The Whole Package

Medicine Show is packed with talent, youth, and charm

At first glance, Medicine Show seems like a traditional bluegrass band. Their basic setup is the usual assortment of string instruments: mandolin, banjo, guitar and washtub bass, occasionally augmented by a female guest on a fiddle. They also do the über-purist Del McCoury thing and play their solos in one communal mike.

Rub your eyes, though, and it all breaks down. First, there's the age thing. The two oldest members are just a year out of the University of St. Thomas; the youngest are still there. Also, bass player Anthony Callio's forearms are as heavily tattooed as those belonging to the rap-rockers of Faceplant and Simpleton. That guest fiddle player is also heavily inked, and sports a nose ring to boot. Then there's singer-guitarist Craig Kinsey, whose narrow face, goatee and top hat make him look something like a demented version of a young Abe Lincoln.

Racket recently caught two of the band's sets at Brasil, an unlikely venue for even this unconventional spin on bluegrass. Still, to the players' surprise, they managed to win over the multiethnic, coffee-sipping crowd. Says Kinsey on the patio between sets: "I was expecting the people here to be like [puts on generic Eurotrash accent] 'Focking vat is zees? Focking Americain heelbeely podunk cropp!' "

"I was ready for us to be snapped off the stage and pelted with berets," adds mandolinist Scott McNeal.

Winning over the hipper-than-thou at Brasil is just the latest in a series of pleasant surprises for Medicine Show. Though they've been together for more than two years, they've been picking in public for only about a month. Previously, their gigs had been at private parties in and around the University of St. Thomas, where they charmed not only the students but also more than a few of the holy sisters. ("We're four good-looking guys, what can I say," jokes multi-instrumentalist Geoffrey Muller.) In just weeks on the scene, they've landed a Monday-night slot at Helios and a recurring-if-not-steady Wednesday-night gig at Brasil. Racket's interview with the band was delayed while they dealt with the bum's rush of an independent promoter who wanted to book them into The Axiom later this month. "People seem to like us a lot," notes a genuinely amazed Callio.

It's not hard to see why. With Medicine Show, it's not just the music -- it's the whole package. They freely admit that they still have a long way to go musically to catch up with the McCourys of the world, and much, if not all, of their set consists of covers of Appalachian standards like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "Rocky Top." What sets them apart is first the sheer novelty of seeing punk kids play traditional bluegrass. After all, who can resist the down-home charms of the humble washtub bass? Especially one played by a guy who would seem by appearances to be more at home in Good Charlotte? "It's an attraction," says Callio, who admits he would still be a mere Medicine Show hanger-on were it not for the lowly instrument built for him by Muller. "Little kids love it. They say, 'Mom, that man's playing the trash can! It makes music!' "

The band also has an old-beyond-their-years aesthetic. Like Jug O' Lightnin', whom they resemble in spirit if not in sound, they fuck mightily with the temporal plane. They simultaneously root you in the now while taking you back in time. Muller describes their sound as "curbside-hobo-bluegrass-jug band" and it's about as perfect a way to paint them as Racket could come up with. It's gridlock-urban and hogslop-rural at the same time, just technically proficient enough to qualify as genuine bluegrass, and still sloppy enough for funky jug-band stuff.

Allegedly Medicine Show is more than just a slightly unoriginal name. Though they didn't treat Brasil to the spectacle, elsewhere the band lives up to its name to the full. At Helios, where they're more comfortable, they perform a mock medicine show, complete with bottles of snake oil for sale and random preachings and healings delivered tent-revival style by the spooky-looking Kinsey. Also not performed at Brasil were some interesting covers the band is working on.

"We're gonna do some Clash covers, some Stones covers," says Callio. "We're even gonna do some Social Distortion."

"The idea is to produce a certain effect," adds Kinsey. "Any style of music is subject to become victim to the Medicine Show."

As are fans of just about any style of music.Medicine Show plays every Monday at Helios, 411 Westheimer, 713-526-4648.

If you're not already stoned -- which, by looking at the clientele, seems about a 50-50 proposition -- when you walk into a Little Brother Project show, you'll feel that way after about five minutes. You don't even have to light up.

Though they're billed as acid jazz, the absence of a DJ, horns and keyboards gives up the game. "I wouldn't really call it acid jazz, either," says 26-year-old guitarist Marc Reczek. "That was just our marketing strategy to get into a club downtown. It's funny, though; some people say that it's acid jazz, but I don't think it has anything to do with it. I see it as more of a jam band with no band."

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