Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Kirsten Ferguson. See more of Kirsten’s photos from this show here.
It’s not every day that you get to see a grown man on stage playing a typewriter behind his head like Jimi Hendrix wielding a Stratocaster at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. At least the former refrained from igniting his instrument, perhaps recognizing that the Albany police station was adjacent to the Steamer No. 10 Theatre.
It’s hard to believe that the Star Spangled Washboard Band had not played a show in 15 years – even the band members themselves made reference throughout the night to that swift, odd passage of time, sometimes with dated jokes that were nonetheless funny. What was obvious as well, seriously, was that their repetoire of songs had vintage quality right from the start.
Opening with the “Darrowsville Road” from 1977′s “A Collector’s Item” (their sole LP), SSWB established an “in the living room” feel to the night’s performance. Broadway Harris told a story of being asked to write a song for a SUNYA play about electricity – yes, the early 1970s was a strange era – and reeled off a barrage of lyrical puns in “I Get a Charge Out of You.”
Wild Bill Hayes shifted the content to more earthly matters in the country tearjerker “Milwaukee Lil” (“She said she’d only break my heart/She said she would, and she did”). Banjoist Bowtie Johnson led the way on a jaunty take of Arlo Guthrie’s “Ring Around the Rosey Rag,” a fine preamble to stories about the band’s adolescent Gaslight Village origins and Broadway Harris’s harmony-rich “The Gazebo Song” and “High School Honey.”
Expecting whimsy and novelty percussion comes with the territory at an SSWB show. Will Bill channeled a meek alter ego (“Sweet William”) for a wry take of “Hello, Hello” featuring megaphone, nose whistle and tangerine (yes, you had to be there). Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” and the old-timey lament to separation, “My Eggs Don’t Taste the Same Without You” – the latter featuring Cousin Clyde on vocals and stick bass and Wild Bill on acrobatic Smith Corona – showed the tremendous range of the group.
“Goody’s Garage”, a song that never was formally released in the band’s heyday, celebrated intoxication and had the crowd clapping and tapping along, while “Floozy Suzie” (an ode to an easy woman by legendarily lost songwriter John Farrell) had co-singers Cousin Clyde and Bowtie grinning like college kids on academic probation.
It goes without saying that the Star Spangled Washboard Band would later beget Blotto, the group that put Albany on the musical map. At the Steamer, however, that acknowledgment meant a surreal “cover” song: Stepping up to the microphone, Broadway Harris reveled in a bluegrass take on Blotto’s classic ode to hedonism, “Too Much Fun,” that would have had Sarge Blotto smiling in the audience had he been there. Recognizing that it was National Record Store Day, the band tossed out rare 45s to the delight of the audience before a spirited romp through the original “A Collector’s Item.”
An encore was expected – at least by the band, of course, who waved their hands from behind the curtain, importuning the audience to call them out and keep the show going.
Be careful what you wish for may have been the mantra of the night.
Fans of the Beatles’ 1968 eponymous double album (“The White Album” to some) were either shocked or delighted by the Dadaist slicing and dicing of “Rocky Raccoon” filled with costume changes, ill-fitting mustaches, a toy horse, dramatic re-enactments of pivotal scenes and closing birthday wishes to Michael Eck, the brave soul who had booked the band for this rare reunion.
A more controlled encore, “9th Nervous Breakdown (Freedom March)”, ended the night on a joyous, peaceful note – it was after all, a bluegrass variation on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” – perhaps for the next 15 years? – and no police were called in.
Openers Val Haynes and Todd Nelson of Fear of Strangers – who will be playing at the J.B. Scott’s reunion party on Saturday (May 5) along with Blotto – brought a smile to all. Haynes brought her fine voice and innate exuberance to the stage, clearly having a ball, as Nelson played some deft rhythm and lead on his electric guitar (“He plays *beyond* virtuosity!” quipped a dancing Haynes). “To Be Young,” “Truth is Like a Dirty Word” and “Darlin’ ‘N’ Funky One” (which referenced Sir Issac Newton and Venus de Milo, among others) were pop gems. Haynes has always blended country and jazz, and her performance of “Running Between the Raindrop,” with its classic lyrics “I need three umbrellas just to step outdoors!” was a wonder to behold in their seven-song set.
STAR SPANGLED WASHBOARD BAND SET LIST
I Get a Charge Out of You
Ring Around the Rosey Rag (Arlo Guthrie)
The Gazebo Song
High School Honey
Hello, Hello (Sopwith Camel)
Lady Be Good (George & Ira Gershwin)
My Eggs Don’t Taste the Same Without You (Fabulous Farquahr)
Too Much Fun (Blotto)
Rocky Raccoon (the Beatles)
9th Nervous Breakdown (Freedom March)
LONESOME VAL HAYNES & TODD NELSON SET LIST
To Be Young
Truth Is Like a Dirty Word
Darlin’ ‘N’ Funky One
He Never Gives Up
Running Between the Raindrops
Love Comes to Town