Jumping Jive with The Vaudevillian Tonight

Patrons of Bruce Wine Bar have a real treat in store for them tonight with an appearance by a little trio that calls themselves The Vaudevillian.  It’s a band that specializes in jug band music.  The phenomenon of jug bands was something that originated in the 20’s and 30’s when groups of musicians used homemade instruments to play their versions of the great jazz that was coming out of places like Harlem and New Orleans.  They would put together a broomstick and a washtub to make a bass, and augment it with a tuba-like sound made by blowing into an empty jug.  For percussion they would put thimbles on their fingers and stroke a metal washboard, often with a pot lid or two attached to work as a cymbal.  A guitar and violin would fill out the sound and, with the infusion of some native talent, these musicians would create a pretty good facsimile of the original hits.  Sometimes they would add a kazoo, maybe amplified by attaching some device like a muffler to it for amplification.

The music of the jug bands enjoyed a resurgence during the sixties folk boom, primarily performed by The Jim Kweskin Jug Band (with Maria Muldaur as their beautiful and captivating lead singer).  In England, they developed a version of the jug band with what they called skiffle bands.  That was how John Lennon began, with a little group that morphed into The Beatles when Paul and George came on board.  In both of the American and British versions, the bands picked up on the music and did it in their own style.

Now all these years later comes The Vaudevillian, following the same tradition but with some major differences.  The washboard is still the central percussion instrument, played with amazing dexterity and taste by Norah Spades, and lead singer/guitarist Brendan Stephens (a.k.a Jitterbug James) sometimes will pull out a jug, and often plays his  “carzoobamaphone” (a kazoo amplified by attachments from car parts), but there is a real upright bass, played by Guy “Piedmont” Johnson.  What stands out with this band, that sets them apart from both Jim Kweskin and John Lennon, is that they are really excellent musicians.  And they have an authentic sound that truly evokes the music of the original era, even down to Brendan’s N’Awlins drawl when he sings.  And, without veering away from their faithful adherence to the style, their repertoire now includes mostly original songs.

Don’t think for a moment that the authenticity means that this band is some kind of museum piece.  The original jug band music jumped with energy and spark, and so does The Vaudevillian.  Much of this is due to the passion for the music that Brendan has had since he was very young.  He’s been a self described “old-time music nerd” since the age of twelve when he first discovered this music.  From endless listening to the original ragtime and jazz legends he has internalized their music and their sound.  “You get into the character,” he says, “and it’s wonderful”.  He’s been busking since he began and has gone through a couple of different permutations with the band but, with the present lineup in place for about a year and a half, things have become pretty busy and they have enjoyed some adventures.

One adventure, which was simultaneously inspiring and scary, was a three month sojourn in New Orleans, where they busked daily in the French Quarter.  While they soaked up the music that was everywhere and attracted crowds whenever they played, “New Oleans,” says Norah,”is a very dangerous place”.  The threat of “pickpockets or something worse” was a real concern wherever there was a crowd.

Ironically their busking in the French Quarter came to an abrupt halt after the Paris nightclub terrorist attack.  The ripple effect reached all the way to New Orleans, where the police opened up Royal Street to traffic.  Before that it would be closed to car traffic to allow for a pedestrian mall, an ideal setting for a catchy busking band.  Once the cars were let in, the pedestrian traffic diminished to almost nothing, and it was time for The Vaudevillian to move on.

Another new adventure for them was playing the Skagen Festival in Denmark.  It is an annual traditional folk festival, the oldest in Denmark, held on the far northern tip of Jutland in the town of Skagen.  While their music went over well, they weren’t able to do their customary back and forth with the audience because of the language barrier.  “We tend to be interactive with the audience,” says Norah, “and we couldn’t be as inclusive.”  But they feel they learned from the experience and are glad to be invited back again for this summer’s festival.

They are also glad to be invited back to the Bruce Wine Bar.  “It’s really neat,” says Norah, “because it’s a fancy wine bar that we love”, a nice contrast to the flea markets and noisy bars that they often play.  They also like the two shows concept that is how the wine bar functions.  Brendan says, “During the first show we play a little quieter numbers, and then at the later show we can get a little louder.”  They do admit, though, that theirs is a band that would tend to make noise diners ignore their meals to pay attention to the music, which is irresistible.  “There’s an appreciation, a level of attention that we are grateful for.”

Live music fans can also be grateful for a chance to enjoy a band of this calibre in a dinner setting.

The Vaudevillian plays two shows tonight at 7 and 9 p.m.  Reservations are recommended.

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