Ambassadors of gypsy jazz, purveyors of grooves and jive-inspired swing, Harmonious Wail celebrates an incredible twenty-five years as a group this July. Currently clocked in as a trio with a half dozen records, constant tours and several generations of fans, the string-driven vocal locomotive confounds exact description, leaping from jazzy flapper flamencos to smoldering Norah Jones blues, kicking singular licks, wicked struts and tender melancholy, wrenching tears from grievous dreams and laughter from hard-won luxuries.
In a small unit responsibility falls heavily on everyone’s shoulders; while mandolinist, ukulele-man and tenor guitarist Sims Delaney-Potthoff speaks for the band, Maggie Delaney-Potthoff carves its soul’s identity as lead vocalist and frequent percussionist. Welded together by bassist Jeff Weiss, the Wail is an elastic time capsule, filtering ideas from Django Reinhardt to Joni Mitchell, movin’ and groovin’ with body and soul. A packed anniversary month, the trio plays thirteen in-state shows in a month and half including the festival they spearheaded, the Midwest Gypsy Jazz Festival, held this year on July 14th in Fitchburg. Prepping for the marathon, Sims kindly answered a few questions about the band.
MAXIMUM INK: What would you consider to be the band’s significant events in the past 25 years?
SIMS DELANEY-POTTHOFF: Playing for Stephane Grappelli sure ranks right up there on top. We were at The Zelt Music Festival in Frieburg Germany. Getting to know and play with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, touring in Taiwan, being able to travel to Europe and all over the US playing music for great music lovers. One night in Taiwan after a gig a woman approached us, kept gently tapping her heart and saying, “I am so very, very…” ‘nuff said. I think the most significant is that we are able to continue to tour, record and perform for music lovers and Wail fans, really it almost brings us to tears, the support and love. And then there is The Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest - bringing such incredible talent to the best music fans in the world - and it is still going on and on.
MI: How did the name Harmonious Wail originate?
SD-P: We had a note book with pages of ideas and suggestions. We really liked the 30’s hep-jive jargon of guys like Lester Young and thought that Harmonious Wail was just vociferous enough and that the sentiment was right on target - it’s almost a mission statement. Actually after all the back and forth’s Maggie just said, hey how about Harmonious Wail.
MI: How deep do the band’s Wisconsin roots go?
SD-P: cheese-deep—Maggie is a Heartford girl from the heart of the Kettle Morraine and I am a Racine guy - Jeffo is an original native Madisonian. Mg and I lived in Boston (Berklee School of Music) and had planned on Copenhagen or Amsterdam or Nashville but after all was said and done it felt best to simply come home and we have never ever thought twice about it - we totally love Madison.
MI: Your eclectic sets span decades of music and beg the question what do you look for in a song?
SD-P: This is a toughie—it’s like asking why you love something - cuz I love it, that’s why. Top of the list has to be either a groove or flow… the chord progression needs to be cool and not forced or artificial - maybe natural is a good word here. When the chords, groove and melody and lyrics all work together in a natural flowing way it feels like the music plays itself or better yet it feels like the music plays you. That’s what we are seeking is to have the music move and play us.
MI: Twenty-five years is several life-times for bands – what’s the secret to your longevity?
SD-P: We just had a band chat about that this morning—we have always felt that more than being musicians we are travel agents (Thanks Mickey Hart). That our job is to move people and transport them to a better place thru the music. In order for that to happen the music has to move and transport us and then we simply relay that to an audience.