Saturday, May 26, 2012

Peter Stampfel @ Brooklyn Folk Festival

Peter Stampfel utterly lacks all the qualities that sometimes make folk music boring to me. Though his knowledge of American music matches that of the most scholarly revivalist, none of the following adjectives apply to him: tradition-bound, conservative, retrograde, humorless. While he plays multiple instruments, including a mean fiddle, Stampfel's art is one in which instrumental technique for its own sake is not a concern. His voice is, and has been for almost 40 years, one of the strangest in any genre of American music, though it wouldn't sound out of place on the Harry Smith Anthology - for which he contributed Grammy-winning liner notes - among the likes of Dock Boggs. This live uke rendition of one of Stampfel's signature covers, "Goldfinger", makes for a bracing immersion in the man's singular artistry. I'm glad whoever made this video got some audience reaction shots - lots of smiles ranging from politely baffled to genuinely amused, a few blank looks suggesting a state of shock, and one dude absolutely loving it.

My first exposure to Stampfel was via a live album he made in the mid-'90s with Chicago's Dysfunctionelles, a band of folk-rock weirdos every bit as great as their name. Though they played at least one show with fellow founding Rounder Steve Weber, the album, Not In Their Wildest Dreams, just features Stampfel and was compiled from shows in New York and Chicago. The album features Stampfel classics like "Griselda" and "Hoodoo Bash" and wacky covers of "Be True to Your School" and the Springsteen/Pointer Sisters "Fire", but it may have been Stampfel's solo banjo version of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", from a soundcheck, that made the biggest impression on me. Desert island material, for sure. Unhinged but capable of playing anything, the Dysfunctionelles seemed like the ideal band to stimulate and support Stampfel's peculiar genius, and it's a shame their collaboration produced just the one micro-label tape (which I desperately need to dig out of storage and transfer to digital - my comments above are strictly from memory). I did find an old article from the mid-'90s that referred to a planned follow-up session, but as far as I know nothing ever came of it. Note to the possessor of the master tapes: Not In Their Wildest Dreams deserves a reissue - a digital download, a CD, vinyl, whatever!

At the Folk Fest, Stampfel played one tune that I knew from Wildest Dreams, "Screaming Industrial Breakdown", which also appears on 1986's Peter Stampfel & The Bottle Caps. Robert Christgau has a typically perceptive appreciation of Stampfel in which he reviews the Bottle Caps album. Though not wholly uncritical, he goes so far in his enthusiasm as to declare it better than the contemporaneous Psychocandy(!). I found a vinyl copy a couple years ago, and it is, as Christgau says, "well-made", but despite having strong songs and imaginative arrangments, it suffers a bit from the unmistakable time-stamp of a well-made '80s record - yes, even folk-rock records on Rounder had that reverb-y drum sound. I'd like to hear some of the later Bottle Caps recordings, as these guys are clearly excellent musicians with a feel for Stampfel's music.

His current band, the Ether Frolic Mob (I hope they were named in honor of this Bugs Bunny cartoon), which in this incarnation included a variety of stringed acoustic instruments, an electric bass, Stampfel's daughter Zoe on percussion and vocals, and fellow '60s folk legend John Cohen on guitar, is agreeably loose and plenty capable of getting in the right spirit for this music. Their too-brief Folk Fest set started with "Shambalor", setting the bar high for weirdness (read more about this incredible '50s artifact here), and peaked for me with "Demon in the Ground", an answer song to/parody of "Spirit in the Sky", which Stampfel instructed the band to play with (if I heard correctly) a "boogie shuffle machine"(!) feel. My repeated exposure to the latter on classic rock radio as a teenager primed me to appreciate the Satanic glee (and who can do Satanic glee better than Peter Stampfel?) of the former, including the lyrics "I gotta friend in Sa-tan" and "when I die my soul will be cursed/I'm gonna go to the place that's the worst".

I also saw Dennis Lichtman's Western Swing outfit Brain Cloud at the Festival. They escape the trap of merely turning out museum-quality reproductions of period music (something they clearly have the chops for) with song choices both obscure and wide-ranging (true to the spirit of the original Western Swing bands, which drew from blues, Dixieland and Big Band jazz, country, and various strains of "old-timey" string band music to create one of America's most ear-catchingly potent though still somewhat underappreciated forms of music) and the presence of vocalist Tamar Korn. Korn's vocals, seemingly inspired by the great radio and Big Band singers from, I'd guess, Annette Hanshaw to Ella Fitzgerald, feature many of the vocal mannerisms common to that era, but eccentrically magnified to great effect. Lichtman and company succeed by doing justice to the inherently lively quality of a style that was essentially created as dance music, and at the Folk Fest they received the best possible endorsement by inspiring widespread dancing in the crowd.


The Truth said...

videos from this show can be seen at

Steve said...

Excellent, thanks!

Rich Krueger said...

Hey Steve, this is Rich Krueger of The Dysfunctionells. Glad you dug Not in Our Wildest Dreams. Came across your blog while surfing the net. Yes, Peter is wonderful. Hope to meet ya someday.