Harmonious Wail’s Unique Kind of Music

We take an inside look at Madison’s favorite traveling band

Jeff Weiss, Maggie Delaney-Pothoff and Sims Delaney-Pothoff make up Harmonius Wail.

Jeff Weiss, Maggie Delaney-Pothoff and Sims Delaney-Pothoff make up Harmonius Wail.

PHOTO BY NICK BERARD

If anything can help shake off the winter doldrums it’s good singin’ and playin’. And Harmonious Wail has been doing just that for twenty-six years. The popular Madison band—with an impressive sixteen Madison Area Music Awards to its name, among many other accolades—has earned a loyal following playing clubs, concert halls and festivals here in Madison and abroad. They also play host to their own annual event dedicated to their style of music: gypsy swing.

Also known as gypsy jazz or hot jazz, gypsy swing is characterized by a particular form of percussive strumming called la pompe, or “the pump,” that gives the music its distinctive sound. The form has been around since the 1930s and is commonly attributed to Django Reinhardt, who, despite being handicapped on his fretting hand, is widely considered one of the best guitarists in history. His limited ability to fret­—or strum—chords lent gypsy swing a unique harmonic structure. Reinhardt’s group included violinist Stéphane Grapelli, also considered one of the world’s finest players and a forbear of the form. Gypsy swing is lively, featuring fast soloing and guitar as the central instrument.

Harmonious Wail’s guitarist, Sims Delaney-Pothoff, is also a master of the mandolin. Vocalist Maggie Delaney-Pothoff is an accomplished singer with a playful and captivating stage presence. She plays an assortment of percussive instruments, most notably a cardboard box mounted on a stand and played with brushes. She can also be seen snapping a scissors. Newly acquired bassist Jeff Weiss is impressive, exuding skills at the level of master jazz-fusion bassists Jaco Pastorious and Stanley Clarke. The trio was a quartet until guitarist Tom Waselchuk moved on to form the Dang-Its, another talented country-swing band. So while Harmonious Wail stays true to the gypsy-swing form, occasionally tilting toward the jazz side, they are quite innovative instrumentally.

“We don’t play music,” Sims says. “We move energy and then we move audiences. We’re on the road a lot, just spreading the joy.”

A dynamic duo onstage and off, Sims and Maggie Delaney-Pothoff just celebrated their thirty-second wedding anniversary. Maggie comes from the family that operated Delaney’s Steakhouse, a longtime city favorite. They have two sons, ages twenty-eight and twenty-five. The elder, Henry, is a fine guitarist, performing with the band at festivals and even traveling on European tours. He wrote the title track to the band’s 2010 album The Vegan Zombie’s Lament. Younger son Emmett sang the lead vocal on “It’s Not My Fault” from the Harmonious Wail album Bohemian Tango released in 2013.

Twenty-six years in the music business is quite an accomplishment, but twenty-six years of being married and in the music business is astounding. What’s their secret? Maggie simply offers, “You’ve got to keep your sense of humor!” Their music reflects that humor with amusing lyrical content, while in performance their storytelling provides comic relief. She adds, “We have found a good balance. For instance, I’m shy and can’t make a cold call, but Sims can talk to anyone. He books us, I show up! I have an overflowing idea-making machine for a brain. Sims is a total get-’er-done guy. With teamwork, working on the music is a breeze.”

I ask Maggie about the challenges of raising kids in a musical family. “The easiest part was knowing that they were seeing us do and be exactly who we wanted to be, day in and day out,” she says. “I believe that’s the best role model, and gift, that kids can have. The hardest part was the tremendous juggling act between our schedules and the kids’ needs … soccer, fencing, music lessons. Hoping that they weren’t feeling dragged around the world was stressful. Now, as adults, they have thanked us for teaching them how to travel and nurture an adventurous spirit. So I guess my worries were moot! We home-schooled through the adolescent years. That was a plus. These were all tremendous learning experiences for them.”

On February 14 and 15, Harmonious Wail is back home in Madison, to present the sixth annual Midwinter Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest at the Brink Lounge. The event combines virtuosic performances by some of the best in the gypsy-swing tradition with workshops and instructional sessions. The Midwinter version is an outgrowth of the band’s successful fall Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest, now going on its twelfth year.

“Not only were we propelled by the success and excitement of the fall fest,” says Maggie, “we love the romantic quality of gypsy jazz music, and the thought of it being part of Valentine’s Day celebrations. It’s a perfect match, in my mind.”

Rick Tvedt is founder of the Madison Area Music Association. He covers local music for in his blog Local Sounds

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