Tramps On Your Street

Hambone's Revenge: Sideshow Tramps
John Powers

"Lock all your windows Lock all your doors He stole all my money And he's comin' back for more He's on the needle again He's on the needle again"

— Sideshow Tramps, "Hambone's On the Needle Again"

In a revealing scene early in recent Houston movie Honky Tonk Blood, shady record label honcho Johnny Falstaff tells Craig "The Reverend" Kinsey, cast as a creepy brothel owner, that because of Mykel Foster's death, "there's an opening for this Montrose music."

In the movie, Falstaff means the U2-ish modern rock personified by Blood co-star Hank Schyma's Southern Backtones, but in real life, no band in the past half-decade has been more representative of Houston's most eclectic area than Kinsey's Sideshow Tramps. Scruffy and a bit surly with their homemade instruments and sonic attack (think bluegrass gypsies on meth), the Tramps may be more popular than any band operating inside the Loop.

The group's new album, Revelator (ZenHill Records), is a stylistic melange that ranges from unhinged Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz to down-and-dirty tearjerkers to smack-your-face rock and roll. As with their live shows, here the Tramps — Shane Lauder, Scott McNeil, Geoffrey Muller and the Reverend — don't worry much about any rough edges left in the mix.

Instead they wear them proudly, like a black eye after a fight, rather than cleaning them up with Pro-Tools because that ain't punk enough. And there's plenty of punk seasoning throughout this Houston set.

"There's a lot of talk right now about a 'Houston sound,'" says Kinsey. "If there is such a thing, we hope it's going to be something without genre boundaries." That may not apply to most local bands, but it certainly does to Revelator, which the band self-produced with help from SugarHill Studios engineer Steve Christensen.

Ragged, swaggering Gogol Bordello-ish opener "Here Comes the Party" sets the bacchanalian carnival-freaks atmosphere. From there, Revelator swerves over the musical map like a Saturday-night drunk driver negotiating the Westheimer curve; it's quite possible that only a band of inner-city Montrose outlaws could pair up songs like the gentle "Siddhartha's Dancers" with "Tramps and Freak," a wild yet cautionary ode to the musician's life. The dueling-banjos happy veneer of "Hambone" screams "wrong," yet is so right.

"We actually had this guy who was always following the band around," explains Muller in the sweltering late-August heat at West Alabama Ice House. "He never was in the band, but he was always there jumping up to play washboard, just following us around everywhere like a superfan. He needed a place to stay, so he was using my couch. Then we find out he's shooting heroin, and he breaks in one day and steals a bunch of money and valuable instruments. He's in jail now."

The sing-songy Cab Calloway chorus of "Hambone" is cut straight from a true history of the 'Trose: "If your friend's on the junk / And he starts acting out / Get him out of your life / Let him find another couch."

Taking another stylistic left turn, the band absolutely magnetizes a medley of Blind Lemon Jefferson's classic "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and Blind Willie Johnson's "In My Time of Dying," featuring McNeil's wicked slide guitar. Then, just like a Houston jukebox, they completely shift gears into a two-step drinking song, "Only a Drop Left," only to segue again into McNeil's Ramones-ish out-of-control rocker, "Shady Little Girl."

"Yeah, that's what I like about the album and this band, we try for all of it," says Pasadena-raised Kinsey, who hooked up with Muller and fellow Pasadena product McNeil a dozen years ago at the University of St. Thomas. "We're probably not the greatest honky-tonk band, but that's such a solid song and I think we put our brand on it."

At this point, it seems like about the only stylistic bow the Tramps haven't made is toward New Orleans, but the jaunty good-time swing of "Goin' Back to New Orleans" takes care of that. And perhaps the most ambitious cut is the cover of "John the Revelator," which the band plows through like a bluesman driving a bulldozer. It gets completely wacky when McNeil suddenly accelerates into wild speed-metal guitar and the Houston Symphony choir kicks in over the top.

"I was listening to a lot of Russian choirs as well as Mozart's 'Requiem' when that all came together in my head," Kinsey explains. "The timpani shots in there are something I heard in 'Requiem' and thought we needed them there. It seemed to work out pretty well."

"Actually, what you hear on that track is us playing it live on the first take in the studio," adds the Reverend. "We came back and over-dubbed the choir and the female voices and a few flourishes. But that's the first and only take of us playing the song as a band."

The next problem the Tramps face is how to promote the new album given their complicated schedules. Muller is currently busy playing bass with Robert Ellis, who is touring hard nationally behind his new album Photographs. Kinsey is working with Hank Schyma on a multimedia project called New American Roots. Both musicians are hesitant about any firm plans to promote the album.

"We really haven't been able to schedule a time to tour to support this one yet," Kinsey explains. "Geoffrey is really busy, and I've got this new thing I'm working on with Hank as well as my regular solo stuff. But we want to push this record at some point. We just don't see when that point will be yet."

Muller concurs. "I don't work at 9-to-5, I never seemed to fit in that mold, so I'm always trying to figure out how I'm going to keep paying the bills," he says.

"Right now it's mostly staying busy with Robert. And I do lessons when I'm not on the road, and thankfully that stuff is fairly flexible or I can get a substitute when I can't be here myself. Right now it all seems to be working out fairly well. But tomorrow, who knows?"

Whatever happens with their separate, disparate careers, Kinsey says, "There will be another Tramps record, this thing will continue on."

"Definitely having several different projects and musical identities complicates our situation vis-à-vis the pushing the Tramps," he observes. "But we'd probably all get pretty bored if all we did 24/7 was the Tramps."

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