December 19, 2020
For the past nine months livestreamed concerts have provided a lifeline for out-of-work musicians and music lovers desperately in need of the singular frisson that emanates from experiencing performances in real time. While many Bay Area artists are presenting weekly gigs from their living rooms, no players have embraced the work-at-home ethos as avidly as Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco.
Possessing an expansive knowledge of American popular music circa 1890 – 1940, Axelrod is a superb guitarist and a singer with an instantly recognizable, delightfully pliable sound that’s both girlishly flirty and playfully womanly (“my natural range happens to be soprano, but I never sing in head voice” she said). Ventresco is a near legendary guitarist with a nonpareil command of ragtime and early jazz and blues idioms. The couple performs every night at 8 p.m. from the cozy kitchen confines of their North Beach apartment via Axelrod’s Facebook page. Amid relentless Covid and election-induced anxiety their dependable dose of sublime and sometime ridiculous music serves as a diverting antidote for a trying time.
Their perseverance is a feat in itself. In early January, they’ll broadcast their 300th set, a streak interrupted only once when they took a night off in recognition of the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. The fact that they’ve hardly repeated a tune over the course of some 275 nights is even more remarkable. Inveterate collectors of sheet music and 78s, they’ve acquired a vast trove of hoary standards and mostly forgotten songs that failed to generate enough momentum or that fell out of fashion around the time that the Benny Goodman Orchestra was kindling the swing era from the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.
A typical Axelrod/Ventresco set might feature her soaring vocals on Mort Dixon and Harry M. Woods’s “River Stay Away from My Door,” first recorded by New Orleans clarinet great Jimmie Noone and His Orchestra in 1931, and a playful jaunt through 1906 obscurity “My Hindoo Maid,” immortalized by xylophonist Peter Lewin. He’ll take over vocal duties on Paul Whiteman’s 1920 hit “Wang Wang Blues” and deliver a striking instrumental rendition of Scott Joplin’s innovative 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” with Axelrod’s expert rhythmic support. As a pièce de résistance she’ll render songwriter Richard Whiting’s breakthrough 1915 hit “It's Tulip Time In Holland (Two Lips Are Calling Me)” with generous affection for the deep current of silliness running through American popular music.
“We try to avoid repetition,” said Axelrod. “I’ve often questioned my life choices, whether I’d wasted my time learning hundreds of these old songs. I’ve wondered whether I should have used my mind trying to help people who are sick, or to learn oceanography. I felt we were lucky that finally a crisis has come along where our skill set is of use.”
As hosts Axelrod and Ventresco make good company. They have a little bit of a George Burns – Gracie Allen thing going on, with Axelrod’s beatific smile and occasional non sequitur leavened by Ventresco’s poker-faced wordplay and historical references. They regularly draw 70-90 viewers and it’s not unusual to see musical luminaries popping up in the chat box to offer praise, request a song, or a comment about a pot visible on their stove. It’s not surprising to find out that they first played together as buskers in San Francisco in the mid aughts.
They’d never done a livestream before the March shelter in place order came down, but as the pandemic gathered force “the handwriting was on the wall,” Ventresco said. “We both support ourselves playing gigs, so I was worried. Facebook has the ‘go live’ function and I figured what do you have to lose? I got a pretty good reaction. We both decided to try doing it at 8 p.m. every night and so many people watched we just kept doing it. We really love to play music anyway. We get to play music for really appreciative people, and it’s giving us some structure.”
Ventresco first gained notice in the early 1990s with his work in the ragtime combo Bo Grumpus (not to be confused with the 1960s Boston psychedelic rock band of the same name), which mostly performed and recorded as a trio with bassist Marty Eggers and Pete Devine on washboard and percussion. His reputation accelerated considerably via his work on the soundtrack for Crumb, Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary about the underground comics artist R. Crumb (a banjo player and fellow enthusiast of country blues, early jazz, and hokum, which Crumb performed with the Bay Area-based Cheap Suit Serenaders).
But Ventresco has never been particularly dedicated to self-promotion. Before the pandemic he was too busy gigging every night to devote much time or energy to touring and recording. Catching a Ventresco performance used to require tracking down one of the San Francisco cafes or restaurants he frequented as a solo act, a duo with Axelrod or in the Hot Club-inspired band Gaucho. If you weren’t in town and wanted to witness his distinctive flatpick approach you were out of luck. He still doesn’t maintain a website and his online presence is diminutive. Or it was until he started livestreaming. His sudden visibility outside the Bay Area has delighted longtime fans while introducing him to new audiences.
“A lot of famous jazz and acoustic musicians have known about Craig for decades, but he's also this underground figure,” said Fretboard Journal co-founder and editor Jason Verlinde, who interviewed Ventresco about the livestream shows for a July podcast.
“He seldom leaves the Bay Area and you won't find him on Spotify or streaming services,” Verlinde said. “I’m so glad I can finally send my guitar and music-loving friends links to his livestreams. It’s opened a lot of eyes up to his genius. Meredith’s playing is just revelatory. She has a voice that sounds like it was lifted straight off of a vaudeville stage; their chemistry is undeniable.”
If Ventresco is something of a hidden treasure, Axelrod hasn’t kept her light under a bushel. She’s certainly under-recorded, but she’s cut some memorable sessions, most recently with jug band legend Jim Kweskin on the 2016 album Come on In. She’s also performed widely with former Kweskin collaborators like Maria Muldaur and David Grisman, and Kweskin-adjacent artists such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dan Hicks and Geoff Muldaur. But her domestic duo with Ventresco offers a winning combination of unflashy virtuosity and just-dropped-by informality.
They describe their apartment as stuffed to the ceiling with Ventresco’s 78s, which he’s collected since he was a music-mad kid in Maine, and Axelrod’s sheet music. They say they don’t spend a lot of time preparing for shows, with both compiling a list of five or six songs so they’ve got enough material to play the 45–50-minute set.
“I learn a lot of tunes from Meredith,” Ventresco said. “She’s always learning new songs. She recently did the verse to ‘The Man I Love,’ which I didn’t know until a couple of days ago. She’s got the verses down to a lot of tunes that people play.”
For American Songbook devotees, Axelrod and Ventresco offer an alternative, kaleidoscopic view of American music that undermines fake book hegemony. In music writer Ted Gioia’s typically perspicacious The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire he traces the way certain songs get lodged in the collective repertoire. Not every tune recorded by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis or Frank Sinatra became a standard, but not many songs attained that status without their inimitable stamp.
Ventresco and Axelrod run wild on Tin Pan Alley. They scour forgotten wax cylinders, sleuth out songs from shows that ruined Broadway producers, and revive numbers from films unscreened on AMC. “When you talk about the Great American Songbook, how many tons of songs were published, and what a relatively small amount became standards,” Ventresco said.
“There’s such an embarrassment of riches. There are 800 tunes just as good as the ones that everyone knows. People call ‘All of Me’ again and again because you have to come up with common ground. Occasionally you get a gig with five or six musicians who really know old music, and you’re in heaven.”
Or in the case of Axelrod and Ventresco, two musicians in the kitchen is all it takes for a nightly ride over the rainbow.