April 16th, 2007
If Cork n’ Bottle String Band: The Ken’s Bar Story ever makes its way outside the friendly confines of Madison, the opening mock newsreel showing the band as USOers circa 1942 keeping American wartime spirits high will serve as a good introduction to folks unfamiliar with Madison’s original slapstick bluegrass band. The movie started out as a video scrapbook of the CBSB’s six-year run at the now-defunct Ken’s Bar off the Square on Butler Street. It ended up as a feature-length bit of nostalgia and tribute to the power of music, friends, and beer. I saw CBSB at Ken’s a few times back in 1997/98 when I lived not to far from the liquor store which gave the group its name and the archival footage and photos brought back some good memories.
The band’s genesis is at the aforementioned liquor store where a few of the future band members worked and the rest shopped. Spruce Tree Music was next door and so bluegrass was an oft-covered topic. On New Year’s Eve 1995, the guys decided that they’d form a bluegrass band. This necessitated not only obtaining instruments, but also learning how to play them. With the assistance of bartender Jeremy Smith, the band landed a gig at Ken’s Bar on Wednesday nights which would last until November 2002 when Ken’s closed. The allure was being able to get together with friends once a week to have some fun – and drink free beer. Did I mention that the guys like beer? I think every shot with a band member in it had them drinking the stuff except when guitarist David Landau is being interviewed as he drives around town. Even then, a can could have been in the cup holder just out of the frame.
As the members’ abilities on their instruments grew, so did the crowds at Ken’s. The first gig attracted a few stragglers but by the end of Ken’s, the joint was packed beyond the reach of any safety code. There were countless regulars and some of them appear in the movie while even more were in the audience Saturday night. No doubt many viewers either saw themselves or at least someone they knew in the old photos or grainy footage from Ken’s. The band members told many a story such as the time some hippies got their dreadlocks stuck on a newly varnished wall or when mandolinist Greg Dierks kicked a particularly annoying fan that was standing a bit too close. But from the occasional gasp or whispered comment it seemed like there were several audience members who had tales of their own to add to the story. They were an integral part of the Ken’s experience too, after all.
Country music historian and WORT DJ Bill Malone adds some commentary and it was especially funny to hear the author of the definitive book on country music opine on the band one moment only to see them do Bluegrass TV Cribs (one of a few staged sequences) the next. For the record, I swallowed my gum laughing during that scene. But aside from comedy, the CBSB became great musicians. Featured were some great performance footage including “Big New”, “Old Joe Clark”, and “Pig In a Pen”. “The Auctioneer” sung by Landau as if he were doing one of those old Federal Express commercials drew a large round of applause and cheers from the audience.
Cork n’ Bottle String Band: The Ken’s Bar Story has a built-in appeal for fans of the band but it should also find an audience with general music lovers and beer drinkers too.