Friday, January 21, 2011

Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel / Ben Calvert and Hannah Lawson @ The Actress & Bishop, Thursday 20th January 2011

I do love a good cult artist. There’s something that warms the cockles of the heart about people who do what they do just ‘cos they love it...irrespective of whether they make shed loads of money along the way, win awards or get written about on dodgy music blogs...

Anyway, tonight there are two genuine ‘cult’ artists sharing a stage...more on them in a minute...but first up something of a local cult in the shape of opener, indie folker Ben Calvert. I’ve seen Ben loads of times before and, like the last bus of the night when it’s really pissing it down, it’s always a pleasure to catch him. Like Jeffrey Lewis Ben’s a fine observer and documenter of the trials and tribulations of modern life and there’s a slight touch of the Neil Hannons in his voice, that world weary but knowing air, that perfectly suits this material. With violin being expertly woven into the mix by Hannah Lawson new life was breathed into an old favourite, ‘Flee’, and used to fine effect on recent single the la-la-la lovely (but ever so slightly naughty) ‘Everybody Loves Lucy’...available to download now Ben advised us after ruing the move away from the physical musical ‘product’. However you take your Calvert make some room in your collection for him.

After gently warming us up it was time for the Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel show. Peter is one half of The Holy Model Rounders...a band that you might have heard of in passing but, like me, probably haven’t listened to very much. Formed in 1964 they’ve spent the best part of half a century producing all kinds of whacked out freak folk stuff (sample title ‘Boobs a Lot’ a homage to...well you do the math). Jeffrey Lewis is arguably better known here in the UK given his many and regular tours over the past decade or so and reputation for putting on frankly top notch gigs. The pair got together a few years back when Peter saw Jeffrey perform a track that namechecked the Rounders and voila...before you can say ‘nutty as a fruitcake’ here they are. Yep Peter is, and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit this, absolutely chuffing bonkers. Imagine an aging Groucho Marx lookalike possessed by the mind of a child genius with ADHD, wired up on acid, speed and Sunny D and you’ve got a fair idea of the full on Stampfel experience.

The signs were there when he came onstage and started to theatrically undo his belt. I was half expecting him to disrobe completely for that full on freak experience but it turned out he was only doing it to avoid his trousers falling down. He turned it into quite a performance though...not a bad opening number, I’d leave it in the set if I were them. What followed was an often bizarre mix of material from Jeff, the Rounders and Stampfel’s own eclelctic back catalogue coupled with the results of a frenzied three day recording session that spawned their new album. Some of it worked really well with set highlights including Jeffrey’s death pondering ‘Whistle Past The Graveyard’ and Peter’s homage caps, entitled ‘Bottlecaps Are Cool’. It turns out that Peter collects them. He has...10,000. Yes. I know. If you’re gonna be bonkers do it in style right? The song itself featured Peter making all sorts of random noises, whoops and hollers...a bit like Vic Reeves’ club singer. The guy’s so bloody loveable that it was a pretty endearing spectacle though, totally free from any pretence and with that childlike innocence that most of us lose at around the age of 7.

Between the two of them they got through an impressive number of other tracks, far too many to list here, with Jeffrey’s art being used to illustrate his droll talk sing lessons ‘French Revolution’ and ‘Pochahontas’. Now that’s how you teach history.

I learnt more from two minutes with Jeffrey than I did in ten years at school. As ever with Jeff’s shows there was plenty of chat, including his musings on a three sided single, welded together. It could never be played of course but that didn’t seem to bother him. Like bottlecaps it would just be cool. As the evening wore on Peter notched up the crazy a little, hamming it up for the audience who, judging by the applause, were loving it. After Jeff left the stage he remained up there for three more numbers (curfew be damned), including the maddest version of ‘Goldfinger’ you’re ever likely to hear and some track from 1942, one of 100 that he’s recording in his grand 100 best tracks of the last 100 years (one track per year...) project. At 72 years old he’s pretty well placed to pick ‘em too.

Okay so this wasn’t a regular Jeffrey Lewis gig and some of the stuff may have tested all but the most devoted freak folkie (a label that Peter clearly detests) but it was never anything less than entertaining. Any gig that includes an audience participation number called ‘Black Leather Swamp Nazi’ is alright by me.

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