Sunday, April 28, 2013

Peter Stampfel & The Ether Frolic Mob "The Sound of America" (4*)

As the latest in a long line of interestingly-monikered outfits from MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers in 1960 down on New York’s Lower East Side, through the Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancy Street into various incarnations of the Holy and Unholy Modal Rounders, The Ether Frolic Mob (originally Velocity Ramblers) date from around 2004, with a shifting lineup, since everyone, as Stampfel points out in the liner notes, has day jobs and/or other bands.

In a similarly lengthy line of descent Ether Frolics apparently date back to the middle of the eighteenth century, and originally referred to the recreational use of the anaesthetic gas by  well-to-do revellers and medical students, developing into entertainments where a troupe of performers fuelled their activities with the gas and invited members of the audience to join in the revelry. Such events continued into the Jazz Age, and one notes the presence of ether among the additives that fuelled Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They were, in Stampfel’s description, Sort of an old-timey acid test.

And although the twenty-first century The Ether Frolic Mob, don’t indulge, that old-timey acid test is probably the right label to apply to this particular variant on the genre that has come to be known as Freak Folk. Stampfel describes the entity known as The Ether Frolic Mob as the culmination of over a half-century of thinking about my ideal of a musical group, even though the thinking, itself, will never culminate, a collection of people across a range of age groups he enjoys playing and hanging with, all of whom contribute vocally and bring a wide variety of angles and attitudes into the mix.

The Sound of America comprises a selection of eighteen tracks out of at least twenty-five cut over two days  at the Jalopy theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the summer of 2011. From the opener, Great Day, a track originally recorded by Bing Crosby and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the early thirties, with slight modifications by Stampfel to the unlikely closer (I Will Survive, the seventies disco track reworked so it’s of a piece with everything in between) we’ve got a collection that sits right in Old Weird/Freak Folk territory, with a prime example being the traditional Jawbone, which they hadn’t planned on recording, but someone went into it, everybody joined in and it took a second take to nail it. Old Weird/Freak Folk works like that. Drunken Banjo Waltz started its existence as an instrumental, needed a title, and once that arrived the words didn’t take that much longer.

The four volumes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music are a prime source for OWFF, and a prime link to what Greil Marcus has termed the Old Weird America, so it’s no surprise to see some of the contents turn up hereabouts, including Train on the Island, which gets a bit of padding with verses borrowed from elsewhere and a couple made up by Stampfel. Charlie Patton’s Shake It Break it doesn’t turn up in the Anthology, but it does here, a good timey slice of raunchy ruckus, and Wild Wagoner, the second selection from the Anthology, gets a slower treatment than the original because Stampfel can’t play fiddle that fast and, anyway, he prefers ‘em done slower so you can appreciate the melody. Last Chance started off  as a Hobart Smith instrumental, though Stampfel decided it needed some words, and duly provided same.

Playwright, actor and director Sam Shepard at one stage played drums for the Holy Modal Rounders and contributed the tune for Back Again (a co-rewrite that started as an instrumental from an old recording with banjo-playing son Walker, words by Stampfel). The son’s no slouch on the banjo, and at the age of seventeen with just seven months experience under his belt, according to Stampfel, could do stuff on it I couldn’t, after going at it for about fifty years, and singing like an old Southern mountain guy from a hundred years ago. That’s Stampfel doing the vocal here, though, sounding like something from the nineteenth century though there’s a contemporary edge to the lyrics with references to falling off the wagon and such. LIstening to the tune there’s a fair bit in common with the one Robin Williamson appropriated for the Incredible String Band’s Log Cabin Home in the Sky...

Things are in much more authentic old time territory for Golden Slippers, straight out of the blackface minstrel era, and then we come to the genuinely odd Shombolar, originally recorded by Sheriff and the Ravels in December 1958, and, according to Stampfel the Rosetta Stone connecting African music, Caribbean music, and doo-wop.

There’s a fair dash of old time jug band about Gonna Make Me and the good time music continues through Hey-O, Memphis Shakedown and New Fortune Fortune, a couple of prime examples of cuica-driven Old Weird Freak Folk. Comes Around embraces the principle that a melody cannot be too simple, or too stupid, or too stupidly simple and Deep in the Heart of Texas might seem to fit the same bill, but features new words from John Morthland.

The Harry Smith Anthology provides Blind Uncle Gaspard’s La Dansuese and Stampfel’s intention to record a song for every year of the twentieth century provides I Will Survive, which might seem like a surprising choice or 1979  but has, in Stampfel’s own words Really nice chords, and it’s fun to sing.

Old Weird/Freak Folk (OWFF) is Stampfel’s term for what’s on offer here, and the contents may or may not actually fit under generic classifications, though Stampfel’s descriptors of the stye add a bit of clarification to what you can expect from his current projects.

OWFF tends to be multi-generational and generationally inclusive, as opposed to that just-for-the-young or just-for-the-hip exclusivity common to other genres and the instrumental breaks lean towards soloing amidst ensemble improvisation (tail-gating in traditional New Orleans jazz) as opposed to the Everybody-take-turns-and-show-off solo aesthetic you tend to find in bluegrass and jazz with, in Stampfel’s words an ever-increasing possibility of neat weird shit happening.

Your mileage will, of course, vary, depending on your tolerance of one man’s neat weird shit. Approach with caution, but definitely worth investigating if those descriptors sound like the sort of thing that floats your boat. Definitely works for me...

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