Somewhere early in the 1990s our local backporch radio station, WORT 89.9 FM Madison, asked me to throw together an hour of music for a Halloween special. I had been admiring Seth's engaging singer-songwriter cello work for quite a while and he had a few clever halloweeny songs under his belt so I roped him in as a soloist. I also wanted to do Michael Hurley's Werewolf with Doug Code on clarinet. His Macedonian-flavored stylings seemed appropriate for the tune and I asked him to take a solo that would be reminiscent of the one he used to do in Mesarisko Oro back when we played together for folkdancers some 10 years earlier. I tried to get Biff involved but he had a gig booked already.
10Well, we started with Werewolf and Seth jumped right in adding his unique cello and it sounded way cool to me. Unfortunately the DAT only caught the end of the song. I was determined to record it in a studio.
I saw Biff sitting in with a band one night at the Barrymore and asked him if he'd like to work with us. This time Biff was available. It seemed that as long as I had such diverse musicians on hand, we should record several diverse songs. It was such fun that I thought we could make an album covering a wide spectrum of styles made consistent by the ensemble's singular voice.
A local promoter heard about the project and asked if we could open for a band called Killbilly. I think since Biff and I were fairly well-know in the music scene the promoter thought he could use us to help draw a crowd. Well, we didn't really have a band yet - it was me, Biff, Doug & Seth. The singer I had in mind didn't want to do clubs, she was into opera. She recommended Anna. We tried Anna out and knew that this was just the element we needed for a stage show. We convinced Cathy Moore to join on dumbek.
Then we needed a name. Seth's song The Enchanted Reptile Palace plus the fact that we had violin, clarinet, sax and accordion as lead instruments led to the "Orchestra" part.
The show went better than I expected. People actually liked us. They insisted we do an encore and we had no rehearsed material left. I don't remember this part but people say we had to repeat a song. Robert was in the audience, he said that really happened. Biff sat in on a few tunes with Killbilly and they invited him to join their band at the end of the set. The night was Good Friday, April 1, 1994. It was at the late Club de Wash in the Washington Hotel, a place that exemplified the joy and diversity that was Madison at the time.
We tried a unique experiment. Our audience seemed more, uh, mature than I was used to in the rock world and I asked the Club de Wash if we could book a Sunday afternoon show and see how it goes. I figured the place was usually pretty dead on Sundays and they let us do it.
We begged our friends and families to come out an the results, again, were way beyond my expectations. We were on our way to being a real band. We added Anna and Cathy to "the project" with the recording of four new songs and released our 1st CD called Early Reptile.
A few months later we played with Boiled in Lead. They liked Balkan music and they offered us the opportunity to play the Cedar Cultural Center with them in Minneapolis in trade for another Madison show with them. To round out the weekend we threw in LaCrosse.
By then Cathy was playing hurdy-gurdy, tar, zurna and flute along with the dumbek. She even brought out a gaijda but the bag ripped. Oh well. We put out a second album on our own called On the Wings of a Skink. Then one day Anna said, "I can play trumpet!" (ta daaa)
Over the years we've had a few changes in lineup and some memorable experiences. Siggi on drums was the first major change and suddenly we were a lot louder and more powerful-sounding. With Siggi on board I switched to electric guitar, Biff broke out a HUGE arsenal of instruments, some of them home made or weirdly modified, the effects piled up and, boom, just like that, we were a rock band. I think this was the beginning of our relationship with Omnium. Robert began working with us as a part-time drummer and when Siggi eventually fled the country Robert was primed to drive the truck, so-to-speak.
Eventually, and sadly for us, Doug felt he had to leave. There just wasn't enough time in his life to do everything. Anna recruited Greg Smith as our new reed man. Greg had been playing with Yid Vicious and the Madison Symphony Orchestra as well as the Avenue Sizzlers, ³Madison¹s Own² Capitol City Band and Que Flavor. He had the chops to pick up the pieces left by Doug. Now and then Doug still comes out and play with us and we rejoice in it.
Another change was Seth discovering he was going to become a father. With Seth being reluctant to quit, and the Reptiles unwilling to lose his genius, sanity and creativity, we found a happy solution. My brother Ed had a history of playing the Balkan rhythms with Doug and myself and already knew most of the folkdance repertoire. He had also played bass with me in a rock band, Appliances-SFB, for over sixteen years. (Come to think of it, Biff had been sitting in with A-SFB for a few of the final performances.) Ed's a quick study and a natural compliment to Seth. Since Ed has children too, they are happy to be able to share the bottom end load. (erp).
Some high points for me over the last few years are playing the Folkball, where there are hundreds of folkdancers out on the floor. It's amazing and, in my case, kind of a dream come true situation. We have had the opportunity to share the stage with some incredibly enjoyable acts. What immediately pops into my mind are playing with Yat-Kha at the Cedar and sharing the "rock" stage two nights in a row with Shooglenifty at the Lotus Fest in Bloomington Indiana.
If you ever want to see us in overblown full-force mayhem, I suggest you hit the Madison Folk Ball at the end of January. You get to experience Ed and Seth playing together along with Doug and Greg plus Robert's brother Harley (a seasoned East Euro percussionist from Milwaukee) pushing the rhythms and harmonies to wild new heights. Anna refers to the Robert/Harley combo as "the two-headed drummer." Add several hundred costumed dancers on the floor and it can be pretty mind-blowing.
This is our third album with Omnium.