Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back-to-Back Banjo Blasts

Ben Fishman was in town on Friday night, so after a jovial happy hour at the Amsterdam Cafe and a decent dinner at Max SoHa (the prosciutto appetizer was delicious; the rigatoni al ragu Napoletano was a touch saltier than I remember), we piled into Ben's car, picked up David Stevens and the fair Sarah Green and made our way across town, down the FDR, across the Brooklyn Bridge, onto the BQE and to 315 Columbia Street in Brooklyn, the home of Jalopy.

We walked in just as the Hunt Family was finishing their set. We found some seats up front -- although there is not a bad seat in the venue, which has a big stage with red curtains and a disturbing bust with glowing eyes on it and then lines of instruments made from found objects lining the walls. And soon Curtis Eller took the stage.

Put yourself in a graveyard on a humid summer night. There is some noise coming from behind a tombstone -- the slowly arpeggiated notes of a minor chord. And then you see a leg rising from behind that tombstone: the foot impossibly high in the sky. And before you know it, there is Curtis Eller.

Sometimes stepping off the microphone to sing to the crowd and sometimes spinning himself in circles while letting those banjo rolls roll along, Eller was a blast of what Greil Marcus describes as "the old, weird America": the America of bearded-lady sideshows and carnival barkers -- lots of suspenders and whiskers. Until Allan arrived -- having come his own route from the West Village -- and took the open seat in the front row, Eller had been stepping off the stage and out into -- yet above -- the crowd, balancing himself on the church pew seating at Jalopy and never losing that gothic banjo beat.

With songs referencing Jack Ruby (multiple songs, in fact), Richard Nixon and President Ulysses S. Grant (in his cups), Eller had more than a few neat turns of phrase (e.g. "put a little sugar in my coffin"; "burn like a sweatshop fire") and helpfully informed us when a song was "in the key of B-flat minor in case you're dancing." In a song about P.T. Barnum, he told us how "that muthaf*cka always knew what to do" -- at least, I think he did. And he had a beautifully sad song about setting trained pigeons free, just like you sometimes have to in that old, weird America.

When the lights went up for the Two Man Gentlemen Band, the tap dancing started. To the sound of piped in music, the Minsky Sisters did their first dance of the night, losing their topcoats in the process and warming up the stage for some banjo and bass-accompanied two-man music. As the dancers walked off, Smilin' Andy Bean and The Councilman launched into audience favorite "William Howard Taft," and most of the crowd started singing along without being asked. "Fancy Beer," another great sing-a-long followed, and the energy never let up.

These guys just keep getting better and better: both in their presentation and their musicianship. The rhythm was right on throughout their set. Andy Bean was killing on the four-string banjo, including a little bit of skat singing over a twangy accompaniment, and The Councilman keeps it steady and solid on the bass. In between songs, the Gentlemen held hands on the neck of The Councilman's bass -- that's how two-man music is made, I guess -- and sometimes Andy Bean would take a nip from his new trout-covered flask.

Other hits from the night included "Rabbit Feet" (although I apparently was too dense to understand the double entendre), "Nobody Likes You When Your Sloppy Drunk," "Prime Numbers" (during which two-man-music devotee Alex Battles, sitting to the side of the stage, shouted out "83!" and was met with a single digit from Andy Bean's direction) and "I Can Get Drunk and Sing Songs." But without a doubt, they floored me completely when they busted out a funkified, bass-and-banjo version of the theme from "Ghostbusters." I don't know if there ever will be a better two-man 1980s cover. (Yes, that's a challenge.)

The new Two Man Gentlemen Band CD is called Drip Drying, and it's best to buy it after you see them live.


Unknown said...

uh... i guess i'm too dense to understand the "rabbit feet" double entendre, too. as far as i know the song is about eating rabbits. really. also, nice to see you friday night.

Alex said...