It's a Thursday night at the Continental Club, and the Flying Fish Sailors are running through a charming little ditty about deathly disease.
"It was the flu pandemic and it swept the whole world wide / It caught soldiers and civilians and they died, died, died / Whether lying in the trenches / Or lying on their beds / Twenty million of them got it / And they're dead, dead, dead."
By the last chorus, many in attendance -- who've followed the group for years -- are waving their beers in the air and chanting lustily along. It's only after the song is over that singer/violinist/mandolin player Greg Henkel notes that he based an upbeat song on a real-life historical health scourge, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19 that killed some 21 million people, or twice as many as died in combat in World War I.
But the dichotomy doesn't faze the six-man crew, already known for offbeat musical tastes, with material running from centuries-old English and Irish ballads, pub sing-alongs and sea shanties to their originals about the Loch Ness monster, cannibals, crawdad superheroes and the challenges of moving with U-Haul.
"We are really big fans of shows like In Search Of and The X-Files, books like Chariots of the Gods," says vocalist/guitarist/ bodhran player Jay Lee. Henkel also is enthusiastic about In Search Of, the '70s paranormal show. "I mean, it was hosted by Mr. Spock! What more could you want!"
A couple of weeks later, the Sailors play a different sort of show at the Texas Renaissance Festival, channeling their inner medieval troubadours. "I love playing outside with no amp. It lets us run around a bit more," Henkel says much later that night, after working the festival all day and then his regular job at Whole Foods Market on Kirby. When asked if he and his merry band get propositioned by the King's Own Merrie Whores or some medieval groupie equivalent, he adds, "No, not the King's Whores. Although there have been some exotic visions," he notes in his trademark dry sense of humor. "Some are sublime, and some downright troubling."
"We also get the occasional well- inebriated patron that's a little overenthusiastic during the set," Lee adds, evoking visions of overstimulated turkey-leg-wielding suburbanites bellowing in bad English accents. "But everyone's in kind of a fantasy land out there. Even us. I mean, we have to wear the costumes."
The Sailors have very close ties to RenFest. It was there that Henkel, then playing with a group called Passing Measures, met vocalist/whistle-'n'-flute man Joseph Linbeck, who was then with Two Geese in a Bog. The pair, who also played together in Godfrey's Rangers, later hooked up with Linbeck's roommate Lee. The newly minted trio called themselves the Crying Shames, doing mostly straight-ahead traditional tunes and sea shanties.
In 1988 the three became the Flying Fish Sailors, the name taken from a hoary old lyric. But the band quickly found that the well for their sources was perhaps not as deep as they'd thought. "I would dig through lots of old music books and pick about five songs that we could do out of maybe 200," Henkel says, clearly relishing his musical detective role. "So to fill out our [shows], I began writing originals, and so did Jay."
It wasn't long before their sense of humor and offbeat topics began to appear, as the band looked to kooky compatriots like Trout Fishing in America and the Austin Lounge Lizards for the type of balance they wanted to have. "Not everyone wants to be bogged with traditionalist music. They want to be entertained," Lee says, though he adds, laughing, that Henkel's early songs were "not met with much enthusiasm" by the band, particularly the traditionalist Linbeck. "But it was a matter of trying them in front of our audiences, and they ended up loving the originals."
So much so that the Sailors' most recent record, 1999's Loch Ness Monster, has more originals than their prior efforts, The Flying Fish Sailors, Remnant Stew and Give Me Coffee. It's also the release that the group thinks is by far the best in terms of both material and playing (and check out the hidden bonus track, an alternative version of the title song done by the Sailors in an eerily accurate Dio/Iron Maiden mode). The rest of the lineup includes Mitch Lawyer (vocals/bass/mandolin); Jim Bedinghaus (percussion); and Henkel's brother Jim on just about everything when he's not doing duty with local cover bands the El Orbits and the Pop Kings.
And even though the band says that its available-only-on-cassette debut has sold well enough to "go cardboard" in terms of sales status, Loch Ness Monster has done Frampton Comes Alive! numbers by comparison. This time the band slapped a UPC code on its record, thus easing sales in retail outlets and even on Amazon.com, which has turned over more than 200 copies to date. It's also featured on their Web site, www.flyingfishsailors.com. "It's pretty amazing how far music can spread today, even though we're pretty much [Houston-based]," Lee says. "I'll get an e-mail that says they're playing one of our songs on some little radio station in Australia."
Back at the Continental Club's slightly disjointed but nonetheless charming show ("You have no idea how painful it is to be up here," Lawyer tells the throng), the band loosens up with "Superfreak" done Emerald Isle-style. Greg Henkel and Jay Lee demonstrate the claws and mouth of the mythical (?) beast during "Loch Ness Monster" and engage in a Rockettes-style kick line in "King of the Cannibal Islands." After one song in which the longhaired, bearded Bedinghaus's tom-toms are inaudible, Henkel yells to the soundman. "Turn up the hippie! Maybe we need to reboot him!"
The gig is an important one, as the Sailors hope to make the Continental a semipermanent home. "So many of the places we used to play are gone," Lee says, as he and Henkel rattle off the names of the Wellington Stone, the Red Lion, The Ale House and Munchies. The Sailors no longer play at the Mucky Duck -- perhaps the most obvious venue for their music -- for reasons they decline to discuss, although they hope to return.
"But we're very realistic about our [career goals], and don't have any illusion that we're going to be a big phenomenon in the folk music world. We all have day jobs," says Lee, who works in a software company in addition to co-hosting KPFT radio's Technology Bytes show and writing copy for a computer help line for the Houston Chronicle. "I like having a nice home to live in. Going into music [full-time] seems like too precarious a future."
But when Henkel hears of his bandmate's thoughts, he politely takes a slightly differing view, noting that he would not look askance at activating the Flying Fish Sailors as a full-time musical fighting battalion.
"Oh, yeah. Music just pays the bills," Henkel says dryly. "My real passion is working in a grocery store."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.