Medicine Show No Mo

Not many CD release parties begin with pagan processions. But then again, the Sideshow Tramps (who were, until this gig, called Medicine Show) are not most bands.

A little after eleven, as attendees milled about in the verdant, lush beer garden behind Dan Electro's, a scream was heard from the balcony above. "When I was boooorrrrn / the Devil had me / and then I found my medicine!" With that, Sideshow Tramps Geoffrey Muller (a.k.a. "Uncle Tick) and Shane Lauder (a.k.a. "Coach") started beating a military tattoo on snare and bass drums.

"When I was boooorrrrn / the Devil had me / and then I found my medicine!" By now, you could see who was doing the screaming. It was a twentysomething guy dressed only in cutoffs, his body painted in the manner of some kind of drunken witch doctor. (In reality, the guy is a doctoral candidate in philosophy who had flown in from New York just for this gig.) He started coming down the stairs toward the beer garden at the head of a line that also included the two drummers, a violinist, a guy brandishing a lawn rake over his head, another with a doll nailed to a stick, and a trombonist.


Sideshow Tramps and CD release parties

"When I was boooorrrrn / the Devil had me / and then I found my medicine!" The pageant marched down the stairs and into the beer garden. Some of the drinkers fell in at the rear. The band was playing a sort of Montrose/Heights approximation of New Orleans brass band music — and why not? Hurricane season began that very day.

"When I was boooorrrrn / the Devil had me / and then I found my medicine!" By now the carnival had entered the club and made its way to the stage. And sadly, the momentum was lost as the band struggled to launch into "Old Plank Road," their first song. "We haven't made the transition yet from parade band to stage band," Lauder noted from the stage. "We're working on it."

But that was one of the only letdowns on the night. While Dan Electro's was stifling — Press photographer Dan Kramer compared it to a bikram yoga session — not many of the band's couple of hundred fans seemed to care. They were here to see the group they had watched grow from kids tentatively picking string band tunes in the corner on off nights at Brasil, to commanding the stage at one of the longest-running and most successful weekly gigs in recent years (Mondays at Helios), to the launch of their very first CD here at Dan Electro's. (Some even go back with the band to their days playing in and around the University of St. Thomas, when their audience at times consisted mainly of nuns.) These people had seen them grow from punk-tinged bluegrass kids who played tons of covers and were just this side of competent on their instruments to world musicologists who can each play the strings off of several instruments and have not just bags of their own songs but something more — a lore that adds new chapters on its own with each passing gig.

Not to mention affiliate members. Trombonist Mike Switzer sat in for a few numbers, as did various members of show openers Two Star Symphony and a pedal steel player. The band's original washtub bassist also got into the action. (But not Hambone, the band's felonious former washtub bassist and washboard player — he was still in prison, which no doubt disappointed the one fan who hollered out for him to come back.)

This was the first gig under the band's new name. They off-loaded the Medicine Show name onto their first album, which does a very good job of approximating their live show. Both album and show find folk styles from everywhere, from New Orleans to West Virginia to Minsk, getting tossed into a blender and coming out as ordered chaos, one of those dissolute trips to the Gyspy sin palaces Russian aristocrats were always sliding into on their way to ruin in the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Band members traded off on vocals, with Craig "The Reverend" Kinsey leading them through high-concept Dylan-esque tales while mandolinist Scott "Rag Tag" McNeil took more of a Howlin' Wolf belt-it-out approach. Their fans could sing along to every word. People got naked. Beautiful women jumped on stage and danced with the band — it's secular spirituals and spiritual sexuality. Uncle Tick reported that another woman had brought her young son with her and that the two of them passed him Lone Stars all night, or at least until the bar ran out.

Which was way too soon. Dan Electro's could not keep up with this band's fans. If you've ever seen an army of ants at a picnic slurp a drop of Kool-Aid dry, you've kind of got the idea of what the scene was like at the bar all night. It was three and four deep. The Lone Star vanished before midnight, which is not a surprise as people were ordering them four and five at a time and carrying them off in six-pack boxes. Since Dan Electro's doesn't sell the hard stuff, there was also a roaring speakeasy-style trade. Illicit pints of the hard stuff haven't been passed around like this since the glory days of Harlem's Cotton Club. Which is all of a piece with the band. In fact, I was offered a hit off a pint glass full of vodka, which the band has a song about, by Josie, the former Helios bartender who is the subject of another of their songs. "Lady Vodka" indeed: At what other local band's shows will band lore come to life like that?

The band is still easing into their transition at Dan Electro's. A couple of days after the show, I asked Muller how that was going. "We like both places," he says. "People feel at home and are comfortable at both. At Dan Electro's, it's like you're hanging out at [owner] Bob's house, and it's cool. It was the same at Helios, but there, you were hanging out at Marianna's house, and it always seemed like she had Lord Byron and Aleister Crowley as houseguests."

So the band has conquered St. Thomas, Montrose and now the Heights. Their debut CD lives up to their formidable live show. Who knows what's next? They might go on to conquer Texas and the world and they might not. But that doesn't really matter. They've already secured a place in Houston nightclub history as the band that put the fuck back into folk.

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