I like some theatrics when I see live music. I don’t mean Whitesnake-style explosions, or Ozzy Osbourne throwing raw meat into a rabid crowd, but rather basic old-fashioned showmanship—three-part-harmonies, costume changes, strange instruments, dancing. When I turn on my stereo or pay 10 bucks to see a show I really want a show.
Like many people in my generation I’m easily distractible. Perhaps I want comedy and gunshots, but maybe I need politics and fluff—I change my mind quickly. Much like the audiences of the early 20th century, I desire multiple planes of entertainment, talent and genre—and when I experience music, I want the circus, the church, and the cabaret wrapped in one.
In other words—Vaudeville.
It’s a vague and frequently misunderstood term, but Travis Stewart (AKA “Trav S.D.”), author of a book on the era, writes:
Over the course of a couple of hours a vaudeville audience might encounter singers, comedians, musicians, dancers, trained animals, female impersonators, acrobats, magicians, hypnotists, jugglers, contortionists, mind-readers, and a wide variety of strange uncategorizable performers usually lumped into the category of “nuts.”
In a vaudeville show you could have everything: from the puritanical to the licentious, from the patriotic to the anarchistic; from idolaters of wealth to egalitarians; and on and on…the hat rack in the dressing room had top hats, derby hats, fedoras, turbans, sombreros, bejeweled head-dresses and Apache war bonnets. All were equally important.
Though we're nearly a century removed from its heyday, the raucous three-ring spirit of vaudeville is still alive in some current “old-timey” acts. These are artists who wear many hats—and using their voices and their instruments they’re magicians, doctors, activists, preachers and circus-train conductors all in one.
C.W. Stoneking (Melbourne, Australia)
At first, second, even third listen, you think a) this guy must be an old Southern black dude, and/or b) he must have recorded sometime in the 1930s. Having met and seen him at a little bar in Los Angeles last year, he is in fact a living baby-faced, pasty Australian who couldn’t possibly be Robert Johnson’s cousin, even though his crackly, piercing voice sounds like it was lifted directly off one his dusty 78s. Dressed in hobo suits and donning an almost Amish-looking black fedora, Stoneking often also has his ragtag “Primitive Horn Orchestra” in tow: featuring an ever-changing array of tuba, clarinet, trombone, carnival drums, washboard, spoons, etc., the band can make quite a ruckus and slips in and out of songs seamlessly.
The son of celebrated American-born poet, playwright and filmmaker Billy Stoneking and an Australian mother, C.W. was raised in a remote Aboriginal community and worked as a handy man at local schools for years before he started writing his own versions of 1920s banjo-guitar songs. His two critically acclaimed discs Jungle Blues and King Hokum marry C.W.’s unique penchant for tin-pan alley American big band and blues with an exotic pounding “Jungle” sound. More of a storyteller than a musician (his guitar playing is mostly percussion), C.W. covers topics ranging from the extinction of the Dodo bird, shipwrecks, the hero-worship of General MacArthur, jail, talking lions, even a few about being a handyman.
Perhaps the best part of seeing him live, and hearing his tunes, are the often lengthy (and sometimes lewd) stories he tells between the tracks. He’s a pretty nice guy too, and despite his recent international touring and glowing reviews, he still prefers to mail out CD’s himself.
The Ditty Bops (Los Angeles, CA)
Probably one of the most entertaining live shows around, the two leading ladies of The Ditty Bops, Abby DeWald (vocals, guitar) and Amanda Barrett (vocals, mandolin), like throwing the whole kitchen sink at you. Featuring gorgeous two-part harmonies, the energetic, environmentally-conscious duo often design their own dresses out of plastic bags and other trash, open shows hanging from the ramparts of the theater, and call up the audience to dance with them on stage—they even created a tour where they bicycled across the West and gave everyone who brought their helmet to the shows half-off the ticket price.
Mixing a bawdy stage show with a whimsical modern lounge-swing sound, The Ditty Bops have wide appeal—shows are often dotted with grandparents, families and young hipsters alike. The fact that they are both totally stunning (Amanda is a model and actress), and have a nude calendar for sale at their swag table is just an added bonus. (Sorry boys, the girls are a happy couple.)
I first saw them as an opener in Detroit and (they sometimes have gypsy-style fiddle, Hawaiian-flavored pedal steel, accordion, live jugglers, shadow puppeteers and circus performers) instantly became a devoted fan. Apparently I’m not alone: their most recent LP Summer Rains was nominated for a Grammy.
Rupa And The April Fishes (San Francisco, CA)
As Travis Stewart adds in his article on vaudeville:
The ethnic variety of vaudeville made it the theatrical equivalent of the melting pot. Black, white, Jew, gentile, men, women, children, Irish, Italian, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, [performed] shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, cue to cue.
Far too often musical groups (like most social groups) are blandly homogeneous, but Rupa and The April Fishes, led by the multi-talented Indian-American chanteuse Rupa Marya, is a musical melting pot. They are a kind of a multi-ethnic North African-flavored gypsy-jazz orchestra you’d find under a Ferris wheel at midnight. Their core members hail from across the globe and include trumpet, cello, a drummer who uses kitchen tools and standout accordion player Isabel Douglass, who, when I saw them live at Los Angeles’ El Rey theater, stole the show with her sexually-charged, eyes-closed, chair-rocking solos. Marya’s beautiful painted face, framed eloquently by her jagged jet-black hair, seems to float above her flittering Spanish style guitar work.
Marya’s original songs on her remarkable debut Extraordinary Rendition from the Cumbancha label, profess a diverse set of influences that include “French chanson, Argentinean tango, gypsy swing, American folk, Latin cumbias, even Indian ragas.” While that may sound just plain schizophrenic, it makes sense considering Rupa’s background. Born in San Francisco, then raised in her parent’s native Northern India and later Southern France, tri-lingual Marya then went to medical school and returned to San Francisco to practice at UCSF, choosing a residency program that allowed her to work at the hospital half the year and tour the rest.
“[I'd] be a terrible doctor if I'm not an artist, and I'll be a terrible artist if I'm not a doctor," Marya told NPR about her double life. As for the music, it goes back and forth between French, English and now Spanish: she’s become an activist over Mexico-American border issues, and many of the Extraordinary Rendition’s best tracks have a political bent. The Fishes are currently on tour in Europe.
Fire, brimstone and one mic stand for the whole band. That’s about all you need to know about this old-school bluegrass quintet who sing about graveyards, sin, resurrection and the great beyond like they really know what they’re talking about. I saw them by accident a few years back at The Rodeo Bar in New York City and never forgot it: all five of them—Andrew Heaton on fiddle, Tom Baker on banjo, Michael Paynter on mandolin, Josh Erwin on guitar and Zach McCoy on upright bass—dancing, fighting, jockeying around that mic stand like there wasn’t any electricity in the place. Though there were hundreds of people packed in there watching, it was like we were on someone’s porch on a lazy Georgia afternoon in 1930.
With the bass player grooving in the back, the rest of the guys do something you don’t see much any more: four-part harmony. With their railroad caps, overalls and scruffy beards, they reminded me of The Soggy Bottom Boys in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? except these guys aren’t joking. Rising stars in the East Coast bluegrass circuit, The Packway Handle Band mixes dark themes and old-time religion with a uniquely modern folk aesthetic that pins down just what American music is all about.