It was probably late summer/early fall of the year 2000 when my friend Ed Gorch and I had relocated from the lower Hudson Valley to Albany, ostensibly to finish our collegiate pursuits, but also to find new places to perform the often sad but sometimes rollicking folk/country tunes we had been playing for the last couple years in coffeehouses and taverns in places like Poughkeepsie, Athens, Rosendale and Kingston.
Ed noticed an open mic being advertised in Metroland—we made our way down to the corner of Lark and Madison, to the Lark Tavern, where in the back room something more than just an open mic was going on. There was a strong and earthy musical sorcery brewing and wafting throughout the room, in the form of a gale-voiced, somewhat mysterious yet approachable lady we soon found out was named Caroline “MotherJudge” Isachsen, the hostess and mistress of ceremonies for the night’s proceedings. The first thing we noticed was the high quality of talent, tunes and performances by both MotherJudge and most other local performers, who at the time numbered musicians like the Kamikaze Hearts, Bryan Thomas (Check out his 2008 tribute song to MotherJudge & her Best Damn Open Mic), Mario Sevayega and poets/performance artists like Mary Panza and Annine Everson. But it was the way Caroline ran the whole thing that made it ultra-magic. Ed and I both knew we, like so many others, had found a home.
Courtney Connelly (writer/singer/former TV producer): I remember the fear I felt, waiting to get up in front of the crowd. I was shy, just out of college, and it was my first open mic at the Lark Tavern. I was part of Stevie Wander with Nick Matulis (of current area band Swamp Baby). At first, I sang quietly. It wasn’t easy overcoming the pit in my stomach, but I did it. While I can’t remember the words we sang, I remember [Caroline’s] smile and applause—so warm and uplifting. From that point on, after every performance, I looked for that smile and reassurance, and she never let me down.
Matthew Loiacono (musician/songwriter/coffee director at Superior Merch): It’s difficult to imagine a Capital District music scene without the wide-open arms of MotherJudge embracing it over the last decades. Her innate ability to welcome, connect and encourage has reached every inch of our region and I’m at a loss to try to measure her effect. So much of my formative musical experiences revolved around the Wednesday night open mic she hosted at the Lark Tavern in the early ’00s. To think of Caroline in this light is humbling and makes me wish I spent even more time in her light.
Megan Prokorym (violinist): Not only an exceptional songwriter with a strong voice, she’s a fierce champion of local musicians. From her zenith, she created community through the Best Damn Open Mic Ever (BDOME). One that minimized competition and really fostered growth—raising the quality of overall musicianship in the area. She intuitively knows what artists need to develop to their full potential and was able to create a space for that to happen from newbies to veteran performers.
Turns out that MotherJudge’s influence in the area’s music scene was more deeply rooted than just her hosting duties. Originally from the Latrobe/Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, Caroline first made a name for herself in the region as one of two lead female singers for a band named the Siren Sisters String Band. As their mandolinist Glenn Weiser recounts:
“I saw the band perform maybe 1988 in Lincoln Park, could have been Rock Against Reaganomics, where I also played as an acoustic soloist. Because I been playing folk music and bluegrass for years, I said to myself, I have to play in this band. Caroline was the powerhouse singer and Kathy Bush was more like a Patsy Cline kind of crooner but was very good with that style. The Sirens had great songwriting. We were often compared to the Cowboy Junkies.
They had this huge following—all these people would show up to the gigs (especially lesbians who came to dig Caroline and Kathy, that was a thing about that band.) And they played out a lot too, Bogie’s, QE2, the Lark Tavern, all kinds of places.
We opened once for Rick Danko and Garth Hudson from the Band at Tiger’s in Clifton Park—that was probably the coolest gig we did.”
When things went sideways for the Siren Sisters (as things so often do in band situations), Caroline (who was not yet MotherJudge) soldiered on with a couple of former bandmates still along for the ride. While they were still getting gigs, local promoter Greg Bell told them they would have to come up with a new band name.
“We had been toying with a name that evoked a tent revival meeting or a Salvation Army band, something like that,” recalls longtime compatriot Joe Pasko. “Urban Holiness Society was among the possibilities, but far from definite. We had a book [from friend Dale Metzger] called the Dictionary of English Slang. We came across “Mother Judge” and liked it a lot—a British army term for the madam at the brothel who would size up each solider and assign him to his respective lady. We figured that was a great and unique name for the band: “MotherJudge”—capital M, capital J, but no space between the two words. A few days later, Brian [Wellbrock, guitarist] calls me and tells me that Caroline wants to be MotherJudge, herself. It would be her onstage name, and that the rest of us were going to be the Urban Holiness Society. Worked for me!”
Fast forward to the new millennium. I have a cassette of the Urban Holiness Society in my hands and the Americana/alt-country/roots rock that MotherJudge had been promulgating from the get-go seems to have gained a headwind, the world finally starting to catch up to her, but not quite. While still hosting the long-storied BDOME (which moves to Tess Collins’ McGeary’s Irish Pub after fire and travails at the Lark Tavern), Caroline finds an additional venue where she can sow her innate community building talent working as Volunteer Coordinator at the prestigious Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill, NY. She hosts songwriting clinics and performs acclaimed sets alongside her crack band of country/folk-rock/bluegrass aces, her virtuoso guitarist and mandolinist husband Sten Isachsen chief among them. She works on an album of originals with musical kindred spirit Mitch Elrod in her husband’s home studio, which is released in late 2018 (and has just recently been nominated for an Eddie Award).
Then comes the fateful night earlier this year when MotherJudge appears at that place she and many others call home, the floor of the Best Damn Open Mic Ever, and lets her community know that it’s time for her to pass the mantle on, as she is dealing with a grave illness.
For those who are not present at the announcement, the word trickles out slowly but inexorably, always with the same devastating effect. Still, there is the music, the exhortations, the care and warmth that she has stoked for decades. When words fail, there is always music.
Mary Panza (poet): She puts her absolute being into singing and it makes you have an out of body experience. She taught me that the mic was an instrument. It’s a conduit for the strings on her guitar and the words to the song. It made me more passionate about writing because after watching her, I understood that.
Susan Blank (friend): Her voice, singing (you know, that holy shit moment, the first time you hear it and every time you hear it afterwards) and her activism. Her warrior spirit, her compassion and passion, her ability to reach people through music, love and sometimes, a can of whoop ass! The lessons she has taught me through the years are incalculable. She is truly the mother of all mothers.
Friends and Family of MotherJudge (including the North & South Dakotas, the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers, and Jim Gaudet & the Railroad Boys) will be gathering to celebrate her life and music, and help raise funds, at McGeary’s on Sunday, March 3, from 12 to 6 PM.
Mike Hotter is an area musician best known for his work in the bands Swamp Baby and knotworking. He wrote music reviews for Metroland from 2006 until its demise. His lead guitar appears on the title track of the local Eddie Award-nominated Elrod & MotherJudge album, Cold Warrior.