Duo brings classical whimsy to weekly Edgefield gigs
If You Go
What: Groovy Wallpaper featuring Skip vonKuske and Don Henson with guest David Langenes
When: 7-9 p.m. Monday, Dec. 23 (and most Mondays)
Where: McMenamins Edgefield Winery Tasting Room, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale
Visit: mcmenamins.com/edgefield or Groovy Wallpaper on Facebook
To those familiar with the Portland-area music scene in the past several years, catching the once-ubiquitous Sneakin' Out was an unforgettable experience: a trio that combined virtuosic interpretations of classic and alternative rock songs with unique instrumentation like mandolin, stand-up bass, glockenspiel and, um, a typewriter.
Yes, a typewriter. More about that later. Anyhow, some of that band's cleverly skewed sensibility found its way to Groovy Wallpaper, a duo featuring Sneakin' Out percussionist and pianist Don Henson and cellist-vocalist Skip vonKuske.
While the two outfits (Sneakin' Out is currently on hiatus) share a member and some overlapping elements, Henson sees a distinct musical difference.
"Sneakin' Out, in my mind, no matter how it seemed, we were a rock band — interloping Beethoven into 'Paint It Black' or whatever," he says. "But the premise was we were a rock band. Skip and me, it's not classical, but it's classical-influenced. It leans more toward classical and jazz influence than straight-up rock. That's mainly the difference.
"I play the piano too," Henson adds, "so the approach is different."
As they do most every Monday evening, Groovy Wallpaper will weave their unique, multi-genred musical tapestry at McMenamins Edgefield Winery Tasting Room on Monday, Dec. 23, when musician David Langenes will be their guest.
The duo, which recently released an album called "After Thought" along with a vonKuske-led collection of original Christmas music, frequently invite singer-songwriter friends like Kathryn Claire, Rob Wynia and Will West to join them at the weekly performance.
"We schedule them, invite them to do their thing, and support them in a 'let's see what happens' environment," vonKuske says of the guests. "We do play with various artists on their shows and rehearse and do as we're asked professionally, but Mondays are our shows and it's different in the way we take risks."
vonKuske has held the weekly slot for 15 years, with Henson and Groovy Wallpaper entering the picture in 2010.
"I never thought it would last this long," vonKuske says of the gig. "One of the great things I love is how it feels as safe as my living room in terms of taking chances and letting the music unfold in a natural way."
Henson and vonKuske met around 2004 when Henson was in Sneakin' Out and vonKuske in Vagabond Opera. vonKuske sat in frequently with Sneakin' Out between 2006 and 2009.
"In early 2010, I invited Don to be my guest artist at Edgefield Winery. We had no plan," vonKuske says. "I played some of my original music and we improvised ... one month to the day later we recorded our first album together. Our roles are to support each other's ideas."
Henson credits the inspiration for "After Thought" to the late Lisa Lepine, a beloved Portland music promoter and catalyst who died following surgery in 2016.
"She was a big catalyst for that," Henson says. "When Lisa passed, Skip had inspiration and wrote a bunch of lyrics — about 10 different songs, five or six he brought to the table for Groovy Wallpaper. We arranged them together ... It gave us a dimension we hadn't had in the past."
vonKuske's Christmas album "Holiday Spirits," to which Henson contributes, also explores a unique dimension — that of the more debauched aspect of holiday season revelry.
"'Holiday Spirits' is all original songs I wrote, celebrating those folks who spend the holidays at bars or imbibing a little bit too much," vonKuske says. "The first song, 'XMas at the Bottom,' was an exercise in writing a super happy sounding song with depressing lyrics."
To promote the project, the duo made a suitably tragicomic video for the song "Jingle Bells and Bourbon" at Dante's club in downtown Portland.
"I said 'I can be the drunk one,'" Henson says of his role in the video, which can be viewed on YouTube. "I had Coke in a glass, but acted kinda s—t faced. I think it's pretty fun, really. Ridiculous, but pretty fun."
One might say the same thing for Henson's creative use of a manual Smith Corona or Royal typewriter as a key element in his impressive percussion arsenal. Initially inspired by typing sounds in the Brian Eno song "China My China," Henson's frantic but accurate accents on the letter keys add a signature visual as well as musical element to the Groovy Wallpaper vibe.
"Most of what I do I use my hands or a mallet of some kind," he says, adding that he often plays piano with his right hand while clacking away at the typewriter with his left. "In my head, I use it sort of as a hi-hat (cymbal) ... I am a timekeeper, but other times it's utterly melodic."
With an initially reluctant but now willing supplier of vintage Smith Coronas in North Portland, Henson figures the analog "instrument" is there to stay.
"People can relate to it because they recognize it," he says. "People enjoy it."
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