Ever since I first heard the Quebe (KWAY-bee) Sisters Band when a friend posted one of their YouTube videos on Facebook over a year ago, I’ve been waiting for them to make a tour stop within driving distance, so when tickets went on sale for their stop last night (Saturday) at the Stoughton Opera House, I pulled the trigger immediately and managed to get a front row center seat. If you like Texas Swing – Bob Wills, Asleep at the Wheel, that sort of thing – you’ll love the Quebes. All three sisters are Texas Fiddle Champions, and they sing perfectly on-pitch tight harmonies.
It was their first-ever appearance in Wisconsin, and they knocked it out of the park in front of a standing-room crowd at the Stoughton Opera House, which is a perfect venue for their sort of music. I checked ahead, and learned that flash photography is prohibited – no surprise – or I’d have taken a lot of photos. The photo of the band at the top of this post was taken by Laura Cash, and it’s a fairly recent photo. Far left is the stand-up bass player, Gavin Kelso, a young man just two years out of the University of North Texas - the school that used to be called North Texas State, home of one of the finest jazz programs in the nation. I expected bass man Drew Phelps to be there last night – I wasn’t aware that he was taking a break from the road, and that Kelso had joined the band eight months ago. But Kelso is every bit as good as Phelps on the big “doghouse” double-bass.
Grace Quebe is second from the left in the photo; she sings the middle harmony parts and more than knows her way around the fiddle. In the middle is the youngest sister, Hulda Quebe, who sings the high harmony parts and does much of the solo fiddling. Second from the right is Sophia Quebe, who sings the lead and solo parts and is the real leader of the band. On the right is guitar man Joey McKenzie, a former Texas Fiddle champ himself, who is an absolute master of the Gibson arch-top guitar, does all the musical arrangements, and sort of “fronts” the band, doing most of the announcing and patter between tunes.
The band opened with “All of Me” which generated a huge ovation from the appreciative crowd, and the band seemed genuinely touched by the response – more on that, later – and Joey went into a short speil about this being their first time in Wisconsin, loving the snow (although it was a rainy, foggy night), and talking about how nice the ‘sconnies were in making the band feel welcome. A couple tunes later they played “Airmail Special”, the great old Benny Goodman swing tune, and after the tune Joey said guitarist Charlie Christian, who recorded the tune with the Goodman sextet decades ago, was one of his early influences. They did several more numbers, including a couple Bob Wills’ tunes and a couple tunes showcasing the girls’ fiddling abilities, and closed the first half of the concert with a rollicking rendition of the Bob Wills tune “Roly Poly”, which brought the crowd to its feet.
After the intermission, as the band was coming back on stage, one of the audience yelled out “Across the Alley”. My great front row center seat was about ten feet from the band, and I saw Grace look back and forth at her sisters, and then at Joey, and then I heard Hulda say to Grace “should we?” – and then Grace said to Joey “what the heck – let’s do it”. So they opened the second half with that tune, and then Joey said “always happy to accommodate a request when we can….but here’s the tune we were going to open the second half with” and they swung right into “Avalon”, another great old big-band standard, and bass man Gavin Kelso put on a display of high-range walking bass that drew a huge and spirited response from the crowd – which Joey acknowledged at the end of the tune by having Kelso take a bow. A few tunes later they did a gorgeous arrangement of the gospel tune “Wayfaring Stranger” which generated another long ovation. Then Joey started to introduce the next tune by talking about how every guitar player alive owed thanks to Les Paul, to which there was immediate applause, and the band members all shared quick glances – and, bigmouth that I am, ten feet from Joey, who was looking right at me, I said, loud enough for him to hear, “Les Paul is from Wisconsin”. His eyes lit up and the band exchanged glances again as Joey said “oh, that’s right….I forgot…Les Paul is a Wisconsin boy – we were somewhat surprised that you seemed to respond to his name so well, which usually doesn’t happen on these tours, but that’s right- he’s one of yours!” and, of course, the crowd roared with appreciation. Then they did “How High the Moon” better than I’ve ever heard them do on all the YouTube videos of the Quebes doing that tune that are available, to a standing ovation.
They wrapped up the concert with a rousing version of “It’s a Sin To Tell A Lie”, which Joey said would be on their new CD which is coming out in late May or June. Joey thanked everybody for coming, but the audience demanded another tune, so they quickly huddled – I got the idea they’re not used to playing encores, because they unplugged their instruments from the amps and were starting to actually exit the stage – and decided to do “San Antonio Rose”, which left the crowd still wanting more, but very happy. Joey thanked everybody again and said if folks wanted to wait a bit, they’d be in the lobby later to sign CD’s and shake hands.
I hung around with about a dozen other folks in the lobby after the concert, and about 15 minutes later the band came in, so I had the privilege of getting to meet them all and chat a bit with them, and a chance to tell the sisters how much I enjoyed their perfectly-executed tight harmonies with their voices and their fiddles. I had a bit of back-and-forth with Joey, who thanked me for reminding him that Les Paul is from Wisconsin, and he said they really weren’t sure how this tour stop was going to work out because they weren’t sure if us ‘sconnies were real fans of Texas Swing – and how he was so pleasantly surprised that we seemed knowledgeable about the genre and its history.
Then I got a chance to talk with bass player Gavin Kelso, and we had a nice, long conversation. I told him at first I was like “where’s Drew Phelps?” because I enjoy Drew’s playing and his expressive face – but that within a few minutes I realized that he (Kelso) was every bit the bass player Phelps is. I told him I was a bass player years ago, so I had an appreciation for the skill and effort that went into his performance. He told me he graduated with a music performance degree from North Texas just two years ago – and that the tuba was his second-favorite instrument! So we “talked tuba” for a while. He told me he’d played with a few other groups right out of college, including a Dallas-based Celtic Rock group called “The Killdares”, where Joey had heard him, and when the opportunity with the Quebes came up 8 months ago, he auditioned for the job and got it, and was really enjoying the touring. He told me he was really looking forward to their ten-day Russian tour, which starts Wednesday. He said they were headed home to Texas this (Sunday) morning for a few days off, and then it was off to Russia!
I suddenly realized that I was the only person left in the lobby, besides the band – I was so engaged in talking with Kelso – and so I said “I better get outta here so you folks can get some rest”. They all shook my hand again and said how much they enjoyed Wisconsin, and the folks they’d met here. What a great evening – a wonderful performance, a chance to actually meet them, and – you can bet that when their new CD comes out I’ll buy it, and any time they’re within driving distance I’ll go see them again.