people thinking,” he said, but “you don’t want to hit people over the head with rhetoric.” His aim, he said, is “party music with a conscience.”

For his grandfather’s birthday, Rodriguez-Seeger said that they managed to achieve a sense of intimacy despite the size of the venue by lowering their volume and encouraging the audience to sing along. “You should hear how loud 18,000 people singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ sounds,” he said.

The weekend after the Hudson show, Rodriguez-Seeger will perform, solo and with his grandfather, at the Newport Folk Festival, where Pete Seeger famously clashed with Bob Dylan in 1965, when Dylan “went electric” during a performance of “Maggie’s Farm.” In interviews since, Pete Seeger has said that he didn’t object to the use of electric amps, but rather the fact that the sound mixing and volume drowned out the song’s lyrics. Rodriguez-Seeger, who called the incident “overblown,” said that he agrees that lyrics are important and that there is such a thing as “too loud,” although his tolerance for loudness is higher than his grandfather’s.

“I think there is and always will be some sort of divide between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘experimentalists’. Maybe the line has become broader and grayer than it’s been in the past,” he said. “I don’t pay much mind if and when I get the occasional complaint. I’m just interested in playing music from the heart and being true to my ear.”

Published by the Daily Freeman

Sculpture show has nature on its mind

He stands 10 feet tall, with a body of iron beams and welded scrap metal. His face is a bicycle wheel, with nuts and bolts are riveted to his hat and various water-faucet handles serving as shirt-buttons.

“I think he’s cute,” said Meagan Gallagher, referring to “Henry Hudson and the Half Moon,” a sculpture that looms at the water’s edge in Kingston’s Rotary Park.

Gallagher, 25, is the curator of the 2009 Kingston Sculpture Biennial exhibition, and she called the sculpture, created by miChelle Vara, “powerful yet whimsical.”

“With the quadricentennial, it’s such a great centerpiece,” Gallagher said, referring to the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the river that bears his name.

The theme of this year’s biennial, the ninth, is “Go Green and Keep the Hudson Clean.” It focuses on work that pays homage to the Hudson River’s impact and uses natural or recycled materials. Because of the river-centric theme, almost all of the sculptures in the city are located at Kingston Point, Rotary Park and Hasbrouck Park, with four sculptures in and around the Arts Society of Kingston headquarters at 97 Broadway. Previous biennials have included works scattered throughout the city, on public and private lawns and indoors.

But not everyone wholeheartedly supports the river-and-parks location. Alderman Thomas Hoffay (D-Ward 2), who represents Uptown Kingston, said that the Biennial had “lost something” by neglecting parts of the city where people work and go about their daily business. Although he understood the decision to focus on the river, he said previous biennials “had more of a visual impact, because people saw them every day.”

Nevertheless, Gallagher said that early word-of-mouth has been positive. “I’ve been told it’s a lot more fun than shows in the past.”

One of ASK’s goals was to create an exhibition that that fits the city and its history and getting people to rediscover the parks. “A lot of people have said, ‘I hadn’t been to Hasbrouck park in years, and it’s so beautiful’,”Gallagher said.

There are 50 sculptures in the exhibit, although one of them has surely melted by now — over a dozen ice boats carved by Itty Neuhas were launched at the July 4 opening ceremony, their waters joining the Hudson on its way toward the Atlantic. The title plaque, “Ice Boats Melt into the Hudson,” remains near the water’s edge in Rotary Park, long outlasting the work itself.

Gallagher and Vindora Wixom, ASK’s executive director, said that their goals this year were to create an exhibition that was accessible, fun and “kid-friendly.”

The kid-friendly theme extended to the official opening reception on July 4, which featured children’s activities — including boat-making and face-painting — guided tours, live music and hors d’ouvres.

“We tried to, rather than provoke the people here in Kingston, to attract them,” said Wixom, who has a sculpture of her own in the biennial, “Tear of the Clouds.” She added that no designs were turned down because they might be controversial.

In part because of the theme, this year’s exhibition will likely be less controversial than some past biennials. Two of the more controversial pieces in the event’s history were Tom Gottslieben’s “Spiral Construction” and Rita Dee’s “Atticus,” both of which were displayed on the lawn of the Ulster County Courthouse on Wall Street. “Spiral Construction,” from the 1999 biennial, resembled a blue screw made from bluestone, stainless steel and crystal, and some observers interpreted it as a commentary on fairness in the justice system. “Atticus,” a wooden horse sculpture with the Ten Commandments and other biblical passages inscribed on its wooden framework, was moved in 2005 after it was opposed by mayor James Sottile and others, who said it was promoting religion on government property. It was moved to the lawn of the Old Dutch Church, across the street.

Despite the emphasis on nature and whimsy, “you never know what will offend some people,” Wixom said, whether for political or aesthetic reasons.

But Wixom said that the nature of the exhibit will reward repeat visitors to the parks. There are “a lot of nooks and crannies,” and some of the work is not immediately noticeable.

Visitors to Rotary Park seemed to have positive reactions to the art that sprouted up there recently.

On a warm Thursday afternoon, two visitors to the park relaxed at a hilltop gazebo, listening to Mark Bernard’s entry, “The Tree Whispers Hudson,” a radio installation with motion sensors that greets passersby and then gives lectures on the history of the city and the river.

“Would you come over here?” the voice from the bushes asked. “I’m the tree over here. I’m this fallen log.”

“This is great,” said Katie Panchack, 23, of Saugerties, as the log continued with a speech about the Lenape tribe that settled the area before Hudson’s arrival. “I’ve been here all my life and didn’t know half of this stuff.”

Panchak said the biennial was “awesome.” “There’s so much stuff to look at.”

Her friend, Juan Valdez, a visitor from West Palm Beach, Fla., agreed. “This is very beautiful.”

Rick Van Dusen, a retired builder and Kingston resident since 1997, said that he liked the way the art fit with the natural surroundings. “It’s all about nature,” he said.

“Some of it I like, and some of it I don’t,” he said, appearing unimpressed with some of the abstract metal statues. His favorite is “The Dancer,” by Kathy Bruce, a tall bamboo and moss figure rising out of a bush that spreads around her waist like a skirt. “It’s the nicest one I’ve seen so far.”

Van Dusen, a frequent visitor to Rotary Park, made the trip with his dog, Mina, a 2-year-old Shitzu-Maltese mix, who also approved of the exhibition. “She likes the art,” Van Dusen said.

“I like the walkway at the entrance,” Panchak said. “It’s very bright and colorful. It’s not an eyesore.”

The pathway, entitled “Alive! A Path of Renewal,” is made from bluestones and planters hand-painted by residents of the Northeast Center for Special Care as part of their rehabilitation from brain injuries.

MiChelle Vara, the sculptor of “Henry Hudson,” said that she is happy with her statue’s central location. She pieced him together over the course of a year, with the quadricentennial in mind.

“He is very happy in the park, and he appears to be quite happy next to the Indian,” she said, referring to Dave Channon’s “Diana Lenape,” a large metal sculpture made with discarded garden tools including shovel heads and a rake, in the likeness of a Native American woman aiming a bow and arrow.

The art will remain on display until October. Later in the summer, ASK plans to sell catalogs commemorating the exhibit, which will have photographs of the art in its outdoor setting, an opening comment, artist statements and photos from the July 4 reception. Funding for the event normally comes from city coffers, but this year ASK carried the costs of promotion and is waiting to be reimbursed by funds from a state grant for the Hudson Fulton Champlain Quadricentennial. They have asked for $10,000, the same amount as in past years.

Other artists featured in the biennial include Melita Greenleaf, Scarlett Colsen, Michael Ciccone, Anne Dushanko Dobek, Robin M. Glassman, Karen Pignataro, Gary Pluschau, Randy Polumbo, the Student Art Alliance at SUNY New Paltz, Matthew Zappala, Casey Schwartz, Susan Togut, Anne Stanner, Cristina Ungureanu, Emily Puthoff, Bill Brovold, Pieter and Abby Heijnen, Bennett Wine, Terry L.H. Slade, Ze’ev Wily Neumann, Kelly McGrath, Patrick Sweeney, Stephen Reynolds, Pamela Wallace, Robert Giordano, Lucjan Nowinski, Franc Palaia, James Hixson, Sandra Schaller and Oreen Cohen.

Published by the Daily Freeman