Sideshow Tramps Fitzgerald's September 9, 2011
If Aftermath doesn't have to be at the office first thing in the morning, sometimes we let our personal hygiene slide a little. Some days stretch well into the afternoon before we take a shower, and every so often we don't take one at all.
You readers must be shocked and appalled that a music writer could be so slovenly, but hear us out. One day this weekend - we won't tell you which one, in case you had any direct contact with us that day - Aftermath was studying the dirt underneath our fingernails and we started thinking about the Sideshow Tramps' CD release this past Friday at Fitz.
It seemed to us, and we suspect the band might agree, that the Sideshow Tramps are the dirt underneath the fingernails of the music business in 2011. No matter how hard you scrub, sometimes it just won't go away.
The Tramps' songs are born in the back alleys and bootleg bars of American music, where country blues nuzzles New Orleans funeral jazz, a slumped-over Tom Waits casts one heavy-lidded eye on Blind Lemon Jefferson wrestling Fats Waller over a pint of bathtub gin, and the Bowery Boys charge a two-bit "cover" for a peek at Belle Starr in her underthings out back. Although all but a couple of songs were originals, nothing the Tramps played Friday sounded less than 50 years old: Musical saw and washtub bass, "Orange Blossom Special" and "St. James Infirmary" (in spirit if not in name). Save a stray Chuck Berry lick, we'd even say 75.
A major label's nightmare; a thirsty Fitz patron's wet dream.
How do you sell this stuff? In Houston, where the Tramps have toed the line between scene godfathers and urban legends for a decade now, you don't have to. Put the word out on the street they have a new disc out - Revelator, only their second - and ready up the till with plenty of small bills. A Tramps CD release show is a temporary license to print money.
It can also be a religious experience, not just because the master of ceremonies for most of the evening is a man who calls himself "The Reverend." It stopped just short of that for Aftermath Friday; we chose not to indulge in the sacrament that figures prominently in the narratives of "Only a Drop Left" (honky-tonk waltz as pub singalong) and "Lady Vodka" (gypsy tango as Russian Rite of Spring), to name two examples.
But even if you're as dry as the Heights, the Tramps' songs can fool you into thinking otherwise : Rhythms that lurch and stagger around the beat, chords that aren't always 100 percent in tune. It's very much by design. These men are all expert musicians, for whom the contemporary chicanery of Auto-tune and ProTools is a bigger Beelzebub than the devil himself.
Anybody seen old Lucifer? Oh, he's off in the corner shootin' dice with Lightnin' Hopkins.
The Tramps' come-one-come-all carnival cuts both ways. It was a little hard to keep track of all the comings and goings onstage: A three-man brass section; opener Hilary Sloan and Two Star Symphony's Jo Bird on strings; Chase Hamblin, Arthur Yoria, Kam Franklin, Tontons' Asli Omar, some Houston Grand Opera singers and God knows who else as the "choir."
But who's going to argue with Hayes Carll, an old friend of the band's from their long-gone Monday-night Helios residency, coming out in his finest Arkansas-preacher duds for a double whammy of Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" and a lyrically bespoke version of Carll's Little Rock breakout "All Down the Road"?
Er... not us. The first words Kinsey spoke/sung Friday night were "Here comes a party," and every word after that lived up to it. If the evening lacked one capital-M Moment for us - we'd say Franklin wailing like Mahalia Jackson (seriously) on "John the Revelator" came closest - and wasn't the unhinged broken-bottle mayhem we banked on, there were enough lowercase moments that it was hard for us to stifle a grin.
Halloween season starts here. The best part is, we remember the whole thing, which makes it extra hard to wash off. Not that we'd want to.
Personal Bias: Let's just say the Tramps should have been the first and only call C3 made when Old Crow Medicine Show dropped out of ACL Fest this year, but we're not surprised they didn't. This is a band that effectively told our William Michael Smith they were too busy with other projects to promote their own album.
The Crowd: More or less everyone in the so-called "local music scene" worth knowing - if they weren't onstage, they were in the audience.
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Overheard In the Crowd: "I can die easy," sung as a chant of celebration during Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
Random Notebook Dump: Someone puked in the upstairs men's room urinal. We can think of no greater compliment.