Saturday night saw the Basement do away with its usual setup of catering to the forty plus “dinner and show” audience, and enter into “dance-floor mode” to provide ample room for the predominantly younger audience who had braved the ferocious weather to attend a sold-out performance by New Orleans’ Tuba Skinny.
Ragtime, Dixieland, Jazz, and Traditional Blues were the order of the evening. As a long time fan of these traditional styles of dance music, it was refreshing to see not only a younger crowd lapping up the sounds, but also, to see a group of fresh faced musicians playing a style usually reserved to septuagenarian Kentucky Colonels in white suits. Nonetheless, Tuba Skinny’s appearance is distinctly southern. For the men on stage, this meant overalls, singlets, a trucker’s style baseball cap, and one immaculately fashioned moustache. Main vocalist and bass drummer Erika Lewis on the other hand affected a look similar to how I envision Redbone’s “Witch Queen of New Orleans”, whereas cornet player and band leader Shaye Cohn looked stylish in a frilly dress.
The first set kicked off with “New Orleans Bump” from their latest album Rag Band and continued with various classic rags steadily increasing in energy until the crowd couldn’t help but dance, around fourth tune into the set. It wasn’t just a free for all dance session though, with some seriously skilled couples action going on that was at least as entertaining as the musicians on stage. At one stage, washboard player, Robin Rapuzzi kept adjusting his cap in time to the music which was a nice touch, but the practicality of it soon became apparent when in a fit of particularly athletic playing his hat flew off. This occurred several times throughout the evening, drawing a delighted reaction from the audience each time. Likewise, the unusual and uncommon washboard seemed the crowd favourite, drawing wholehearted applause upon each solo.
The combination of instruments on stage is truly mind blowing and highly conducive to dancing. The Tuba played by Todd Burdick, provides low end undertones eliminating the need for a bassist, with the cornet, trombone, and clarinet providing the bulk of the solos, while dual banjos provide a jangly rhythm along with Rapuzzi’s percussive washboard adding what a drummer normally would.
In addition, Lewis bangs away at a bass drum while singing. Her voice is typical New Orleans with an occasional cabaret growl that is to die for. Occasionally, Shaye Cohn switches from cornet to piano providing a different texture. Cohn also appears to be the band leader, instructing the band as to the key of the song, and sometimes yelling instructions such as “half pace” and so on. Also, the clarinet, an instrument that is much maligned and sometimes considered “uncool” for some reason (I’ve never considered it so, but I have found that many do, including some clarinet players), was given an injection of sex appeal with some impressively soaring solos.
The second set kicked off with “Green Blues”, and soon saw more athletic washboard with the hat once again becoming airborne. It’s hard to pick a highlight with such an abundance of choice, but “Dependerson” receives the salutary title if for nothing else, but the wit associated with its name.
Halfway through the second set, an audience member named Ian was treated to a rendition of “Happy Birthday” after his importunate girlfriend jumped up on stage and accosted Rapuzzi to do so. The band seemed happy enough to comply though. Occasionally, six string banjo player Ryan Baer (or is it Bear? The CD says the former and the FB page the latter...) lent his vocals to the mix, providing a mellow, semi heartbroken country sound. Trombonist, Barnabus Jones likewise filled in on vocals for one number towards the end. His voice is a little harsher than Ryan’s, but no less competent.
Towards the end of the night, the four-string player (whose name is Bobby Browne I believe), knowing he would not be playing in one particular song, sold his body so to speak and made an offer to dance with a lucky lady from the audience. A group of five-foot nothings eagerly raised their hands and danced with the giant of a man who was around six foot eight or nine. I estimate this from my own height of six foot six inches, as he was at least two inches taller than me.
The only thing that put a damper on the evening was the howling storm that awaited punters outside the club once the second set came to an end. Barnabus Jones looked suitably perturbed, as well as unfamiliar with an inelegant female audience members exclamation of "it's pissing down". As he explained to me, despite what Hollywood might suggest, Americans would never say something so crass. Not his exact words, but close enough. "Only in Australia", I advised him.