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Legendary rock-blues guitarist Jim Schwall plays bass in Cajun Strangers

“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” said guitarist Jim Schwall by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands.

Jim Schwall
Jim Bessman

But the legendary co-founder of Chicago’s rock ‘n’ blues quartet Siegel-Schwall Band—and longtime Madison resident—also plays bass in one of the city’s and state’s best Cajun bands, Cajun Strangers.

He was playing in the group at the Cajun stage last weekend at the Celebrate Waupun festival, where the other stage, ironically, was a blues stage.

Schwall’s motivation for playing Cajun music came from watching a Cajun band in New Orleans.

“I asked the accordion player if they knew any waltzes, and he suggested I go to where he grew up—Breaux Bridge and Eunice,” Schwall said during a break, naming two Cajun prairie towns in Southwest Louisiana.

“So I rented a car and spent most of a week out there. Every night I’d go to another supper club and have another pint of beer and start dancing like anybody else, and when I got back home I went to Cajun Strangers dances—because no one else around here plays waltzes. When they needed a bass player, I played one gig and they decided I had a lot more energy than their old bass player.”

The Cajun Strangers gigs are a lot of fun, said Schwall.

“If you play college town bars in rock and blues bands, it takes an hour and a-half before anyone gets drunk enough to dance,” he explained. “But here they’re on the dance floor when we start tuning up!”

Cajun Strangers play frequently during the summer months and at Mardi Gras, said Schwall.

“They’re the closest thing to a professional level Cajun band in Wisconsin,” he said, noting that other good ones can be found in Chicago and the Twin Cities.

"I always knew about Cajun music, and saw Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival,” Schwall continued. “They were the first Cajun band to play there and blew everyone away—and now it all makes sense to me: Cajun bands don’t take breaks. They start in the afternoon and play until dark. I asked Steve how they keep their energy up, and he said, ‘Are you kidding? We ain't even warmed up yet!’”

Other Schwall activities include occasional gigs with the Siegel-Schwall Band, which is still based in Chicago.

“I play a lot of solo shows,” he said, “once a week and sometimes more.”

He also plays when he can in a band with guitarist Chris Aaron.

“It’s 100 percent intuitive,”said Schwall. “We start a song and have no idea where it’s going and just listen to each other and play off each other. It’s not as spacey as the Grateful Dead, but a lot of fun.”

Schwall also plays plenty of pickup gigs with other “blues guys” in Wisconsin, where “everybody knows everybody.” After years of teaching college level music in Madison and in Milwaukee, as well as in high schools, he’s now focused on playing music and art photography, in the latter endeavor specializing in combining figures and landscapes.

But “songwriting is my first thing,” maintains Schwall, who has 15 songs ready for his next solo album project.

[The Examiner has written liner notes on Siegel-Schwall reissues.]

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