When it comes to Gwangju’s local music scene, Andrew Vlasblom is an inventive and hospitable cornerstone, who is just as valued here as he is well known. Over the last few months, I have seen him command his piano through mountains and valleys of rock ‘n roll, classical, blues, avant-garde, pop, and folk. However, he has recently announced that his newest endeavor will be a journey into the Wild West, featuring a hand-picked ensemble, to perform The Ballad of Coward Jack.
This full-length album is as fresh out of the oven as a piping hot apple pie. Vlasblom explains, “The creation of the album began when I was sitting in a café on April 1st of this year. I started writing a song called ‘Shot’ with a Wild West theme. When I showed the ensemble the lyrics and they approved, I got an idea to develop the concept into a full-length album. They readily agreed to the idea of performing it, and I wrote the lyrics and music for the album over the next two weeks with the idea of doing a show at Daein market on May 27th. Since then we’ve been rehearsing and getting ready for the show. It’s been a lot of fun.” With each member of the ensemble as a gifted performer in his or her own right, Vlasblom makes it look easy, “Luckily, I didn’t really have to think about it— I had already been regularly collaborating with each of them individually for almost a year, both in bands and at open mics. They were my only choices for the roles, as I wrote the songs with their voices and fiddle in mind. Ashley Johnson, Kaitlyn Wachter, and Laureline Claeys will be singing the parts of the three characters in the story, as well as many chorus bits together. Eden Jones and I will be supplying the accompanying music on the fiddle and piano. They are all incredibly talented, and their dedication to making music is inspiring.”
After hearing a sneak peak of the overture this weekend, the chemistry of Vlasblom and Jones is as graceful as it is fierce, with heavy steps full of heartache marching toward the horizon. But the most important question still remains— Who is Coward Jack? Vlasblom paints us a picture, “I see The Ballad of Coward Jack as a Western tale about revenge told in musical form. Coward Jack is the titular anti-hero of the story. He’s done some bad things in his past and, while he has changed his ways and tried to escape his old life, the time has come for him to pay the consequences. You can expect plenty of Wild West clichés: gun-slingin,’ train-chasin’, villain-hatin’ fun. There will be some recurring theme songs and choruses that will hopefully have the audience singing along.”
Although he has composed and performed for a wide range of genres, settings, and topics, the six-shooter, sarsaparilla feel of this album is certainly not uncharted territory for Vlasblom, “I’ve loved the Wild West since I was a kid. My favourite toys were cowboys and Wild West Lego sets. My family also watched a lot of Western movies, and we visited pioneer villages and the like, which I enjoyed. As an adult, my appreciation for the Wild West has deepened as I have enjoyed more mature fare: I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Once Upon a Time in the West, my favourite Western film, and also Deadwood, my favourite Western TV drama.”
The sense of comradary among the ensemble members is a candid swirl of respect, inspiration, and shenanigans. Laureline Claeys sings the part of Heather, a young woman who has opened up a shop in the West to settle down with her husband. She describes the steady rehearsals nonchalantly and cracks jokes, but when asked about the depth of her experience explained, “Eden’s violin perfectly completes Andrew’s compositions, and the combination of the two instruments create a density in each piece. As you come to listen, you’ll discover music full of strength, virtuosity and emotions… What strikes me the most is the incredible creativity of Andrew, who wrote the music and the lyrics. He is extremely talented, always full of new ideas, and a natural born piano player. I sometimes call him, ‘the two-brained man.'”
Kaitlyn Wachter, who plays the part of Old John Red, sums up her experience,”This piece is different from anything I’ve done before, and every step has been packed full of surprises for me personally, so when it comes to audience expectations, I suppose they can expect to get caught up in a surprisingly emotional and gripping romp through the Wild West. Andrew and Eden’s instrumentation is breathtaking, and the lyrics are just fantastic. We’ve put a lot of ourselves into this project.”
Rehearsals for the project have taken several twists and turns in such a short amount of time, but the group has navigated the situation swiftly. Jones informed me of their accompanying scenery for the most recent rehearsals, “We had to leave our old place, so we are temporarily meeting in a partially demolished building in an undisclosed location downtown. It’s sort of half-indoor, half-outdoor and has a Secret Garden feel to it. There are trees growing up from the
concrete floor and stuff and the walls are crumbling at the sides. Aside from the mosquitos, it’s pretty magical. The atmosphere fits the Western theme of the album well, I feel, and we’ve been having a grand old time practicing and goofing off back there.” Claeys jokes,”The main obstacle was the impossibility to drink anything else but OB beer, and the constant, round trip to the toilets that was giving rhythm to the rehearsals.”
With long rehearsals and recording this week still ahead, the group is working up a sweat, but also raring to go for their public debut. The first performance kicks off this Saturday, May 27th, at Open Space Dreamers in Daein Market starting at 9:00 P.M. Hang on to yer hats for a wild ride!
May 27, 9:00 PM at Open Space Dreamers in Daein Market
June 24 at Loft 28
July 7 at Speakeasy (CD Release Party)
More performances TBA.
More music from Andrew Vlasblom available at: https://soundcloud.com/andrew-vlasblom
(All photographs courtesy of Andrew Vlasblom, Eden Jones, Kaitlyn Wachter, Laureline Claeys, Ashley Johnson, and Tae Sang Park)