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Top Drawer String Band liner notes

We are a contradance band. When the community gathers to dance, our job is to lighten the air - to lift the dancers' feet from the floor and raise their spirits to the rafters. Brian Bishop is our fiddle powerhouse, innovative and strong - a wellspring of musical ideas. Laura Stein provides a rock-solid beat with her "Boston style" piano, and keeps a keen eye tuned to the progress of the dance. Joel Mabus compounds the beat and seasons the sound with guitar or banjo - or adds a second fiddle. Featured on this album are several dance-tested originals by Brian and Joel as well as traditional music from Ireland, Scotland, and North America. No academic exercise here - this is the vibrant pulse of a living tradition. So push back the sofa and roll up the rug. The music won't let you sit still - we guarantee it!

Top Drawer String Band has been playing for square and contra dances since the fall of 1978. Personnel and configurations have changed over time - we've ranged from trio to small orchestra and back again. Joel and Laura are charter members, with Brian joining us on occasion until he, too, became a regular some ten years ago. We originally formed as a "house band" for our local monthly dances. Nameless our first season, we crowned our inaugural year by inviting famed New Hampshire caller, Dudley Laufman, to lead a dance. Time and again, as the evening unfolded, Dudley would lean over the piano with his droll Yankee approval, "Top drawer, Laura! Top drawer!" We knew a good name when we heard one, and began our second season as the Top Drawer String Band.

Brian Bishop, when he is not making music, is making musical instruments. He is an award-winning builder of fine violins from his workshop in Haslett, MI. On this CD he plays one of his own fiddles, as well as one made by his teacher, the late master craftsman Keith Doerr.

Laura Stein is, by day, a child development specialist. From her own Brooklyn youth, she can recall summers at camp in the Catskills, singing folk songs with Pete Seeger and contradancing with her tall husband-to-be. After some seminal years on the fertile Boston dance scene, Laura and Bob have been pivotal figures in Michigan's contradance revival.

Joel Mabus, a songwriter of some note, makes his living as a folksinger. Son of a champion hillbilly fiddler and banjo-picking farm girl, he started playing old-time music as a young child in southern Illinois. He has recorded and toured widely as a solo performer, and has appeared on some of the foremost stages in North America.

Many thanks are in order. First, to our understanding spouses -- Nicolle Bishop, Bob Stein, and Jan Ryan - hugs and kisses all around. John Stites and Dave Kostelnik were simply aces - thanks, guys. Thanks also to our dancing "cover models," Mara Stein and David Baur. We can never repay the debt we owe the many fine musicians who have joined us on the bandstand over the years - each of you is a part of who we are today. The Lansing Area Folksong Society has our eternal gratitude for choosing us as their house band for dances. Without that support, through good times and lean, the band would never have grown and developed as it has. Finally, thanks to all the dancers and callers with whom we've worked and played. When the synergy is right - it's magic!


1. Pointe au Pic (traditional) 2:22
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
This Canadian tune with its "ragtime" feel is a great icebreaker; it works especially well for square dances. The lively melody and upbeat rhythm are sure to keep folks moving.

2. The B's Nieces (Brian Bishop / traditional) 3:47
The B's Nieces / Gallagher's / Pay the Reckoning
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
Next up is a rollicking trio of jigs. The signature tune was written for Brian's nieces, Sasha and Moriah. Two traditional Irish jigs round out the set.

3. Bob and Laura's #1 & #2 (Brian Bishop) 4:25
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
Brian wrote these two reels (each of them called "Bob and Laura's") in 1993 for Bob & Laura Stein, in celebration of their 35th wedding anniversary. Everybody agrees that these lively melodies mirror their namesakes' energetic spirits.

4. The Falls of Richmond (traditional) 2:16
Brian - fiddle; Joel - banjo
Joel and Brian have been musical compadres since they met as teens in the early '70's. This fiddle & banjo piece reflects the kind of old-time music they have been keen on from the start.

5. Mobius Medley (Brian Bishop) 3:30
Kiki's Prudent Husband / Little b's / Mobius Reel
Brian - fiddle; Laura - piano
Prudent is the husband who mentions his bride in the liner notes! The first tune was written for Nicolle Bishop, alias "Kiki." In his family, Brian is called "The Big B" while his older sister, Rebecca, is known as "little b," hence, the title of the middle tune. Brian's "Mobius Reel" was so dubbed by Laura because it never seems to find its end!

6. Big Nick's Rolling Reel / Sean Rio's (Brian Bishop) 4:50
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
These hard-driving reels are named for Brian's nephews Nicholas Barczak and Sean Rio Surfeld. The second tune, especially, has been known to lift the dance floor into a frenzy.

7. Lasses of Janiveer (Joel Mabus) 2:41
Joel - fiddle; Laura - piano
A sweet and slowly flowing waltz. The title is a pun made clear when you know that "Janiveer" is an old variant of the familiar "January."

8. The Big Medley (traditional) 8:05
Devil's Dream / Fisher's Hornpipe / Ross' Reel #4 / Temperance Reel / Ste. Anne's Reel / Ships are Sailing / Reconciliation / Devil's Dream
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
We will often cycle through this particular medley of chestnuts when the dance caller warns us, "It's going to be a long one!" As played here, it does, in fact, go long enough for you and your friends to dance a complete contra. Roll up the rug!

9. Sweets of May (traditional) 2:36
Joel - guitar
Dudley Laufman taught us this three-part jig to accompany the dance of the same name. Joel tackles this one as a solo guitar piece, with an odd tuning of CADGCE, adding a capo to the second fret.

10. Lady Anne Montgomery / Tuttle's Reel (traditional) 4:13
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
Top Drawer plays many tunes of Irish origin - these two are good examples. The change of key from the happy D major of "Lady Anne" to the brooding D minor of "Tuttle's" lends an unusual feel to the set.

11. High C Medley (traditional) 3:48
The Downfall of Paris / Indian Killed a Woodcock / Indian Eat a Woodpecker
Brian - fiddle; Joel - banjo; Laura - piano
"The Downfall of Paris" is a variant of "Mississippi Sawyer" that Joel got from an old harmonica record. The other two tunes Brian learned from our friend, old-time fiddler & harmonica player Mike Ross. They have become some of our favorites in the southern string band tradition.

12. The Blue Jig (Joel Mabus) 3:41
Brian - fiddle; Joel - fiddle; Laura - piano
Irish jigs and American blues may seem a world apart, but they do share a similar rhythmic pattern of triplets. Nothing "la-dee-dah" about this jig - it hits the ground running. Twin fiddles here - Joel's fiddle is slightly to your left and bookends his tune with some bluesy noodling. Brian plays the harmony parts and can be heard on your right. Laura's in the middle pounding dominant sevenths!

13. Forrest Best's Favorite Irish Waltzes (traditional) 3:30
Brian - fiddle; Joel - guitar; Laura - piano
His great friend and fiddling mentor, Terry Allen, taught Brian these sweet old tunes. Sturdy, old-fashioned, and wonderfully proud, they often get the nod for that "last waltz" to cap an evening of dance.

[back to the Top Drawer String Band page]


(c) 1999, 2002 Joel Mabus



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