Hooray for John Finkbeiner

Guitarist John Finkbeiner passed away a little more than a year ago. On a Sunday early in October, his friends took over the Ivy Room, a neighborhood bar in Albany, to celebrate his life and music. The event was co-organized by his partner, Lisa Mezzaappa, and one other musician (possibly John Schott, who emceed?). Many, many groups played in mostly abbreviated sets, stretching from the late afternoon well into the evening. It was a happening full of community and love, and it was wonderful.

The evening’s schedule.

Of course, I’d known Finkbeiner through his creative-music side. He was part of the quartet Go-Go Fightmaster and the Lisa Mezzacappa Quartet (same personnel, different bands). He applied a sense of humor to these efforts, evidenced by the album he and Aaron Bennett made making music out of drinking straws. The Quiet Storm All-Stars, a trio including Bennett, played one of those songs at the Ivy Room; the straws have holes, so they can play notes like a kazoo or a raspy recorder. Serious silly fun.

But another side of Finkbeiner was his love of traditional music, dub, and Caribbean dance rhythms. I’d actually known about some of this this already. I encountered him once, long ago, playing as part of a small ensemble — was it during New Year’s Eve? — playing some form of conventional jazz, and during a break, I introduced and explained myself. He was surprised. It was rare for an audience member to cross those two worlds, especially in that direction.

So, John Finkbeiner crossed boundaries, and the Ivy Room event was a chance to mingle among all those worlds. Meaning in addition to some excellent creative jazz, we got treated to acts like Hiroshi Hasegawa’s Poontang Wranglers, who took the stage decked out in orange long-johns. Their vaudville-like set featured exuberant old-timey music with a washtub bass, washboard percussion, and a bunch of ukeleles, among other instruments. It was great fun, although Hiroshi himself was in Japan and unable to make it. (I get the feeling Hiroshi is always “in Japan.” The band had that kind of absurdist bent.)

Setup for Aaron Novik’s band Kipple. Moe! Staiano, center, prepares to play an instrument built by Tom Nunn (another musician who recently left us). Graham Connah on keys; Tim Bulkley on drums, I think; Lisa Mezzacappa back there on bass; and John Schott helping set up.

The passing of a loved one is sad, but it’s also a chance for family and community to connect, recognizing that person as the intersection of so many lives. I can’t claim to have been one of John’s friends, but I was still able to celebrate his life and celebrate being there, watching so many of the musicians whose work I’ve enjoyed over the past two decades or more. It felt good to be reminded that community isn’t dead. John’s parents were there. A childhood friend who now runs a boutique ice cream truck parked outside the Ivy Room for most of the afternoon and gave out cones and cups.

And then there was Joseph’s Bones.

This was a highlight for me, Jason Levis’ instrumental dub band with three horns and two guitars: John Schott and Myles Boisen (who both appear on the band’s album, along with Finkbeiner) plus Levis on drums and Mezzacappa on bass. Lots of energy behind mid/fast grooves, and one brilliant solo after another, from the horns certainly but also the guitars, spitting bluesy psychedelic joy. The kind of music that just makes you smile. Drummer/leader Jason Levis had a poignant moment at the end of the set, talking about Finkbeiner’s loss. “We didn’t know if would ever get to play this music again,” he said.

At the merch table, we were encouraged to help ourselves to posters and pins made for the occasion, as well as music — including Joseph’s Bones’ Nomadic Pulse/Pulse in Dub, a vinyl double-album, gracefully packaged (and still available on Bandcamp). I balked a bit at that, knowing vinyl is a pricey endeavor.

But Levis told me something to the effect of, “If there’s an empty turntable out there, I want this to fill it.” He wants the music to live on. Who wouldn’t? People make music because it fills the soul, yes, but it means a lot to the musician to know it’s reached somebody, and it’s possibly more important to know this for a fellow musician who’s transitioned on. That album is spinning on my turntable as I write this. I hear you, John.

Read John’s obituary in BerkeleySide.

Guerilla Hi-Fi, the night’s closing act.

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