Up until yesterday, my acquaintance with The Demolition String Band was limited to their honky-tonk cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Also, Matt Winters once introduced me to Boo, their lead guitar and banjo player. In fact, that introduction also took place at the Rodeo Bar, a small, fun bar with a tiny space for live music in the back and free peanuts available up front. Matt, a few of his friends, and I had been there to catch Marshall Crenshaw a couple of years ago, and we bumped into Boo on the way out.
Denise, her son Julián, and I saw that the Demolition Band were going to play a special Sunday afternoon show at The Rodeo Bar, and we decided that morning that we would attend. We arrived at about quarter after 3:00; a bit late, although I discovered that the band had actually begun a bit late, so I doubt we missed any more than 10 minutes, maximum, of the performance. The (advertised) theme of the program, aside from its child-friendliness, was Americana music, by the great American songwriters in what we now call the folk and country music traditions: Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and so forth. Given that this was an afternoon out with Julián, his enjoyment (or at least contentment) was crucial. Fortunately, he was into it.
And so was I. First and foremost, the song selection was choice. “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Cotton Fields” (introduced as a Leadbelly song; I hadn’t known that, although I did know that it hadn’t originated with Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose version of the song I was most familiar with), Johnny and June Carter’s “Jackson” (one of my personal favorite moments of the show), “Lovebug,” “I Come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee,” and some others that I’ve forgotten. I was particularly delighted with the Woody Guthrie selections: “Union Maid,” one of his two greatest union-themed songs (the other being the much gloomier, not very family-oriented “1913 Massacre”), “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” (probably the best-known of his “Dust Bowl Ballads”), and “This is Your Land” (inspired by the recent performance on Capitol Hill, led by the venerable Pete Seeger, and featuring the verses about private property and exclusion that are not taught in school).
An interesting moment came approximately half way into the performance when the band’s frontwoman, Elena, called a special guest to the stage: Hank Williams. A voice-over announced his appearance on a radio show, and the great country singer walked to the stage and greeted the audience as if he were performing on the radio circa 1950, complete with a medicine advertisement. After the greeting, he launched into a medley of his hits, beginning with “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’,” before moving through “Move It on Over,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and a few others that I can’t remember. After the medley, he did “Lovesick Blues,” took a bow, and left. It turns out that this was the actor who plays Hank Williams in the off-Broadway show Lost Highway, based on the life of Hank Williams.
The band was sharp. Basically, the set-up was four-piece bluegrass, with Boo doubling on guitar and banjo and Elena on guitar and mandolin, with a turn on banjo too (clawhammer, though; she left the more traditional picking to Boo). The fiddler soloed sweetly and often. The bass player was content to go unnoticed (although Denise pointed out his resemblance to Columbia sociologist Herbert Gans).
I wish I had caught the name of the waiter at the Rodeo Bar who was serving the patrons in the little section of the place where the music was happening. He was clearly very busy, and he did his job with a smile. When I asked if they had hot chocolate, he assured me that they did with a tone of reassurance mixed with pride, and I could not help but smile back at him. He served drinks to the band, he covered the couple of dozen parents and kids in attendance, and he bashfully pumped his fist when the band recognized his good work.
I was happy to see a nice turnout for the show. We arrived not long before the performance area had filled up a bit; not to capacity, but a nice bunch nevertheless. We sat very close to the band’s fiddle player’s wife and seven week old daughter; Denise shared a few words with her. I chatted with her a bit as well, as Denise and Julián made their way up to the stage after the show to take a closer look at the instruments. A few children were a bit rambunctious; at one point, a couple of boys sitting not far behind us were screaming about something, at another point, a boy approached the stage with a peanut launcher for no other reason than to shoot a few peanuts onto the stage.