Peter Stampfel at 72 might be the grand old man of American string band music but anyone who has seen him play recently will attest to the fact that he is one of the “zingiest” characters you could ever hope to meet. He wears his years well and his infectious bonhomie and general zest for life and for music puts many younger musicians to shame. He is a bona fide Blabber’n’Smoke hero having accompanied, enlightened and thrilled us over 40 years of listening to music and he has a list of achievements which are way too numerous to mention here. We did list some these when we wrote about his last Glasgow gig here where he filled the room with a sense of joy. Over the past decade he has seemed revitalised with a slew of albums with various co conspirators and The Sound of America takes us bang up to date while offering Stampfel an opportunity to revisit his roots.
Never a man (in his youth) to swerve various intoxicants ( and the first to include the word psychedelic in a song, Hesitation Blues in 1964), Stampfel has named his latest line up after the habit in the 19th and early 20th centuries of performers using ether to enhance their and the audience’s enjoyment of their shows. Although he states that the current line up has “no druggies, alkies, people with major character flaws, ego problems, or douchiness of any variety” they manage to capture the essential irreverence , bawdiness and general mayhem that has characterised the best of Stampfel’s recordings which from the very beginning sounded as if they were being played by folk coming at you from another universe where oxygen was only one of the gasses they needed to live on. If you think that freak folk is the domain of Devandra Barnhart then a listen to Stampfel should dispel that notion forever. As he says he’s always taken great joy in bending and twisting traditional material.
The Sound of America is essentially an opportunity for Stampfel to visit the alternative American songbook surrounded by his latest conglomeration. The Ether Frolic Mob are a shape shifting bunch, a moveable feast depending on who is available and who turns up on the night. While their ages range from the twenties to the eighties they all buy in to Stampfel ‘s medicine show elixir which guarantees a good time for all with no hokum. Stampfel writes several songs while others are credited to Ether Frolickers John Cohen and Walker Shepherd (the latter a co write with his dad, Sam Shepard). The rest are either traditional or penned in the backwoods or tin pan alley. Stampfel mentions Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as a touchstone while also acknowledging his supreme collaboration with Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick and others on the fantastic Have Moicy album (indeed he promises in the album notes that the Frolics are in the process of creating Have Moicy 2). While his is the dominant voice and he is undoubtedly the driver here there this is a democratic show with various members taking lead vocal and all joining in on fiddle, banjo, percussion and general mayhem. It’s random, at times thoroughly unhinged with Memphis Shakedown and New Fortune marginally sharing the prize for out there wackiness. Stampfel howls and wails on the former as only he can do and listening to it one is transported back to the mid sixties and the Rounder’s Indian War Whoop. While there are several wonderful instrumentals that lurch and sway excellently as displayed on Wild Wagoner the songs allow the Mob to shine and particular mention must be made of Hubby Jenkin’s masterful interpretation of Charlie Patton’s Shake It Break It. Stampfel himself offers a hilarious mea culpa on Back Again while Gonna Make Me with John Cohen on vocals zips us back to the very first Holy Modal Rounder recordings in its simplicity. Hey-O is another comparatively uncluttered song where Stampfel inhabits a childlike innocence able to deliver insults that no one could take offence to.
The Ether Frolics Mob might embody an anarchic principle where it seems everyone can do what they want and there’s always the possibility of falling into chaos but at their heart they employ their talents to enhance the whole and when the full ensemble launches into Golden Slippers or Deep In The Heart of Texas there’s an exhilarating effect even without resorting to a sniff of ether. Such wild shenanigans are unlikely to ever bother the BBC playlists but Stampfel and The Ether Frolic Mob mine a fascinating vein of American music and deliver it with a passion that is inspirational and above all else enjoyable.
For further information on the songs check out the extended liner notes here while you can buy the album here