B A S S - A C K W A R D S
Joey Harris and the Mentals – The Ruby Room, April 10, 2010 * Brawley – Bar Pink, April 16, 2010 * The Uptown Rhythm Makers – Clair de Lune, April 2, 2010 * Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys – Paradise Wobble, Ready For You (Coeur de Jeanette) * The Sweet Hollywaiians – Ticklin’ The Strings (Sweet Strings)
If I’m not quite down with the idea that current = better it’s ‘cause I’ve gotten into so many things after the fact. When it comes to classical, jazz, or folk music this makes a certain amount of sense. But it’s also about my tendency to have curious ears, and about needing the right stimulus (at the time) for creative expression. This has meant an increasingly keen intuition re: what’s going to feed me next, and can mean some frustration for friends determined to turn me onto whatever music they’re fired-up about.
And then there’s the gypsy thing. I was on-hand and/or involved, in the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area, for the New Wave, the resurgence of rockabilly, and some great progressive rock. In my late 20s, after moving to NYC, I went through a period of listening almost exclusively (on WNYC and a child’s record player) to new composers, the Ink Spots, Hank Ballard, and Bing Crosby with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Then I went through a phase of blasting Captain Beefheart, XTC, and a Verve jazz vocalist collection. In between or with all of the above I’ve been succored by vintage C&W, the McGarrigle Sisters, Laura Nyro, the Beatles, the Mothers of Invention, early Pink Floyd, the Blasters, and NRBQ.
Sometimes I’ve moved to cities where I didn’t know the rock ‘n’ roll status quo, meaning I never saw The Beat Farmers even though I was in San Diego for nearly five years before Dick Montana’s heart attack killed the band. Within those five I was delighting in KSDS, one of the country’s best jazz (along with a stellar jump and jazz/pop roots show) stations and getting into Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. When my ex and I tied a couple on we fixated on Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Television, Willie Dixon and the Cramps or tried to recreate the sparkle of V.U. circa Loaded. At least half my ‘90s focus was around writing and practicing music and spoken word and combining them for performance.
I had fun at Joey Harris’s Ruby Room show. Although I’ve heard The Beat Farmers were better, hey, that was the ‘80s/’90s, when everyone but babies looked better with the lights on and bottled/smoked/snorted mayhem made everything rowdier, and, sometimes, better. Okay, I get it that the BFs were amazing… um, we’re here now.
Running low on female groups, lesbian event “That Time of the Month” is allowing performers with divergent physical equipment. If Harris sees the irony, he excludes it from his ribald patter: “I’m comfortable here: I can get drunk and run around naked” … “My wife Vicki has our CDs – maybe she’ll give ya one if ya pull on her titties!” Harris probably foresees mopping the floor with the other bands, a vision that’s made flesh by his scorching opening gambit, four-four barnburner, “Little Boy.” He makes a vague reference to surviving tragedy (probably including Beat Farmers Dick Montana’s onstage death) before singing about a woman who decapitates her porno-fixated partner and puts his head on a stick.
The Mentals exhibit an advantage to well-honed chops: The ability to get wild/a little messy, then pull back into rock ‘n’ roll precision. With the twang of roots-colored trouble boys like Dave Edmunds and The Blasters, Harris’s solid originals aren’t uniformly combustible. Young barflies still pogo with older fans, a combination not entirely uncommon at the Ruby – while line-ups may be wildly disparate or uneven, its mix of openness (where else would you see mature sexist mavericks and young lesbians, if not getting along, at least mutually tolerant?) and hipness add up to the kind of joint where even a sober drunk can imagine inhaling shots and prancing around naked… not that the thought ever occurs to me.
The appearance I caught was tighter than this but I don’t know if we had a better time:
I wish I could say as much for the combination of human factors at Bar Pink for Brawley, a band I knew included Nena Anderson but which I didn’t know focused on vintage C&W.
Once upon a time it was a So. Cal. tradition to catch folks in vintage get-ups emerging from tricked-out four-doors. Remnants of that aging scene showed up to mix oddly with partiers including a crew of screeching Lady Gaga lookalikes and a drunk who bellowed through the chaos toward affable vocalist/guitar whiz Adrian Demain, “Love the Hello Kitty guitar!”
“Welcome to Brawley,” Demain exclaims after second set opener, “Buck’s Polka,” subtly underscoring the county fair ambiance sought by fans in carefully cuffed jeans who doggedly find ways to two-step through kids looking for love and answering I-phones. Cultural and sound issues (Demain’s vocals distorting; instrumentation sometimes overriding vocals) aside, Jim Austin’s lively stand-up chops help bring the r-o-c-k to “Don’t Cry To Me” and Loretta Lynn’s “Honky Tonk Girl.” David Berzansky knits his pedal steel with Demain’s crafty leads.
The magician appears onstage and starts producing rabbits from hats whenever Nena Anderson’s jazz-informed phrasing is answered by Demain’s perceptive colorings. Moving between jazz standards, original and vintage country material and ensembles, Anderson’s been turning into a world-class vocalist. It’s the kind of growth that’s exciting to watch, especially now that engaging chanteuse Romy Kaye’s become a local memory (she’s now in N’awlins).
Later I tell Anderson that I look forward to her moody, compelling originals (an unusual situation when musicians favor covers) and she confides, “That’s what everyone says.” As she cries the refrain to “Changing My Ways (to be there for you)” the TV behind the bar is screening Pygmalion, the film in which guttersnipe Eliza turns herself inside out for Professor Higgins. It’s the scene where Leslie Howard (as Higgins) shows some dismay as he realizes Eliza’s gone. I know where she is, and that the gods are smiling on Anderson and, by extension, Brawley.
Bringing the broadest smile to this populist is the spectrum of types that converges for The Uptown Rhythm Makers at Clair de Lune. The Makers make the joyful noise called Dixieland Jazz, a style that has grown on me rather slowly - for years my only contact was via Woody Allen movies. I now feel it’s the bee’s knees. It also feels like the result of ears that hear more, and in different ways than was the case at one time. When a band really loves this stuff, and throws that love at the music, I hear emotion in every note, and that’s exactly how it is with this group. It’s an odd combination: the offhand, whoever-wants-to-do-them-approach to vocals (also found in a lot of jug and seminal Western Swing) smacks of a casual “We’re men, we’ll just get the job done attitude.” The instrumentation tells us these guys would be the first in line for whoever’s sellin’ the kind of candy they’re lookin’ for.
Near the end of the first set the band’s easing into “Everybody Loves My Baby.” Leader and announcer Kenny Powell cracks, “That’s one of our newer tunes, written in 1924.” During the break I stand in the cool breeze with clarinetist/melody-carrier Dr. Bruce Vermazen. “It gives me hope,” he exclaims about the races, ages, and sexual preferences united to imbibe the poignant, joyful wheeze of Dixieland jazz.
Tonight that includes a posse of older teens clustered near the stage. Respectful and attentive, they seem to realize they’re getting a cultural history lesson. Two of the kids are making out. A girl convinces a boy to get up and give dancing a shot, which they do: Whirling, stumbling,laughing. Swing competitors and students from the Firehouse School are doing the short, quick steps of “the Balboa,” reminding me of penguins. Sitting on the other side of the stage are two women who’re 75 if they’re a day; one’s knitting. Porkpie-wearing hipsters are keeping the beat and joining the whoops greeting the crescendos to which most Dixieland builds.
It’s good to know the Makers are here sharing this largesse every month–the whole scene’s sweetly inspiring. From the song “Chicago,” I’ve always been touched by, “I saw a man, he danced with his wife.” Tonight, as a lesbian couple has a ball, I can say, “I saw a butch, she danced with her wife… or date, or girlfriend.”
About six years ago I got crazy for Robert Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders, a band with which the cartoonist and sound nostalgist produced superlative string-driven reenactments. Joining the things I don’t know was the band’s apparent dissolution. And I didn’t know about Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys or The Sweet Hollywaiians until last autumn, when it seemed to me both groups had suddenly jumped in to fill the void.
If it’s a void, it’s been vividly populated and colored by Janet Klein since 1998. Joining her at the party have been two integral Serenaders, Robert Armstrong (steel guitar, accordion and musical saw – plus my favorite male vocalist for such matter) and Tom Marion (guitar, mandolin, and banjo). Also in the gang is “musicologist, author, radio personality and former British Invasion teen idol Ian Whitcomb (ukulele and accordion).”
If I were you I’d be so consumed with curiosity about this Ian Whitcomb (unless you already know about him) I’d have a hard time focusing on what I’m writing. So in an attempt to keep you from shuffling off to Wikipedia, I’ll do it… okay. I’m back. And while this guy was the furthest thing from what I’d ever call rock (which could explain why he never attracted my antennae), he seems to have had a Zelig-like knack for being in all the right places, along the way possibly influencing Terry Adams and Mick Jagger –while basically playing Vaudeville and/or ‘20s music. Touche, Janet!
Now that I’m out of subterfuges we’ve arrived at a particularly mortifying issue, although this time it’s not one of ignorance: Ms. Klein answered my request for recorded matter with such a generous package of beautifully designed postcards and CDs, wrapped in vintage-style gift paper, that I was verklempt. I didn’t know how to respond beyond Oy – whatta goil! I mean, as far as I can tell, she doesn’t want to get involved with me, and, after all, I had asked for review copies. Unable to discern which CD was most recent, I tentatively pulled the shrink-wrap off Paradise Wobble. Janet’s and her accompanists emote as if born to the standards, oddities and rare cuts she’s unearthed from nearly a century ago – on this album alone, 23 of ‘em. For a fewhappy hours I cooked, cleaned, cut the rug (often with Bubac, the cat most likely to dance for food), vociferated, and made arcane hand gestures: Hotcha!
I was going to share Janet as a sort of Christmas/Hannukah gift (I’m half Jewish, if that explains anything) but ended up going with a different column. In January I looked at the pile of riches and compared it with the two or three contemporary CDs or relatively simple column ideas I’d conjured… and I was really sick for a couple of months, as well… anyone with chronic physical challenges knows how the simpler, easier commitments, and the ones that help pay for the plots of earth we occupy – get answered first.
Anyway, after all those syllables you deserve one of the treats Ms. Klein produces, basically playing out the fantasy I’ve had since Harry Smith turned me onto Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker with Stars of the Silver Screen:
Since I seem to be in this installment as more than a documentarian, I’ll include a pic of my departed friend Teresa (she liked to be called T.K.) and I, about 10 years ago, as The Sandies, or The Secret Life of Mary Leary – with her, and other collaborators, some of my “Sing a little song, do a little dance, tell a little joke” dreams were fulfilled as I inserted as many vaudevillian hi jinx as the market (or tech) would bear.
From the first note to the last credit, Ms. Klein’s CDs are beautifully crafted, often including booklets and sporting the ‘10s/’20s/’30s graphics she also creates for postcards. The images on the literature for the slightly more European/Grappelli-violin-sporting Ready for You are so dazzling, I thought I’d taken acid and opened a Pink Martini insert that had been designed by someone who’d worked for Bourjois or Christian Dior in the ‘50s and who was also on acid.
To examine Klein’s work, many avenues beckon. There are the subtextual stories being told about what it was to be a woman when there were much bigger taboos around being “a bad girl” — but that choice could mean more fun, at least for the moment. “Good girls” tossed and turned with worry over tarnishing their reputations. Then there’s the subject of options, or the lack thereof, for girls in the New World. Let alone the earthy Yiddish current in Vaudeville and related sounds, which Klein mines quite a bit–her amalgam of Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker–with dashes of Gracie Allen and Betty Boop–may be her strongest suit. I can relate to the dilemma in “I Don’t Know Whether To Do It Or Not” (Ready for You):
“Ohhh… oh-oh… I don’t know why it is that I am cvying/I should ve happy like a girl should be/For today ain’t I going to be married?/ I got da veil, da roses und everyting…Still I can’t keep the tears from falling/for way down in my heart/I think that I am jumping/ into something/that everybody says I shouldn’t start. Und I don’t know…”
Then she compares the freedom of single life (“a crime”) and the prison she fears will come with marriage.
Now that I’ve ruined our good time (hey, Janet started it), another of her skills is tackling uber-tongue-twisting wordage. While a bit of pitch or phrasing may be the casualty of such outings, that just makes me enjoy her more: Perfection is so hard to hug. From “Physician” (Wobble):
“My epiglottis filled him with glee,” “I know he thought a lotta my abdulla oblongata,” and my favorite: “He did a double hurdle when I shook my pelvic girdle.”
Naughty! But I’m not about to reveal everything: If you want to find out why this romance went south, you’ll just have to get the CD.
Finally (we have to stop somewhere), I want to mention the trippy imagery in many of these lyrics, which makes all sorts of odd sense in tandem with the burgeoning animation of the day. From Wobble’s “I Wish That I Were Twins”:
“I wish that I were twins/you great big Babykins/so I could love you twice as much as I do.” (So far so good, right? Then it gets a little odd) “I’d have four loving arms to embrace you…” (Okay, still with ya. Then): “Four eyes to idolize you each day… I face you.”
All the albums are recommended and can be found on Janet’s (four?)-eye-popping site: http://www.janetklein.com/web/main.htm
Is there any important (or even insignificant) Western cultural genre that hasn’t been embraced by the Japanese? If you think about this sort of thing, and have noticed, I hope you’ll tell me. We can add vintage Swing/Old Timey to the list, and not just back in that day… The Sweet Hollywaiians are busily producing albums full of it, and they do a damned good job while conjuring visions of Tiki torches and poi. They also feature Tom Marion – and, I believe, at times, Robert Armstrong – gee, those guys are runarounds, kind of like “hot jazz” missionaries. Anyone know if they’re available?
This is what Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) has to say: “The Sweet Hollywaiians have probably the best feel for this ’20s music of any string band working today. They manage the rare feat of sounding relaxed even when their playing is hot and are top notch musicians with tasteful arrangements and a full, rich, warm sound.”
In this case the website’s not much help (to me, anyway) since I don’t speak Japanese. But it’s beautiful: http://www.sweet-strings.com/ If you crave a more direct route to “My Girl of the South Sea Isles” (Ticklin’ The Strings) or any of the Hollywaiians’ other swingin’ albums, get thyself to CD Universe, Amazon, etc. Despite the admonitions of Carry Nation and other vintage fundamentalists, I don’t think getting thee to a nunnery will bring the desired results.
Whether the hippie movement picked up on gonzo elements that had sprung and flourished during the ‘20s, been touched on by The Beats, and were buried in our grandparents’ basements, or whether it seems that way ‘cause Robert Crumb’s comic books and album illustrations were so pervasive in the ‘60s and early ‘70s is a question I’ll leave for another time. But the giddy, cartoonish feel he got with the Cheap Suit Serenaders is recreated to some extent with Klein and with the Hollywaiians. And so, in whatever humble and far-flung way it must, that which is essential, at least to some of us, plays on.