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Back To Wax

Tom Rodwell on his upcoming shows which take the CD vs. Vinyl debate to a whole other level (and don't even think about putting it on your i-pod)...


Tom cuts some wax

The idea for the Back to Wax Revue began in a curiosity shop in east Los Angeles, where I met the fortune-teller Madame Pamita. Apart from both being interested in funky "weird old" American music - I play slave era spirituals and blues, she's an expert in old time, hillbilly and vaudeville - we discovered we were both independently working with the original medium of recorded sound, Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder.

She’s been working with a private cylinder collector and engineer, who operates as 'Wizard Records', by the name of Peter Dilg, and I’ve been recording for about 18 months with Duncan Miller of the Vulcan Cylinder Record Co., here in Sheffield, UK. I’ve released one physical cylinder - a version of the African-American spiritual “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” - through Vulcan, and Madame Pamita has just released “Wax Works”, a CD collection of 13 songs made on cylinder.

Madame Pamita - Weird old American music

Edison’s phonograph cylinder technology was first developed in 1877. A performer arranges themselves in front of a funnel-like recording horn, which resonates at the sound of the music, causing vibrations on a small diaphragm, which in turn effect the cutting needle, which finally cuts grooves into a spinning cylinder of wax. No overdubs or edits are possible, and turning up the central heating makes for a better recording.

Interestingly, what you hear played back are not acoustic sounds, but the sounds of the equipment itself resonating sympathetically with music - it’s literally an impressionistic medium, and one that becomes very much part of the song. What attracted us to wax is not just the fact that it’s an old-time medium for old-time music - it totally predates the blues, and was superseded by newer innovations as World War One approached - but it really allows you to contemplate what recording does to music, and indeed what recording is for.

Both blues/gospel and hillbilly/country music have an improvisatory open-endedness that the record business can’t use, and the more artists have tried to tailor their music for recording purposes, the less it resembles the original freeform style. At the shows we hope to show how recording changed musical form and content - speeding up songs, losing verses, cutting solos - and yet also created new forms, and new ways for artistic expression to be transmitted.

Aside from doing a short tour together in the UK, we thought it an opportune time to introduce people to the cylinder process itself, so in May we’re doing two special shows in London where people will be able to watch us, and special guest ukulele songster the Borough Cat, battle to get a cylinder take live on stage. Later in the year we'll look at doing a more extensive tour. We’ve managed to rope in Duncan Miller to bring his portable wax recording and playback device to town, so each artist will sing a few numbers, and then attempt to get a live take with Duncan - who will then play the track back. We may have a little audience participation, perhaps a little Q&A, and definitely a good jam.

Quality control from Vulcan Duncan

What I find interesting, as someone who in a way was ‘found’ by blues music, growing up in 1980’s New Zealand and hearing it first on cassette and on late night radio, is that there is some durable feeling that persists and travels, both through jamming and through recordings. This feeling, passed along through a chain of recordings, has jumped off the needle, and into my everyday life. Recording and performing will always be two sides of the same coin, this music that’s a little bit unruly, but always fascinating. We hope the wax cylinder events pass on a little of that spirit.

Read our interview with Madame Pamita here >>

The Back to Wax Revue with Tom Rodwell, Madame Pamita and The Borough Cat vs The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company:

Wed May 20 - The George Tavern, 373 Commercial Road, Stepney, London E1 0LA / 8PM £6

Sun May 24 - The Luminaire, 311 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR £10 / £8 adv through

Madame Pamita & Tom Rodwell live in the UK May 2009:

ThursMay 14th - The Gladstone Arms, 64 Lant St, Borough, London SE1 1QN

Fri May 15 - The Alma, 95 Church Road, Crystal Palace, London SE19 2TA (with Joe Wilkes)

Fri May 22 - Brooks Blues Bar at The Telegraph, Telegraph Road (corner of Wildcroft Road), Putney Heath, London SW15 3TU / 8PM £12

Sat May 16 - Matsu, 558 Mile End Road, London E3 4PL

Sun May 17 - Dr King’s Jailhouse, East Dulwich Tavern, 1 Lordship Lane, Dulwich, London, SE22 8EW / £5

Tom Rodwell

Madame Pamita

Vulcan Cylinder Record Co.

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