For the first of their four Tuesday-night engagements at Zebulon this month, Volney Litmus opened with a loping, brassy fanfare, which backed up Jeremiah Lockwood’s carny-barker bellow as he urged one and all to “come and say hello.” Winter’s bite had whisked everyone into the Williamsburg café’s wood-paneled warmth, wherein Stuart Bogie—this semi-supergroup’s ringleader, head writer, and producer—danced in the crowd when not blowing his sax, doing a little bellowing himself, or conducting his co-conspirators (Tom Abs’s marching tuba, Jordan McLean’s and Eric Biondo’s flourishing trumpets) with gull-like motions. From there, Bogie (who also does time in the Brooklyn Afropop crew Antibalas) hustled behind a keyboard and cracked his mischievous I’ve-got-a-secret smile as the band did a syncopated tumbling act into “Blank Page, Good Gun,” an electric-piano-heavy, makes-you-want-to-clap dance tune that declares, “You can walk against the world/With your love on your back.”
Want to hear what a band that has collectively gigged with the likes of Antibalas, Janet Jackson, TV on the Radio, Tom Waits, Wu-Tang Clan, and Davy Jones (that’s right, the Monkee) sounds like? Look no further. For the past couple of years, some of Bogie’s favorite local musicians have played under the guise of Volney Litmus—be it in the studio or onstage, Bogie enthuses that the result plays “like the best mix tape ever.”
That’s been holding true at the Zebulon shows, which take on a clubhouse kind of feel—a room full of enthusiastic people conversing with song. These conversations range from
Fast Times at Ridgemont High–worthy pop tunes to country-blues eulogies that lament the loneliness of life on the road, but it all fits together seamlessly—the work of dedicated, extraordinarily talented musicians off the clock at their main gigs, content to make music that has no expectations beyond keeping the conversation going.
That conversation doesn’t necessarily sound like Afropop, but Bogie’s arrangements echo that genre’s ability to juggle multiple instruments and keep a big band from sounding muddy, even as swelling horns duel with fuzzy guitars. Such fusion creates beautiful moments: Consider Antibalas cohort Del Stribling singing Carole King’s “So Far Away” as his bandmates lock into a perfectly pocketed groove. Volney Litmus is a gumbo of genres reflecting the band’s varied palettes, but it’s an unforced, self-aware eclecticism that doesn’t try too hard and doesn’t give a damn. Bogie spices and stirs, somehow knowing how to make it all come out just right: catchy, unexpected, and authentic.
Volney Litmus play Zebulon February 27, zebuloncafeconcert.com.