Saturday, January 19, 2008

Two Encounters with New Original Old Time Music in New York

Over two days this week, I found myself twice enjoying songs composed recently but with an old-time flavor: songs that quite consciously imitate the good-time music of the 1920s. There is quite a bit of this going on these days with some groups (e.g. New York's The Wiyos) mining the treasure trove of hot jazz, vaudeville, ragtime and jugband music for pieces to perform today, while other groups (e.g. The Hunger Mountain Boys) prefer to write new songs in an old-time style and create a stage show (and wardrobe) that clearly belongs to that more distant time.

On Thursday night, I went to see The Two Man Gentlemen Band, who have been making this kind of music and playing it in New York (including extended residences in Central Park and the Union Square subway station) and throughout the country for over three years now. My history with the Gentlemen goes back a bit further. The handsome banjo player known to Gentlemen followers as Smilin' Andy Bean lived on my floor our freshman year of college, and we bonded quickly over the facts that I sometimes wore a Howlin' Wolf T-shirt and was not afraid of going hands-free at the urinal. (Those were mutually exclusive events, as far as I can recall.) Andrew (as he most certainly was known at the time, such that hearing him called "Andy" all the time now brings much confusion to my ear) and I both found ourselves at WKCR, and I understand that there is a small black market in bootleg tapes of the two of us hosting the late night "Copulating Blues" segment of the (formerly) annual Blues Festival. All of this is to say that I am perhaps not the most impartial observer of this band (or perhaps I am a harsher critic for knowing them, and therefore my recommendation is more notable).

The Gentlemen have appeared on The Moonshine Show several times and during WKCR's (still) annual Country Festival, and I have seen them perform at the Parkside Lounge, the Knitting Factory, Muldoon's Irish Pub (near Grand Central Terminal, where the Gentlemen have had a fairly regular Tuesday night residency) and Lillie's Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (That last one was on the night of the February 2006 blizzard in New York, and I always will be grateful to Alex Battles for giving us a lift from the bar to the subway station in the middle of the evening's entertainment.) So I know their act pretty well, but it always is pretty fresh, and I almost always seem to be in need of a new kazoo (which are frequently handed out for free at shows).

This show on Thursday night at the Parkside Lounge was the best Two Man Gentlemen Band show that I have seen yet. Andy Bean, The Councilman Fuller Condon--for a while, there was a threat that he would no longer be called "The Councilman," and I am glad that the band has decided to retain his quasi-governmental position, as I find it very fitting--and the third Gentleman, Travis Harrison, were playing material from their new CD, Heavy Petting--an album title that this DJ might hesitate to announce on air--and they were just having a grand old time of it, playing to a full room.

From Heavy Petting, we got "The Square Root of Two," a song about how love is like an irrational number, "On the Badminton Court," about gentlemanly ways to settle differences, the participatory "William Howard Taft," The Councilman's "Dippin' Sauce" and both the title track and "When Your Lips are Playing My Kazoo." From Great Calamities, the Gentlemen played "The Hindenburg Disaster" and "Prime Numbers", and from their self-titled debut, we heard "I've Been Drinking" and "Corn Liquor" (which at some point, I have just realized, should be combined into a single song called "I've Been Drinking Corn Liquor"). The crowd enthusiastically shouted along to "Corn Liquor" and also to the as-yet-unrecorded "Fancy Beer." (On a drinking tour of Kips Bay and Williamsburg the next day, "Fancy Beer!" became the refrain.) Nothing gets people shouting like drinking songs, and the Gentlemen know it.

Andy Bean was in fine form, letting the crowd know when our kazoos were out-of-tune or inappropriately played, and The Councilman was the winner of the night's singing contest, being able to outlast Bean when it came to note-holding. But I give my biggest salute to Travis Harrison, who played his tiny percussion kit with incredible enthusiasm and an eye to entertaining the crowd. Twisting his body around Bean and bringing his head dangerously close to Bean's banjo, he kept brushing (as it were) out the beat, seemingly hanging on every word that Andy and the Councilman uttered. A delightful performance. No one walked away from the show disappointed--not even the guy sitting two down from me who said, "You've got to be kidding me," when Bean and the Councilman were first tuning up their kazoos before the show.

On Friday night, my friend Allan (who writes about music on his blog Rattle My Cage) and I saw the Asylum Street Spankers put on a show at the Barrow Street Theatre, part of a one-week residency there. The Asylum Street Spankers are one of those bands that you hear a lot about in bits and pieces but don't actually know that much about. (Or at least that I have heard a lot about in bits and pieces.) Out of Austin, Texas--and doing their part to keep Austin weird--the Spankers have transitioned from being a band that focused on the hokum and tin pan alley tunes of the 1920s to being a band that writes new songs in that style. Like the Two Man Gentlemen Band, they write about drinking and the love shared between men and women; they also tend to write more about drugs, and we were treated to the critical "War on Drugs" during the show.

The show was billed as a musical revue entitled What? And Give Up Show Biz?, and I had expected a fairly theatrical presentation. Although there were nods to the off-Broadway setting of the show and some scripted bits, the emphasis was clearly on the songs, and there was no effort to construct a narrative--either that, or I missed it. At first, I was disappointed in this, but then I stopped caring (and particularly after the Beer Girls came from off-stage to present the audience with some mental lubricants--the third Budweiser that I have had in my life). The music was solid: these guys can play. The one woman in the eight-person ensemble on stage--founding member Christina Marrs--belted out a couple of songs, including a solid version of "Got My Mojo Working." One of the more orchestrated skits involved obnoxious crowd requests for the song about her private parts, which the band incorporated into a medley of songs for which they get requests but don't want to play.

The band consistently impressed with their musical acumen: they got in the groove of tunes instantly with very crisp starts and stops. Wammo was out front, taking off his rubboard, telling the stories and waving his Heineken around for emphasis. Korey Simeone, decked out in a floppy top-hat, excelled on the violin. (Folks probably know him from his involvement with that other weird string band from Austin, the Austin Lounge Lizards.) Nevada Newman played steady guitar throughout the night and got to take an occasional break. Josh Hoag's bass was clear and steady, and he had one memorable solo. Stanley Smith's clarinet often ended up in the background (or being held and strummed like a mandolin), but when he got to step out front, he did not disappoint. All in all though, it was a group effort.

The size of the crowd was not overwhelming--it was a late show at 10:30 (and in fact, started about 30 minutes later than that)--but the band did not let that hold them back. They played with energy and had real fun with the show. Believe the hype.


Ellen Stanley said...

i still have at least one of those tapes of "copulating blues!" ah, memories...

Courtney said...

Congratulations Matt, on your new blog. I will check it religiously for advice on who to see, provided any of these acts ever make it out here to the hinterlands of Charleston. I'm still waiting to take you to Mountain Stage!
Your friend,