ARTIST: The Holy Modal Rounders

TITLE: Live in 65



By Michael Macheret


Don't believe it when someone tells you "If you remember the 1960s you weren't there." I was there and I remember. I remember vividly. I don't remember the 1970s very well and I put all the effort I can muster into forgetting the 1980s. But I remember the 1960s and what I remember was the music. Those were the days before music became a corporate commodity. Of course there was formula pop music, but even the big labels were signing and recording bands that were playing music that sounded like nothing you ever heard before. The new FM radio stations became the way to hear that music. There was folk, there was rock, there was jazz, there was folk-rock, there was jazz-rock, there were sitars and bouzoukis, ragtime and jug bands - sometimes all on the same LP (for you youngsters, that's an antique vinyl platter with grooves that vibrated a needle to make sounds). But there was one band that - at least for me - was so simple, so bizarre, so against the stream (as if there was a stream) that they stood completely apart from the rest. That band was the Holy Modal Rounders.

They were eccentric, irreverent, occasionally annoying, and totally off the wall. And while the Holy Modal Rounders broke up, regrouped, broke up and regroup over and over - their latest recording being released in 1999 - there was never anything like their first two albums consisting of Steve Weber on guitar and Peter Stampfel on fiddle. While they were channeling Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers (their "Hesitation Blues" which remarkably echoed Poole's performance of "If the River was Whiskey") they were still undeniably original and unredeemably uncommercial. After only two albums on their own plus a brief yet brilliantly raunchy collaboration with the Fugs, to which they contributed the locker-room classic Boobs a Lot, they abandoned the pure and simple sound of old-time music. And so it ended, until now.

The Holy Modal Rounders Live in 65 is a long buried treasure for fans of the original Rounders. That's not to say that this is a collection of perfectly performed, top-notch musicianship - they were never that. The sound quality is occasionally terrible, the guys are occasionally out of tune, out of sync or too loud, and they sometimes forget the words to the songs. But throughout the recording the spirit of the Rounders is fun, alive and totally committed to their music. And best of all, most of the songs here did not appear on their albums when they were an acoustic duo. While some appeared on later recordings, like Indian War Whoop and Random Canyon, this is the version with just Peter and Steve.

If you have never heard the Holy Modal Rounders, then this is not the place to start. You should instead find or download (legally) their first two albums and absorb that first. Because until then, it's unlikely you will give much time to this recording.

The set starts roughly enough with the well-known Fishin' Blues with instruments out of tune and each apparently keeping a different beat, but even so the performance is compelling. They seem to settle down into the next song Rum Mountain and gain some momentum from there until they fall into the chaos of Indian War Whoop that sounds like it should have been called "Alley Cat Fight" instead. The chaos of War Whoop seems to have derailed the next song Uncle Joe but they get back on track with Flop Eared Mule and get back into rhythm from there.

There are some excellent moments on this recording. Stampfel's Random Canyon is superior to his later recording with a larger band. Monday Morning is a beautifully subdued performance and Charlie Poole's Baltimore Fire is given a respectful and serious interpretation that shows very clearly this is not a comedy team but a team of musicians with a great sense of tradition and humor.

When not dining in exotic locales, Michael Macheret forages closer to home in the South Bay regions near Los Angeles