Jug-band music— with its roots in itinerant southern folk culture, quirky homemade instruments, and turn-of-the-century minstrel shows— is a peculiar pursuit in the 1990s. Its well-known connection to blackface performances makes it particularly problematic,
always begging the question of whether the white jug-band player means to parody or praise the music’s humble origins. John Sebastian (whose later work with the Lovin’ Spoonful evolved from his enthusiastic participation in the jug-band revival of the 1960s) brought his J Band to the Bitter End last Thursday to forestall such questions with a clearly reverent presentation of the form. Hyper-aware that records by the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers were as popular in the ’20s and ’30s as “Do You Believe in Magic?” in the fall of 1965, Sebastian exults in how the jug-band legacy
exemplifies— and yet transcends— the ephemerality of all fame and hitmaking genius.
Boasting actual alumni from Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band in guitarist Geoff Muldaur and
ceramic-jug virtuoso Fritz Richmond, the J Band tackled standards from the Kweskin repertoire like “Mobile Line” and “Jug Band Music” with cheerful authority— and a surprise guest vocal from another famous Kweskiteer, Maria Muldaur. The group’s sole person of color, drummer James Wormworth, nailed the insouciant washboard licks of “Minglewood Blues” as easily as he finessed the jazzy trap strokes required for “My Passing Fantasy” and a ragged-out
version of the Spoonful hit “Daydream.”
Swinging tempos and constantly shifting instrumentation kept things pretty interesting from the first washtub-bass note to the last banjo chord. Each member of this seven-piece combo had a chance to shine as the concert generously promoted three new albums of largely archival material: Sebastian’s Chasin’ Gus’s Ghost,
Geoff Muldaur’s The Secret Handshake, and Raines and Rishell’s Moving to the Country.
Whether covering early jug-band hits or an
obscure black Sunday school teacher like Vera Hall Ward, these artists appropriate these tunes to reveal and discover forgotten aspects of rural America’s checkered past. —Carol Cooper
Faith No More
A sign that reads “Programs Double as Fans, Mouths Double as Smiles” greeted concertgoers last Friday night at “Christ-a-go-go: The Spirit Circus.” The ticket taker reassures me: “You don’t have to be a believer to be here. I’m here.” So, equipped with a “Super Star” admission stamp and complimentary Tootsie Roll Pop and beach ball, I venture into P.S. 41’s auditorium.
Inside, Roger Human Being is hitting the skins via foot pedals, strumming a guitar, and, from what I can surmise, mangling a lyric or two about “losing faith.” An audience member pumps devil horns and screams for more. Kraftwerk-like Conduct e- and the amateurish electronica of JAGS follow. According to the program, the festival is to be “a jumper cable testifying to the connection between the heart of Jesus the Christ and the arts, all love and live wire and electricity.” All I bear witness to is a crowd immersed in a sea of brightly colored beach balls. Before Danielson Famile take the stage with hits like “I Ain’t No Deviled Egg,” the organizer appears, declaring “The more seriously you take God, the less seriously you have to take yourself.” Is this her postmodern thesis? Or a new ecstatic art form that has the positively sweet and avant Danielsons at its core?
“I thought it was a joke,” explains Rafael, an attendee. “Yeah, you’re talking to a couple of Hebes,” laughs his friend Josh. But after yanking my boyfriend from the clutches of a rosy-faced aspiring filmmaker whose
raison d’être is to overcome “cheesiness” in contemporary Christian film, I’m not so sure of anything. My search continues inside the cafeteria-cumart gallery. Besides the free popcorn balls and caramel apples, the exhibit seems pretty standard: still-life with ennui; self-portrait of the artist . . . oh, yeah, and some crystal hands with crosses, wheat, and water painted on their palms. A cluster of standoffish Asian girls from the Redeemer Church are here; a few yards away punk rocker Nick complains that “these kinds of events weird me out, these kids are a little too clean and happy, ya know?” I don’t know. Another sign of the apocalypse, perhaps? —Carla Spartos