As I walked into the rehearsal space I happened upon a conversation I have stereotypically imagined most bands having – What are we going to change our name to next?
There were two Johns (Norris and Prechtel), and an Antoon. Andrea DeMarcus (Cicada Rhythm) and Adam Poulin who weren’t in on this rehearsal. Just guitars and a concertina (which I mistakenly called an accordion). Harmonica. A dobro. There was a small segue into yodeling. And my personal favorite, an empty coffee mug which doubles as a trumpet.
And that was only watching them rehearse two songs. Two songs and that much variety, that much musical talent on display? The only logical conclusion is to wait until they play live music again and go watch them thrive in their element.
These guys have known each other and played with each other for a while. It’s evident in how they naturally harmonize…with or without instruments. These musicians are the real deal. Their rapport has been honed too.
When I saw them they were really just playing for the sheer love of music. “There’s no end in sight [for the pandemic],” John Norris says offhandedly. This is a rough time for professional performers.
“Let’s call ourselves a one-word band name.”
“Like The Who.”
“That’s two words.”
“OK then, we can be The What.”
“The What? Or the What the F%@&?”
See? Natural rapport. Serious about the music, but not serious about being serious, if that makes any sense.
John Norris is the laid-back bass player (filling in for Andrea DeMarcus), who is a drummer in multiple other bands and who specializes in various musical genres. He finds it refreshing to be a guitar guy for the Gypsy Wildcats. He’s the only native Southerner in this ensemble.
John Prechtel is the concertina player/dobro (slide guitar) guy. His band mates say he’s the best guitarist of the group, but he’s enjoyed the exploration of other instruments with this group. This John grew up “Out West,” in Colorado and Arizona.
Antoon Speters is the lead guitarist and vocalist. Born in Holland, Antoon moved to the States when he was six-years-old. He’s also the yodeler. His name gets misspelled often, but according to him (and he should know), it’s A-N-T-O-O-N.
Yodeling! They even yodel. There really are no accurate words to capture how cool it sounds when, in the middle of an otherwise yodel-free song, the singer breaks out the yodel. It’s an almost otherworldly feeling.
They played the song “Tom Joad.” The lyrics to this Depression-era-and-Steinbeck-inspired song are eerily reminiscent of the way things are right now.
“Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks/Goin’ someplace, there’s no goin’ back/Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge/Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge.” – Bruce Springsteen
John Norris: “The first 45 record I ever bought was ‘Return to Sender,’ Elvis Presley. Or maybe no, it was really that “Davey Crockett song.”
Needless to say the band started signing the Davey Crockett song and began discussing the merits of wearing coonskin caps.
Antoon Speters (jokingly): “We were too poor for coonskin hats. We lived in a tent. My first song was, ‘Jesus Wants You for a Sunbeam’.’”
John Prechtel: “Duke Ellington’s ‘In my Solitude,’ or maybe ‘This Old House.’ Rosemary Clooney’s version, I think. Also I’m pretty sure my father, who worked for a radio station in Creighton, Colorado, recorded my four-year-old brother singing the Davey Crockett song.”
The discussion moved on to how they learned to love music and how they learned to play music. These Wildcats, these Gypsies, pretty much agreed on the methodology. In an era when sheet music was not as readily available as it is now, they would play a record, pick up the needle and move it back, listen to the bit of the song again, try to imitate it…then repeat…then repeat…then repeat again, and so on.
The talk turned to the pros and cons of how we disseminate music now versus how we used to do it.
Antoon: “When CDs came on the scene, me and six other people said, ‘We don’t need our records anymore,’ so we got rid of all our albums.”
They all regretted this decision, agreeing that records were far superior to CDs, and vastly superior to Internet music downloads.
Antoon: “What was worth 2 or 3 dollars then is now worth 150. Not that I’m a vinyl snob.”
Records were something you could hold in your hands, something to cherish, something to love. The liner notes, the album cover designs, the tangibility of being able to share some alone time with your records. Simply put, it was better.
The Gypsy Wildcats came together where so many Athens bands have formed before…downtown. John Norris used to regularly attend Sunday Sessions at The Globe, the great Irish bar downtown with its casually upscale downstairs and intimate stage upstairs. “I started hanging out there, putting up fliers for another group I play in. Antoon was there. He was one of several musicians playing there. He played a jazzy tune. And he was so good. We started jamming there after one of these sessions.” They later added John Prechtel (and two others) and the rest is history.
Since this is a band willing to experiment, to add to its musical menagerie, I asked them if there existed an instrument they wouldn’t let in. They all got thoughtful for a minute. “Spoons. No spoon player.” (sorry Liam Parke) “And tap dancing. No tap dancing. Well, maybe. But he’d have to be one really good tap dancing spoon player.”
John Norris: “One thing about what we do is that we tend to play songs that are not necessarily currently popular. The idea of the Gypsy Wildcats grew out of Vaudeville, gypsy jazz, folk chestnuts.” Yeah, that holds up.
John Prechtel: (after I commented about how hard playing the concertina looked—OK, in truth after I called it an accordion and was properly corrected, without being scolded like I probably should have been) “I purposefully have changed instruments.” John likes learning to play, and master, new instruments. He did admit that while it may look like he can literally play anything and his band mates both referred to him as their well-kept secret, that he wasn’t a natural woodwind player, though he later added that he’d love to learn to master the clarinet. My money’s on his mastering it if he tries, but time will tell.
There were two members of the band who weren’t present for that day’s rehearsal. Andrea DeMarcus ( a tremendous bass player and singer. They all praised her skills and stage presence) and Adam Poulin (master violinist). According to my calculations, Adam Poulin is a member of around 95% of the bands in Athens. Yes, he’s a damn talented violinist, but how does that dude find time to sleep?
For the moment, they’re still called the Gypsy Wildcats. But, as with all things musically-Athenian, that may soon change. Be on the look out for the Gypsy Wildcats whenever live music starts back up again. Or, to be safe, be on the look out for a band with a clever new name who once called themselves the Gypsy Wildcats. No matter what they call themselves, they’re talented, funny, interesting, well-rounded musicians who will introduce you to songs you won’t hear anywhere else.
– Bowen Craig