THE BUMPER JACKSONS w/s/g BRYAN BRUNDIGE & THE PIGGLY WIGGLIES
Massry Center for the Arts
September 23, 2016
by Joe Major
There can be precious little ailing you that a heaping dose of Bumper Jacksons elixir won’t cure. Their hearty mélange of jug band, Basin Street, Appalachia, Texas swing, nascent 1940s popular jazz, as well as timely and engagingly oblique originals, is a prescription for exuberance!
Friday night, this rollicking Washington, D.C. band initiated the Premier Performance Season at the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts.
Fronted by Jess Eliot Myhre on clarinet and vocals, and her cohort Chris Ousley on guitar and vocals, the Jacksons applied their treatment to an extensive mix of material that, even when traditional, emerged as signature hallmarks. Myhre’s licorice stick could not be overestimated as a stylish, era-bending component. Her sinewy vocal come-hither-ness, coupled with Ousley’s slyly wry and devilish aspect, resulted in a frisson of harmonious Bumper to Bumper contact.
Rounding out the crew were Joe Brotherton on a stabbingly articulate trumpet; Dan Samuels and Alex Lacquement as a particularly hard-hitting, swinging drum and bass team; and Dave Hadley, an atmospheric set-the-scene pedal steel guitarist who summoned the ghost of legendary Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys lap player, Leon McAuliffe. Together, they coalesced into a responsive, elastic sound track that fully enhanced the vocals.
And that was no mean feat. The Jacksons bounced from “Many Paths to the Mountain Top” gospel to “I’ve Got My Whiskey” up-in-the-holler defiance; from svelte “Russian Lullaby” Ella Fitzgerald to revved-up “Dirt Road Blues” Bob Dylan. They waltzed to an anthem-like “I Bought This Ticket” and thundered to a bluegrass-inflected “Darlin’ Cory.” They celebrated the sheer vibrancy of being in an adaptation of Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” And bless their back-beatin’ hearts, all these genres were transformed into distinctive Jacksonia. It was evident how the sausage was made. Their organic, resonant reckoning of voice, horn, string and rhythm elements seemed reminiscent of the way, decades ago, The Band arose out of a sea of rock and heralded a stripe of new Americana.
Parts of their repertoire were decidedly not olde-timey. Jess Eliot Myhre related that the inspiration behind “Over You Head” was born from the iconic photo of 3-year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. The “sea swallowed you whole,” she sang poignantly, “now I can’t get you out of my mind.” Her vocal was so trenchantly plaintive that, “you’re in over your head” adopted an eerie, wider foreboding; even beyond the global refugee crisis.
Many of the evening’s songs were from “Too Big World,” their latest release. For all the innate, nervous awe that the title implies, the Bumper Jacksons raucously and passionately embrace this world, and all its perilous contents. They wrestle it under control. A well-worn adage proclaims that, “Life is short, but it’s wide.” And with infectious, curious bonhomie, the Jax vacuum up the full breadth of their cumulative influences, and parade over the horizon.
From the first jaunty strains of “Let Go,” Bryan Brundige and the Piggly Wigglies projected a flamboyant insouciance that swung from its musical heels. They urged a willing audience to shuck their troubles and “Start to live your life!” For the Wigglies that meant, in large part, channeling hefty dollops of the Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway jive era and purveying them with deft, jumping boogie and equally finger-snapping woogie.
The agile Albany-based combo, who opened the show, are comprised of main vocalist Bryan Brundige on trombone, and a Piggly Wigglie crew of clarinetist Jonathon Greene, guitarist Bobby Davis, vocalist and bassist Dylan Perillo, and drummer Brandon Isles.
Brundige and Greene created a moving interplay, at times growling, at times swooning. They stoked the fire on up-tempo chestnuts like “Is You Is,” “Nagasaki,” “Just a Gigolo,” and absolutely detonated a foot-stomping “Caldonia.” Greene’s clarinet positively pined during shuffling, wistful foibles of the lovelorn, represented in tunes such as “Nothing Can Be Done” and “Someone Like You.” Guttural solos were traded around, and leavened by soothing ones, Davis’s included. Ultimately, even a tune like “Lime House Blues” finished on an in-unison emotional up-kick.
Most characteristic for me was the swinging, nose thumbing, pretention piercing, cocked brim, free jive, everyman swagger that permeated the songs. And in true loosey-goosey truth telling fashion, nothing epitomized their convention-deflating ‘tude more than Calloway’s “Chicken.” It was served up in a narrative about a “Dish for old Caesar/ also King Henry the Third/ but Columbus was smart/ and said ‘you can’t fool me/ A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ but a Bird!’” Disregard any lavish, royal la di dah trappings, “Chicken’s still what you got!” Oh, and by the way, the emperor’s got no clothes.
Bryan Brundige, dipping, swaying and arching his brows, sans irony mind you, extolled the ethos of jive. The Piggly Wigglies, hot on his heels, emitted a collective eruption of unrestrained freedom. A nearby aisle-mate, of a certain age, remarked gratefully after the set, “I thought this music was dead. I hope they stay around.”
Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.