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Jukebox: Remembering local icon MotherJudge

Jukebox: Remembering local icon MotherJudge

Jukebox: Remembering local icon MotherJudge
Local iconic singer and open mic host Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen has died.
Photographer: youtube

“There’s no better place to hear this news,” mourned Albany musician Michael Eck, walking into Carnegie Hall on Saturday, March 9. Excited to see Chris Thile, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, Eck also bore an awful burden. He’d just heard that his longtime friend and sometime bandmate Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen had died.

Eck told the strangers in his box why he might lose it during the show, losing it briefly as he warned them. He could have presented a concert-length appreciation for the singer-songwriter, leader of many bands, operator of the Best Damn Open Mic Ever and two recording studios, and volunteer coordinator of area festivals — as he did to me over the phone Sunday while he drove to Caffe Lena to see Sierra Hull.

Eck recalled first hearing MotherJudge in an open mic at QE2 (now the Fuze Box) in 1987. He first admired her “ … sort of Phoebe Snow sound … but I knew it was much more than that by the end of the song.” In 2001, they formed a working band called Wood with Mitch Elrod (MotherJudge’s longtime duo partner, including on the recent “Cold Warrior” album) and Albie von Schaaf. “With four songwriters we joked we were like the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of Albany, and argued about who got to be who,” said Eck. They chose MotherJudge to introduce the songs. When Eck listened recently to a Wood show recorded at Caffe Lena, he recalled, “The beautiful things she had to say about us were so moving.” He said. “Some of them were lies, but they were definitely moving.”

A strong personality, MotherJudge “was certainly our guiding light in Wood,” said Eck. She led the Siren Sisters and the Urban Holiness Society, the eclectic and powerful combo I saw her steer like a taxi, a sailing ship, at the old Music Haven stage. In my first exposure to her powerful low voice and high-flying musical vision, I had no doubt she was the boss, with a clear vision and a firm but light touch.

Percussionist and frequent concertgoer Steve Nover played several times with MotherJudge. “The coolest was Tawasentha Park, when she first got the gig and found out the pay was $50 a musician,” said Nover. “She put together a 16-piece band!”

“Her greatest contribution to the music scene was the Best Damn Open Mic Ever,” said Eck, tracing it from Godfrey’s to the Larkin, the Lark Tavern (its longest-tenured venue), then McGeary’s, where friends gathered March 3 to celebrate her.

“She ran that for 20 years,” said Eck of BDOME. “She was MotherJudge (a term borrowed from brothel lore), but she was also a mother hen — with an edge.” Eck said, “She was very demanding, wanting people to be their best. She would take everybody who came in (from novices to working musicians trying out new tunes) and build them up to be the best they could be. She would take people aside and give them pointers about how to present themselves onstage and work on their songs.”

He said, “I always thought that was fantastic.”

At McGeary’s in the music community’s recent farewell, “There weren’t many tears last week,” Eck said, “because people were celebrating who she was and keeping [sadness] to themselves.” He framed the event in his mother’s words (which he later found in a Carter Family song): “Bring me the flowers while I live.”
Caroline MotherJudge Isachsen brought us the flowers while she lived.

Eck said, “She was a beautiful soul, and she still is.”

“Sisters of Slide” — bluesy slide guitarists Rory Block and Cindy Cashdollar — play Friday at Cohoes Music Hall (58 Remsen St.). They dazzled at The Egg, opening for Richard Thompson last November and are back to do it again. 8 p.m. Floor $37, parquet $32, balcony $27. 518-953-0630 www.thecohoesmusichall.org

Donnybrook Fair (Kevin McKrell, David McDonnell and Jeff Strange) reunited recently, recalling their ’80s heyday as Irish music top dogs here. Tonight they play The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany). 7:30 p.m. $29.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org

Jazz singer Cyrille Aimee takes over Friday, singing Sondheim songs and other jazz classics. $29.50. 8 p.m.
Saturday, original member Jim McCarty leads the Yardbirds (proving ground of guitar greats Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton; more recently Johnny A and now

Godfrey Townsend) in noisy British Invasion blues-rock. 8 p.m. $34.50

Pianist/guitarist George Winston came up at the dawn of New Age instrumentals, an accident of timing that obscured the rural folkie depth of his playing. At The Egg on Sunday, he plays tunes from “Spring Carousel,” and we really need some warm hopeful tunes. 7 p.m. $36

Top area indie/folk/pop duo The Sea The Sea sings tonight at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs). 7p.m. $16 advance, $18 door, $9 students and children. 518-583-0022 www.caffelena.org

With Lucy Kaplansky (Friday 8 p.m. $22, $25 $12.50), it’s the songs; with Ariana Gillis (Saturday 8 p.m. $18, $20, $10), it’s the voice. Kaplansky’s new “Everyday Street” album, her first in six years, brings into sound the insightful writing we’ve come to expect from her solo albums and collaborations with the trio Cry Cry Cry; bandmates Shawn Colvin and Richard Shindell sing on the album, Duke Levine plays all over it. Classics borrowed from tradition, Nanci Griffith, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen feel like gifts, to Kaplansky and to us. While Kaplansky sometimes sings a bit behind the beat, Canadian-born Gillis pushes it; she’s become a festival fave for a precociously powerful presence onstage and a voice of uncommon clarity and strength.

Donnybrook Fair plays the Caffe on Sunday. Yep, St. Patrick’s Day! Enough said! 8 p.m. $22, $25, $12.50

The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour rolls into Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Tuesday with a stellar cast — Cecile McLorin Salvant, vocals; Bria Skonberg, trumpet and vocals; Melissa Aldana, tenor sax; Christian Sands, piano and musical director; Jamison Ross, drums and vocals; and Yasushi Nakamura, bass — and a repertoire wide as jazz tradition and deep as their respect for their forbears. A Bridge Jazz Festival event co-sponsored with the Massry Center at The College of Saint Rose. 7:30 p.m. $39, $32. 518-273-0038 www.troymusichall.org

Longtime (50 years!) Grateful Dead family member (roadie, Garcia’s guitar tech and best man, manager of the Jerry Garcia Band) Steve Parish brings his Big Steve Hour of Dead stories and songs to the Parish Public House (388 Broadway, Albany) on Tuesday. Katie Skene adds guitar to the stories; regional Dead tribute band the Wheel follows Big Steve. 7 p.m. $15 advance, $20 door. 518-465-0444 www.parishpublichouse.com

Louisiana blues/country singer-songwriter Eric Lindell takes over the Parish Public House on Wednesday. His strong, deep set was an ear-opening highlight at Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2015. 9 p.m. $20

Guitarist Sonny Landreth and pianist Marcia Ball took The Egg WAY up the bayou last Saturday in a jubilant ride on their two-car funk train through the sounds of Louisiana. Landreth’s trio started quietly from soft-spoken (acoustic) slide-dobro blues before plugging in to rock the place. His swampy, roadhouse blasts and sophisticated swamp-prog romps featured wild, strange sounds that even guitarists such as my pal Dan Leonard couldn’t decipher, but joined us all in merry marveling. “Creole Angel” closed Landreth’s acoustic run; “Bayou Teche” and a Johnny Winter tribute took the set home.

Powerhouse pianist Ball’s singing had a compelling, gallant frailty before her scratchy-at-first voice warmed up — with perfect timing in Randy Newman’s mournful, mighty “Louisiana 1927.” About a Depression-era flood, its tragedy bled into Katrina time with saxman Eric Bernhardt’s best solo of the night; Ball’s best vocal, too. Her set was a party; heating up early at the stove in “Got My Red Beans Cooking,” inviting “Just Kiss Me Baby,” honoring her mom’s hometown in “Thibodeaux, Louisiana” and throwing her head back in the encore “The Party’s Still Going On.” Sure was.

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