The world is full of acts who get it into their heads they
can revive (imitate) some specific past musical genre or other and devote a
career to it. They can be pretty good at it, but are also totally unnecessary
when the real thing is preserved on record. Rarer, however, are those acts that
have assimilated all sorts of musical styles – from rock to ragtime, brass band
and klezmer to jump blues, swinging dance music to sensitive songwriting – and
know how to mix it all together with energy, humor, unpretentiousness and
They are not imitators; they’re creating something new out
of a knowledge of the past and a joy for the present. NRBQ comes immediately to
mind (although they’re on hiatus while members pursue individual projects). But
another band that belongs in this category is Boston’s Chandler Travis
Philharmonic. Travis’ history is actually intertwined with NRBQ’s – Johnny
Spampinato was a member of Travis’ Incredible Casuals band before joining his
brother Joey in NRBQ. But more than that, the overall sensibility is close.
Blows first and
foremost is a showcase for the horn section – at various times ten players are
featured, and they add cheerfully exciting color and snazziness to the
proceedings. And goofiness – the polite punctuations on “Fruit Bat Fun” sound
like a novelty hit. But then the players go off on irresistible, finely attuned
solos that flow together like hot lava and the song climbs to a higher level.
It’s like Mingus’ Big Band with grounding in rock rhythm (courtesy of drummer
Rikki Bates), or Sun Ra’s Arkestra playing with NRBQ.
But as satisfying as the Philharmonic is musically, and as
prone as Travis is to let the songs exist primarily to showcase the playing, he
is also a fine pop singer-songwriter. His ear for melody, as well as his smarts
at combining humor with romanticism and mundane observations with the poetic,
place him with Todd Rundgren or Ben Folds. And his voice can have the tender
vulnerability of Terry Adams.
While his recent solo album, After She Left, showed that writing talent off, he has saved some
poignant tunes for this. “Anne,” with a lovely opening trumpet flourish reminiscent
of “For No One,” and about an alluring neighbor, starts with this lovely,
novelistic refrain: “When it’s after
Judge Judy in the afternoon/And it’s time to walk the dogs/Across the
street/Sometimes I see a friendly face.” It tells as much about him – and
his life – as her.
The humor of “The Day the Casuals Went to Sweden” is so
deadpan – a la Randy Newman – it can be hard to realize how excited Travis is
about this travel adventure. That sneaks up on you as the details accumulate
and the Dixieland horn arrangement provides momentum.
Travis seems to be so in demand in Massachusetts as a live
act (and a musical institution) that he doesn’t get out much beyond that area.
Glad to know he has such a supportive base, but it’s a shame for the wider
world. The Philharmonic could tear up the summer festival circuit – maybe on a
bill with a reunited NRBQ?
Bat Fun,” “Anne” STEVEN ROSEN