We now begin the Parlour to Parlour journey in earnest, starting very close to home. Meredith Axelrod was living just a short block away from my Lower Haight apartment in San Francisco when I was introduced to her. This 24-year-old Chicago native was drawn to San Francisco by “the legend that the freaks and quirky people gather here,” she told me. “I wanted to meet them.”
In my old apartment building in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood, there was a couple living in the unit above me whose company I always enjoyed. Gal and Michelle were quiet, for one. On top of that, they were always a pleasure to bump into when switching off loads of laundry at the washing machine, or just passing in and out of the front door. Best of all, they were usually up for some live music, and I was more than happy to keep them in the loop whenever I was planning on venturing out to local rock venues like the Independent or the Hotel Utah.
One night, I was up in their apartment celebrating Gal’s birthday with a handful of their friends, spinning some CDs at Michelle’s request, when I engaged in some conversation with the shy, quiet girl sitting in front of the faux fireplace. I could tell she was young, about 24. Her confidence level was not particularly high, so it took her a while to admit that she was a singer and a musician.
What kind of music did she play?
Ragtime and jugband music, and old jazz and pop standards was basically what she described. And by old, she meant as old as 135 years in some cases (as was the case when I caught her on tape performing the 1875 Sam Lucas “hit” song, “Carve Dat Possum,” at the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair).
She often played with an “amazing” musician by the name of Craig Ventresco. The name didn’t ring a bell immediately, but then she mentioned the names of two movies he’d done soundtrack work for: Crumb and Ghost World. I was becoming more and more intrigued by the minute.
It was at this point in the party where I challenged Meredith to entertain us with some of her music. I sent her back to her apartment just down the street to fetch some CDs, and upon her return about 20 minutes later, we were hearing a pure voice evoking a time long, long ago singing old, old songs with beautifully executed musical accompaniment — from Craig playing the more complicated leads, and Meredith playing the more rhythmic strumming parts. And sometimes they would not sing at all, playing instrumentals. All that was missing was the loud crackle of an old 78 RPM record.
Though she was uncomfortable putting the attention on herself, Meredith was clearly very comfortable with it once it started, even more so when I dropped in on one of her regular Wednesday night gigs at Cafe Divine in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Sometimes her voice could not be heard above the din of patrons eating and conversing, even as she sang into a microphone amplified by a battery-powered Pignose amp. She would stand on a chair, holding the microphone and the amp as she sang to Craig’s accompaniment, regularly drawing applause and tips for her renditions of old standards like “St. Louis Blues” and my favorite, a folkified take on Carl Perkins’ “Glad All Over.” Even the obscure tunes that probably nobody in attendance knew went over well. In between sets and after her main set, Meredith was eager to chat, introduce me to her friends, and share bites of her dinner.
Part of the allure of old time music is hearing the original recordings as played and sung by the original performers in their youthful prime, loving what they’re doing and doing it because it means something to them in that moment, rather than for nostalgia. Meredith brings that allure to all of her music, and I theorize that it probably stems from the fact that she has lived with and loved this music through her past and current youth, and doesn’t really follow current musical trends. She’s not familiar with the Kings of Leon or Katy Perry, but the girl loves Carl Perkins and is a card-carrying member of the California Jug Band Association.
Most impressive of all is the fact that Meredith supports herself entirely with the income she makes via live performances and the occasional CD sale. She’s an inspiring example of someone who has found possibilities in seemingly impossible times. And no wonder — every time we speak, she’s always in a bright mood. Some of this comes across in her interview, but it comes across even more strongly in her performances. And that’s a powerful thing indeed.
Meredith Axelrod – “The Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia”
Meredith Axelrod – You Can Do No Wrong (unreleased L.A. studio session)
Craig Ventresco and Meredith Axelrod – Grizzly Bear (from Ragtime Review: A Rare Collection of Music)
Email Craig Ventresco directly to buy Ragtime Review: A Rare Collection of Music