By JAMIE JOBB
Special to the Tribune
“Haunted Windchimes” is one bent handle for the fantastic Colorado string quintet that returns to Armando’s for another live afternoon show a week from Sunday. Their name may imply breezy new-age chamber music, but the band won’t play that stuff in Martinez. They ain’t playin’ spook-fairy dance numbers neither!
Their gritty heart-felt tunes are hard to describe actually, grounded as they are in the Rocky Mountains where folks tend to get lofty views. And speak their minds.
We could call their music “bluegrass” perhaps, at least in number of players (five) and most of their instrumentation (ukulele subs for fiddle). But sometimes their odd toolbox makes them sound almost like a jug band. On any given tune, they may employ melodica, tambourine, harmonica, concertina, banjo ukulele, soprano ukulele, baritone ukulele, toy piano or kazoo. But no jug, not yet.
Much like bluegrass, their firebrand mountain music is founded simply on precision picking and upbeat harmonics. So what if their mountains aren’t those dissected plateaus surrounding Appalachia, where authentic bluegrass traces its musical roots all the way back to Celtic highlands of yore.
Four of the five band members write tuneful honky tonk lyrics unsung by the likes of Bill Monroe. Lurking under their soothing string phrasings, unleashed lines get littered with a “bottle of jack” here, a “dynamite stogie” there, a grown man pleading “don’t take my baby away.”
Haunted Windchimes sing to extremes, but their stark words are often cloaked under soft sonic blankets. “Say Yer Sorry” is one slick number sung down the barrel of a gun: “gave back yer diamonds / took back my bed / drink a little whiskey / clear my head.” “Little Box” is a wonderful set-herself-free love song with loopy refrains: “I’ve been workin’ on a sweater / that you surely won’t adore.” We might as well call the band “Soft Jalapeño Tacos,” although that name is probably taken already.
The band can’t change the name now that they’ve had guest slots on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Keillor correctly claims the group is “popular among the gray hairs, green hairs, purple hairs and all over.” Keillor certainly knows gray hair, having announced in July that he’s retiring next year. That’s a good thing – now the man can really slow down!
With their second live album recently released, this Colorado band won’t be slowing down anytime soon. Like many groups, they’re best appreciated when heard live on stage where you can watch their fingers.
Haunted Windchimes are Chela Lujan on banjo; her brother Inaiah Lujan on guitar, banjo and toy piano; his wife Desirae Garcia on baritone ukulele and kazoo; Sean Fanning on upright bass, melodica, tambourine and ukulele; plus the soulful mountain bluesman Mike Clark on mandolin, concertina, harmonica and guitar.
Like any good bluegrass band, all five of them sing sweet front-porch harmony. Bassist Fanning is the only one without a tune-writing credit, but nobody seems to mind. Clark also has his own independent singer-songwriter career but tours with the Chimes and is integral to their success.
The unique grit of Clark’s voice grounds the band, but it seems Inaiah Lujan is the group’s reluctant leader with his own fine singing style. Both men are savvy songwriters who obviously enjoy the rock-solid support of their fellow players, particularly Lujan’s sister and wife who, in addition to their own songwriting skills, bring a true taste of Appalachia to their high-altitude harmonies.
I grew up in the Allegheny/Appalachian region, so my ears know such things. As kids we heard this haunting porch music when we were playing “in the hollers” – the “hollows” being the sharp valleys that count for “canyons” in those so-called “mountains” back east where “Flatt and Scruggs” was must-see Saturday afternoon TV.
Sing Out magazine lauds Haunted Windchimes’ “rustic honeyed harmonies” which clearly flow from the feminine side of the band. More than just sisters-in-law, Chela and Desirae intuitively grasp how to conjoin voices into that sacred stratosphere of unvarnished country singin’ … I tell ya what!
Oh yes, and did we mention the songs each woman writes tend to scatter a certain poetic pixiedust uncommon to this planet? Listen to Desirae’s “Little Box,” “Giant” and “Your Song,” then hear Chela’s “Sea Bride,” “There She Waits” and “Little Bones” … you’ll hear the picture. Whip-crackin’, very short-and-not-so-sweet stories, really.
The band’s annual California tour currently has these September gigs aligned: The Strawberry Music Festival in Tuolumne on Sept. 4; Amnesia at 853 Valencia St. in San Francisco on Sept. 10; Armando’s afternoon show here on Sept. 13; The Folk Revival at Rainbow Lagoon Park in Long Beach on Sept. 19; Yosemite’s Evergreen Lodge in Groveland on Sept. 24 and the Lost Sierra Hoedown in Johnsville on Sept. 26.
Basing themselves at the foot of the Front Range in Pueblo Colorado, the Haunted Windchimes trek along with the best of the burgeoning Rocky Mountain music scene which includes inspired bands like The Railsplitters, Ragged Union and The Shook Twins. We’re blessed to have a small club like Armando’s give Martinez audiences another opportunity to see talent like this up close and personal. We’re glad they keep coming back … now, where’d I put that kazoo?
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Jamie Jobb is an author and videographer living in Martinez. His “Quoting Roy Jeans,” a comic documentary about Armando’s Music Hall, screened last year as a rough cut at the Martinez Campbell Theater. His videos can be found on YouTube and The Internet Archive.