Cigar box guitar revolution: 'It's like folk music turned inside out'

Purgatory Hill l2010-Peter Lee 
A quarter-century ago, when cigar-box guitar enthusiast Pat MacDonald was half of the Austin, Texas, alternative pop-rock duo Timbuk3, the singer, songwriter and instrumentalist’s moment in the pop spotlight came with the group’s breezy, wisecracking hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”

Now relocated to Wisconsin and rendering his name now as pat mAcdonald, the musician’s recent past, present and foreseeable musical future no longer revolves around a pair of Ray Bans, but around his beloved Lowebow cigar box guitar.

For mAcdonald and many others in the growing community of cigar box guitar players, makers and  listeners -- including the high-profile likes of Johnny Depp, Steve Miller, Jack White, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme -- this throwback to primal instruments akin to those once played by blues musicians in poor rural communities offers an irresistible sense of liberation. 

The Lowebow that mAcdonald plays in his new duo, Purgatory Hill, with singer melaniejane, was created by Memphis musician and instrument maker John Lowe, and it allows a guitarist to play bass and lead at the same time on the double necked — two broom handles, actually -- version mAcdonald has been using in the last few years.

“In a lot of ways, it was what I was trying to do on guitar for a long time,” said mAcdonald, who’s been known to drive hundreds of miles to be part of the burgeoning number of cigar box guitar festivals sprouting up around the country. “I was trying for a similar kind of effect on the guitar. I always found different ways of bringing out the low end on the guitar, tuning it low. My fret style on the neck was pretty slidy, sliding up and down neck on bass string. I’d move from chord to chord sliding, rather than going abruptly from one chord to the next, so I was really trying to do that on the guitar for a long time. This made it so much easier in a way.”

Not only has it given him a new mode of expression for songs he plays on tour, the cigar box guitar has affected the new songs he’s been writing since a fan handed him one following a concert several years ago and told him “Here, keep it.”

“I think every instrument you pick up has an effect on the kinds of songs you write,” he said. “This one really did release a flood of new songs for me, and it still is. I’ve got a whole bunch of new songs we’re going in to record [soon] and they really did come out of this instrument.”

One sterling example off his most recent album, also titled “Purgatory Hill,” is “Reset Me Lord,” a bluesy number about the gift of a new perspective on life — or in this case, playing music. (It’s a free download for those who sign up on the band’s mailing list.)

He’s posted that and other samples on the Purgatory Hill website.

So has Shane Speal, the creator of the Cigar Box Nation website that’s a focal point of the expanding cigar box instrument community and one of several passionate proponents I spoke to. Speal has assembled four compilation albums with tracks by cigar box players from around the world that are accessible at Cigar Box Nation. Here's an MP3 of Speal playing Jimi Hendrix's "I Don't Live Today" on one of his own cigar box instruments.


“Hobo blues” musician and three-string cigar-box instrument player Pinecone Fletcher became one of the grand finalists in last year's national “King of the Blues” competition sponsored by Guitar Center.

Depp's enthusiasm no doubt contributed to composer Hans Zimmer's decision to use one in his musical score to the Depp-fronted, skewed western animated film "Rango."

Said mAcdonald: “One key aspect of it is that it’s very earthy, very down to earth, but it’s also electric. You can play a brand new flashy Martin guitar that sounds bright and beautiful, and that is acoustic. A lot of people think of that as folk music: something based on acoustic guitars and banjos and something that’s really beautiful sounding acoustically.

“A lot of the cigar-box instruments, they don’t sound like much necessarily acoustic. Most people who play them plug them in, it’s very electric. It’s like folk music turned inside out, way more electric, yet way more primitive. The instrument itself, it’s hyper-primitive. When you electrify an acoustic guitar, you usually make it sound like a louder acoustic guitar. But these things, even the folk Nazis who are opposed to electricity, have to agree that these instruments are pretty [genuinely] folky.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of pat mAcdonald and melaniejane of roots-blues duo Purgatory Hill. Credit: Peter Lee. 

Purgatory Hill (Pat MacDonald) — "Purgatory Hill"
Living Blues Magazine (issues #209, Vol 45, No. 5)
By Steve Sharp

Pat MacDonald, now performing under the alias Purgatory Hill, has been an eccentric and treasured artist on the Wisconsin music scene for decades. After living in Austin, Texas with his former band Timbuk3 and later moving to Spain, the rock poet has returned to his home state. He brings with him renewed musical creativity and vigor. His rejuvenation is due, in part, to his mastery of yet another instrument, the Lowebow Purgatory Hill Harp.

The Lowebow is a cigar box guitar invented in 1998 by Memphis guitar store owner and musician Johnny Lowe. It is a contraption that may well be the perfect blues instrument. Lowe's first edition was a one-stringed instrument with a pick-up, but MacDonald plays a souped-up version. The body of his has two wooden dowel rods protruding as crude guitar necks. It is wired with three guitar strings on one neck. A bass string runs along the other. When MacDonald puts a slide to this box, it will scare the daylights out of you. He has said the instrument has been so powerful it has brought him "back down to reality" — this is coming from a guy who has been, well ... way out there.

For his "Purgatory Hill" debut, MacDonald has conjured up 13 songs that are ideal for the Lowebow. In addition to this wondrous instrument, the stripped-down album features MacDonald's haunting voice, electrified stomp-block — a modern version of John Lee Hooker's wood-block — and his trademark, lonely sounding wails on neck-rack harmonica. At times, he brings to mind a sober and controlled Hasil Adkins. MacDonald's musical partner, Melaniejane, rounds out the disc's full, bass-laden, north Mississippi hill country sound with vocals, percussion and organ.

From Pat MacDonald and The Essentials' classic 1981 album "Lowdown," his first LP, MacDonald's music and intelligent lyrics have reflected his dark, sometimes cynical view of the world. Many people misinterpreted his 1986 Timbuk3 hit, the up-tempo, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades." Fratboys and newly wedded couples loved the tune for what they thought was its optimism. To the contrary, MacDonald had threaded nuclear holocaust-grim allusion into its lines. His other recent solo works, especially 2007's brooding and bitter "Troubadour of Stomp," indicate MacDonald has spent considerable time trudging through deep valleys of anger, sadness and depression. "Purgatory Hill's" lyrics, though not quite as direct and venomous, offer some of his most serious introspection to date. It is a fascinating, beautiful, spooky, landmark of an album.

MacDonald doesn't exactly welcome the listener to "Purgatory Hill." It's more like his inaugural hoots and moans on the album-opening "Sinstro" taunt, dare and eventually seduce one inside. The insistent careen and lurch of "Blues of Sin/Baby Love" recall the stark, Delta blues of Robert Johnson. The instrumentation oozes and throbs, quickly evolving into a sturdy, bass-driven, musical foundation and background. Upon this canvas, MacDonald carefully paints lyrics rich in dark imagery and symbolism. MacDonald's use — at times virtual abuse — of the Lowebow culminates in a series of brief but vicious slide runs that seem to push the delicate instrument to its breaking point.

Echoing harp on "Reset Me Lord" helps MacDonald convey the anguish of every man searching for healing of the spirit. His slide-winding performance on the Lowebow's guitar strings emphasize the song subject's indecision, confusion and desperation.

The swinging "42 Blues" is a highlight of the disc, although it is in no way a respite from the emotional trek on which MacDonald seems intent on dragging the listener. Willing his way up "Purgatory Hill," MacDonald grinds on the bass string of the Lowebow while sliding nastily across the top. He sings about a highway that stole his brother.

The album was recorded in Milwaukee, just minutes south of the Paramount Records blues historical site in Grafton, Wisconsin. Paramount artists Skip James and Son House would surely have been appreciative of MacDonald's effort on "Count To Ten," a haunting, hollow-sounding, heavily percussive number which goes a long way toward honoring their influence.

MacDonald presents as reserved a reading of the timeless "Rollin' and Tumblin'" as his crazily creative brain would probably ever permit and it's still pretty strange. Iggy and The Stooges crawl from the musical swamp on "Wanna Be Your Dog" (sic). One can't help but imagine, were he alive today, how quickly Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton would find himself a Lowebow so he could join Purgatory Hill on his band's Detroit punk anthem.

MacDonald has always been an individual, an iconoclast and survivor. This album makes him more of an anomaly than ever. Is this music punk/blues? Goth/country? Some newfangled, Kudzu-covered heavy metal? Whatever it is, "Purgatory Hill" proves the creative musical spirit that has always walked beside Pat MacDonald is now prodding him to a whole new level.

Purgatory Hill
Purgatory Hill (DarkPresents)
By Martin Jack Rosenblum Tuesday, August 11,2009

¬¬Veteran Wisconsin songwriter and singer Pat MacDonald recorded his latest album under the name Purgatory Hill. The CD is nothing less than a shocking reinvention of blues and rock music.
Aside from numbers by PJ Harvey and Iggy Pop, a traditional entry and one co-written by others with MacDonald, the remaining nine songs are all original in every way conceivable-and so is the primary instrument utilized. The Lowebow Purgatory Hill Harp consists of a cigar box with two wooden rods that serve as the neck upon which ride three guitar strings and one bass string. It's an amplified, four-string guitar that, along with neck-rack harmonica and electrified foot stomp, result in a massive sound not unlike what one would hear in a log cabin on Mars. He is backed by Milwaukee's melaniejane on vocals and numerous instruments, including a Lowebow Shake Stick.
The song "Reset Me Lord" says, "This puzzle's got too many pieces/That there's no time to rearrange," and once the album begins there is no time for anything but what's arranged via its nine self-penned songs. They are sonic blues re-established as a fabric upon which rock music is re-designed. "Go on and take my addiction," "Reset Me Lord" continues, and a listener has no other choice. The album propels one through a world that is hypnotic yet, from pure performance thrust, totally alert. It's an entirely different place than the world of blues cover acts and emotionally slobbering singer-songwriters.
"All you critics, try to relax" goes a line in "Count To Ten." We can't. It's not possible. There's too much excitement out on Purgatory Hill.

New mAcdonald
Margaret Moser, November 11, 2009

Maybe the road to PurgAtory Hill has been long, but few are better equipped to make the trip than Pat Macdonald. Make that pat mAcdonald, an effective way of driving grammarists crazy or maybe just a reminder to put the damn A in his last name without mentioning “The Future’s So Bright.”
But that’s mAcdonald for ya. Do it his way or don’t do it. With two shows this weekend supporting his latest CD PurgAtory Hill, the stompbox, harmonica, and a wicked, gimlet-eyed view of the world are unquestionably his friend. Longtime fans – and not just those who’ve followed him since Timbuk3 created their Eighties anthem – know what to expect: hellfire philosophy and merciless rhythms. Teamed with sidewoman melanie jane on vocals (“Shut Up”), keyboard, and percussion, mAcdonald leads us willingly to the place where no one gets out unscathed.
“Check your lipstick and heart at the door” he advises on opening track “Sintro,” but that’s the last mercy shown on this trip through reinvented Delta blues by way of the dark highway to hell and tar-barrel bass thump. mAcdonald’s own songs (“The Little Things,” “Blues of Sin/Babylove,” “Drinkin’ or Drivin’”) are squeezed so tightly that cannily chosen covers from P.J. Harvey (“Meet Za Monster”) to Mississippi-born traditionals (“Rollin’ and Tumblin’) to vintage Iggy Pop (“Wanna Be Your Dog”) are almost indistinguishable from his brimstone oeuvre. “How much longer do I wait for this frog in my throat to turn to a prince?” he demands on “Count to Ten.” Long enough to make a princess sit pretty on a toadstool in the swamps.
pat mAcdonald brings his new band (also named Purgatory Hill) to the Mean-Eyed Cat Saturday evening, 9-11pm, and to the Continental Sunday night at 8pm. Heybale follows, in case you sold your soul to mAcdonald and want to dance about it.


Wisconsin's Pat MacDonald is best known for his old band Timbuk 3's offbeat 1986 hit song "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," and in his latest project, Purgatory Hill, he cranks Timbuk's bluesy leanings hard in the direction of the sizzling, gutbucket North Mississippi sound defined by R.L. Burnside and the Fat Possum stable. On Purgatory Hill's 2009 self-titled debut disc, the duo lays down some seriously swampy and electrifying riffs, armed with nuts-and-bolts instrumentation perfect for its stripped-down, amped-up approach to alt-blues—a tambourine, a stompbox, and a hand-built Lowebow guitar made out of a cigar box and two wooden rods.

Pat MacDonald: Purgatory Hill
By Brady Bell
Pat MacDonald (who officially goes by the spelling "pat mAcdonald") first came to fame in the ’80s as one-half of Timbuk3 (of "The Future’s So Bright" fame), where he served as principal songwriter, and he’s always played music that isn’t exactly just blues or just rock or just whatever form may be lurking between those two genres. The artist plays guitar. He plays harmonica. But perhaps most importantly, he plays a ghostly hybrid of dowel rods and steel strings that he’s named the "Purgatory Hill Harp." It’s based on a cigar-box slide guitar but features its own strange blues sound.
Purgatory Hill is also what he calls his duo with fellow singer and musician MelanieJane (or "melaniejane"), who backs him with tambourine and other percussive instruments. And Purgatory Hill is also the title of MacDonald’s latest release. The album’s 13 songs don’t have a false moment in them, and MacDonald — who’s also penned tunes for artists as diverse as Aerosmith and Cher — is still writing tunes that unveil archetypal human woes and wants.
The track "Highway 42," one of the highlights here, fits snugly in the blues realm, but, interestingly, it also sounds like the American National Anthem at times — only played backward on dusty vinyl in the midst of a thunderstorm. It screams "National Anthem," in fact — but the way it should be heard today via jaded echoes and overtly obscure instrumentation.
In the end, though, it’s hard to understand exactly how two people, three instruments and a stomp-box for MacDonald’s flailing rhythmic left foot can creates such a rousing, unbridled sound. It isn’t "simple" music, but it is certainly a mystery as to how a four-string cigar box guitar can bleed such fresh new sound and potency. Pat MacDonald and the music he creates with MelanieJean as Purgatory Hill is an admirable testament to a little musical truth going a long way.

Brew City Sludge - August 2009
by Lane Klozier

Although she has toured throughout the U.S. and currently resides in Sturgeon Bay, melaniejane will always be a Milwaukee icon. Singer/songwriter, cellist, guitarist, pianist, and yes…even accordion, mj has taken all of her talents to many definable places. Her full length releases “flower” and “billets doux” capture a lifetime of experience in a collection of introspective and inspiring music.
Over the past few years, she has reinvented herself by way of collaboration. She still performs as a soloist, but most often she can be seen on stage with heavy hitters such as Victoria Vox. Her latest endeavor has brought her together with Pat mAcdonald. mAcdonald, while probably best known for his work with Timbuk3 has, since that band’s demise in 1995 continued to work as a solo artist becoming a legend in the art rock/folk rock scene. What seemingly brought them together is their shared love of music, as well as their reverence for the steel bridges that connect the land in the Sturgeon Bay area. Back in 2005, mAcdonald co-founded the Steel Bridge Songfest bringing gobs of talent from around the world to help keep this amazing structure in tact. Since that time, mj and mAc have been touring relentlessly as well as spending significant amounts of time in the recording studio. Live, they are a mesmerizing duo with mAcdonald’s swamp blues style of rock being accompanied by mj’s haunting cello and ever present tambourine. mAcdonald’s love of the cigar box guitar and droning, resonate vocals are the perfect compliment to mj’s airy background vocals and edgy instrumentation.
mAcdonald’s latest release is entitled Purgatory Hill and features mj on backing vocals and sundry percussion. From the opening number with it’s swampy drawl intro, this recode has you hooked. Dark and dirty, these tracks would be best listened to while driving a 67 Caddy down a dark country road at 2 a.m. on a hot August night. The drive continues on with songs like No One’s Daddy and Count to Ten urging your right foot to go a little faster…and a little more recklessly. Stand out tracks such as Shut Up and Meet Za Monster represent all that is swamp, guts and glory. The key to a record such as this is in understanding the depth and complexity of something that is seemingly one dimensional. Heartbreak, joy, anger, lust and countless other emotions simmer just under the surface of songs that take the simplest of instruments to a very complicated conclusion. It was suggested to me that I should listen to this record at a very high volume. I did. And, I was happy to have done so.
That’s all for now my Darlings. Remember. School will be starting soon and the kiddies will be out and about…so stop driving on the sidewalk!

Paddy Finneran, 9/25/09
I try to keep things Keno as much as I can but every now and then I just have to tell you about a great show outside our immediate area. pat mAcdonald (note to Editor: correct spelling/capitalization) is a world class songwriter and musician best known for his work in the band Timbuk3 and their mega-hit “The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. melaniejane (note to Editor: correct spelling and capitalization, or lack of) is a multi-threat musician performing live on cello, guitar, keyboards and hand percussion while singing top-notch songs of her own writing. Together the duo is Purgatory Hill and the reviews and the live shows I have seen are spectacular.
The sound, due to great writing and unique instrumentation, is truly different from most of what passes as quality these days. mAcdonald plays a “Purgatory Hill Harp” cigarbox guitar/bass that – as its name implies – is made from a large cigar box with two steel rods coming from the box. There are only 4 strings attached to the poles – 3 guitar strings and one bass guitar string. The unique set-up allows mAcdonald the ability to play slide guitar and bass at the same time. He also – at the same time – has been known to sing, play dirty bluesy harmonica and amplified foot stomp box for percussion. The sound is truly remarkable and a bit unsettling for some, revelatory for others. You can have your folk, punk, rock, hip-hop and country any time. Why not set aside some time for some slinky, groovy, bloozy, boozy, dirty, swampy, sexy, dangerous, wipe-that-drool-off your mouth, son, howl-at-the-moon music? It’s not heaven. It’s not hell. It’s Purgatory Hill and what more could you ask for?

Green Bay Band Reviews:
Purgatory Hill CD Review
By TJ Dewey
October 1, 2009

While the band Purgatory Hill may not be as familiar as its musician's, melaniejane and pat mAcdonald, they have clearly put their heart and soul into this self titled debut album. melaniejane and pat mAcdonald sent me a couple copies of their new Purgatory Hill album. I got them, read the sweet note with the additional instructions to share the second copy with someone who I knew would dig it. Nice! It was a color print digi pack, simple book open with no sleeve. I had to make a run for the store so I put the disc in and went into the night. By the time I got to the end of my block my radio was as loud as it could go. By the time I got to the store I called a friend and played track 2, BLUES of SIN/BABYLOVE with my cell phone up to the door speaker. He was over at my place 30 minutes later to pick up the second copy. I would be a fool not to mention to you how monumental this album is for Wisconsin music and the music scene in general. To my ears there is this raw, southern sounding, crossroads traveling, blues sound, but before I lay complete claim to the delta south, the roots of this kind of blues came here in the 1930s at Paramount Records in Port Washington, WI. A stretch maybe, but a few things are true about Purgatory Hill: the music is rooted as much in early blues as it is in alternative indie rock, they use unique musical instruments, they put talent and passion into making this album and it's obvious from when you press play. To play this kind of music you have to pay your dues, and you can tell that these musicians have paid theirs. This debut album does a great job of setting sin and redemption in all 13 tracks. There is alot on this record that I can personally identify with, and I'm sure many of these songs are universal, pat mAcdonald is such a great down to earth song writer! pat mAcdonald plays a Lowebow slide guitar/bass, purgatory hill harp, sings, and stomps. Meleniejane plays the tambourine, backing vocals, and organ. Together they create an addictively rhythmic, raw blues rock duo.
Track one "Sintro" plays and we're rolling. A slight moan from a slide lowebow and you can almost hear rust, pain, and even a little morning dew as this tune is awakening and then???
Track two "blues of sin/babylove." Your mind is flashing back, your heart is racing, you're going over the details, you chill out over a fix, you get mellow, and you oh so got this! The shakers shake, the perfectly over driven harp comes in and the vocals and demeanor are way too cool in contrasting tone. The lowebow bass string owns this song. There is tension, no turning back, and commitment in this song.
Track three "Reset Me Lord" is totally repenting for whatever happened in life or even on track two. Slide owned lowebow, a hybrid cigar box guitar/bass, tambourine, distant harp, and vocals are harmonically layered. This is probably one of the most touching songs for me on this album, I'm sure we all have been there.
While my insights on Purgatory Hill are just my insights, the full album puts everything into context and I love how track 13 roles right back into track 1 almost seamlessly. The whole album is haunting, nostalgic, and reflective, packed with so much energy and remorse.
Let me just say Steve Hamilton and Travis Kasperbauer nailed the recording of this album down to the floor boards. Absolutely perfect! The only thing that could make this album better is if it was released on vinyl.
There are 10 tracks beyond what I have written about: and they are all worth checking out. This is, by far, is one of the best albums to come out of Wisconsin and our Area. Purgatory Hill's next show in our area is Oct 23 @ IQ's Bar on University Ave
Check out a couple of tunes then go pick up the CD on iTunes or on Purgatory Hill's website.
Album photos/art: front cover - bruce rose, back cover- ilan laks, inside covers - todd wolfson, design/graphics pat mAcdonald.