Peter Stampfel and Baby Gramps. Outertainment. Red Newt Records.
Way back in the 1960’s there were none so weird and way out as the Holy Modal Rounders. Initially an acoustic duo comprised of Peter Stampfel on banjo and fiddle and Steve Weber, guitar, they jerked songs featured on the Harry smith Anthology of American folk music into the psychedelic sixties. In a decade long musical odyssey they ganged up with the inflammatory Fugs for a few albums and featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack. With members coming and going (including both founders) at various times their journey culminated in a zenith with Have Moicy!, a collaboration with Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Frederick that is generally considered one of the lost treasures of the 1970’s. A Stampfel/Weber reunion in 1999 produced a fine album in Too Much Fun that revisited some of the glories of their first two albums.
Since then Weber has for the most part retreated from the music biz (although he has released some vintage live recordings recently). Stampfel however ploughs on and over the years has released albums with The Bottlenecks, The Du-Tels (with ex Beefheart guitarist, Gary Lucas) and as a solo act. No matter the format however he retains a goofy childlike sense of wonder and above all an enduring love for and knowledge of American folk music.
Here Stampfel teams up with a character who seems to be as idiosyncratic and, well, as goofy, as him. Baby Gramps is a Seattle institution having busked and played there since perhaps the sixties. A well kept secret until he appeared on Rogues’ Gallery, a collection of pirate themed sea chanteys a few years back, Gramps has a voice that has been described as Popeye like and he shares Stampfel’s irreverent and iconoclastic approach to the classics of old time American music.
The result is a triumph, the best album Stampfel has been involved in since Too Much Time,. As a duo they stamp their personalities on individual songs while complementing each other vocally. Indeed it’s not too far fetched to say that Stampfel has eventually found a replacement for his long lost soul mate Weber. While the overall sound and feel of the album owes more to Gramps’ grizzled approach which keeps Stampfel’s often hyperkinetic style in check there are moments when both do let loose. Blues, folk and tin pan alley songs all get the treatment. While Gramps starts the album in fine style with Buzzard on the Gut Wagon, a growled hammered blues with vocals that recall Beefheart, he excels on Monkeys have No Tails in Zamboanga, a nonsense song that uses a style similar to Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence with some fantastic vocal interplay between the two, Gramps burbling and gurgling while Stampfel wails along, fantastic stuff. Stampfel’s contributions range from a wonderfully high and lonesome version of Heigh Ho (yes, the Disney song from Snow White with massed whistling) and a delightfully dotty ditty about the toilet habits of his puppy dog. He gets to showcase his fiddling chops on Wake Up Jacob which with Uncle Eph’s Got the Coon and Bar Bar is the nearest we get here to a Holy Modal traditional sound with Gramps taking the Weber part. The chalk and cheese pairing of their vocals is best seen on their rendition of Surfing Bird, the sixties garage punk staple which gets a demented outing here and demonstrates that there is no need for amped up fuzz guitar to create a cacophony. The album ends on a triumphant note with Ghost Train of Freak Mountain , described by Gramps in the liner notes as
“based on the mysterious legend of the ghost train running through Freak Mountain, which is a real place, but not found on any map.”
Well, no map perhaps but its topography is well described here.
While the likes of Seasick Steve have popularised traditional American folk blues recently this album portrays two artists who are steeped in the idiom but who present it through an unpolished, intensely personal viewpoint. It might not be pretty but it is pretty amazing. Special mention should be given to the unobtrusive bass playing of Dave Reisch who has served with Gramps, Stampfel and Michael Hurley over many years and who performs the same duties here and Curtis “King chamberlain who adds little touches of jaw harp, penny whistle and jug.
Norman Savitt and Friends.
Norman Ira Savitt is New York based guitarist who has long had an association with Peter Stampfel and their small circle of (mutual) friends. Armed with a deep knowledge of old time American music and familiar to those who frequent the websites and message boards of folk like the late Tuli Kupferberg (of The Fugs) he has released his first ever album, a meditative and peaceful collection of instrumentals based on his finger picking skills. Whether solo or accompanied by harmonica, cello, violin or penny whistle the result is wistful, at times elegiac with pieces dedicated to Ken Kesey and Chris Whitley (an old friend of Savitt’s).
It’s always tempting to mention John Fahey when a guitarist releases an album like this and although Savitt’s playing lacks Fahey’s baroque eclecticism and occasional dissonance the feeling generated when playing the album is similar to that of Fahey’s more straightforward pieces, Alex at Six in particular fits this bill. David Amram’s penny whistle on this tune evokes primitive cultures and the quills used by Canned Heat on Going Up The Country. Elsewhere Savitt, (with the aid of Eugene Friesen on cello) conjures up wintry English folksong on Prayer for Peace and Celtic mist on Alone. Howard Levy (from Bela Fleck’s band and who produced) adds some haunting harmonica to several tunes while violinist Susan Mitchell colours the tribute to the Reverend Gary Davis, One for the Rev where Savitt uses some Davis licks to great effect.
Savitt’s liner notes indicate his affinity to nature and the great outdoors and in an untutored, Carradine like zen mood, one could imagine that listening to this album is akin to watching a pebble fall into a still pond and digging the ripples long after they’ve gone.
Both albums are available here
Finally while we’re on things Rounder related a mention for Charlie Messing. Sprawling Epic. Charlie Messing was once a Rounder, late in the days but a member of that fabled troupe so a sneak preview of his forthcoming album was serendipitous. Apart from his part in the Rounders story Messing has played with Link Wray and Robert Gordon and backed up Loudon Wainwright. In addition he has a wealth of tales to tell of the New York scene from the boho sixties to the punk seventies and beyond which used to be available on his now defunct webpage. Indeed he’s like a musical Zelig, being there at fortuitous moments and this is reflected in his music.
Sprawling Epic looks to be a fairly eclectic pick of his own songs and a few choice covers (including Tom Waits, Michael Hurley, Dean Martin and Blind Willie McTell) all sung in his peculiar and endearing hangdog way. Low key and laid back it has a simple charm. Check back for news of the release date.