Curtis Eller's American Circus tells stories about America in a powerfully produced banjo based album.
Curtis Eller has a voice like John Prine, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Jake Speed, Bruce Cockburn, and Phil Ochs turn and turn about with lyrics tinged by each of their songwriting styles. There are arrangements in the vocal backing like that of Leonard Cohen on Songs of Love and Hate or Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks on anything. Curtis looks like Groucho Marx, Leon Redbone, and one of the Poughkeepsie cough drop Smith Bros. kicking like a ninja with a banjo in his hand. What holds this album together is that elemental banjo and lyrics that chronicle the times and challenge the faithful with real American poetic flare as convoluted and contradictory as O Suzanna. Years from now Wirewalkers and Assassins may be the soundtrack for Ken Burns' "Second Great Depression" five part series on PBS.
Billy's Bunker: Close your eyes, relax, and dream up some crazy shit I can use for the review.
Curtis Eller: I'll try to think up some crazy shit when I get a free moment. I played a funeral once, and I've done a few gigs at a Milliner's shop...she pays her musicians with free alcohol and a custom made hat.
A good song says something if there is some heart in it. Curtis seems to care about things past and things future, and things right here and there. He looks and sounds as quirky and mournful as the way things have come to be. This here is roots music reinvented for the new dust bowl that's about to blow us away. Eller's unique blend of augmented Old Timey is polished to a fish-eye mirror brandished by the unforgiven and forgotten in the face of punch proud America. This novel of a song writing style is no more insubstantial than Doris Kearns Goodwin or Flannery O'Conner with some of the wise humor of each.
Billy's Bunker: Where does your music come from?
Curtis Eller: Although I play the banjo, I'm not a old-time, bluegrass or country musician. I consider myself a rock & roll singer. I grew up in Detroit and have lived in New York City for 15 years, so I play city music. I sing about a lot of old stuff, but so did Ray Davies.
Curtis Eller's American Circus has the eye of Ray Davies in its lyric images. There is a sense of history in Ray Davies treating events such as death of John Kennedy and the demise of the Palais dance hall in Ilford, but Curtis digs deeper where the firsthand accounts are found in books and fading newsprint. The world presented in this album is that land that time forgot where concepts come of age. The anachronisms brought together in these songs fit a similar clogged or atrophied ventricle in the heart of America. We are all Americans there. We fit in fine, since we are a concept of ourselves most every day of God. Each of these songs chip away at the same chunk of marble until there is nothing left but Uncle Sam. This is an America we sense beyond mere experience. We hope to find in history what we seek to become. Time and America are seen by this American Circus a little like fourth dimensional chess or Billy Pilgrim's unstuck travels in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. America is a thing out of time.
Curtis Eller: "My dad was a bluegrass banjo player and a rockabilly guitarist (but he only played in church). I pretty much restrict my performances to places that serve alcohol . . .which -- outside of communion -- excludes church. My dad also ran a small local circus when I was very young, so I got an early education in the value of physical performance. We also got lucky enough to meet all the legendary circus performers when they'd come through Detroit . . . people like the flying Wallendas."
"Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting."
~ Karl Wallenda, Wirewalker
I said before in a different review that the singer songwriter is as much a wirewalker as a sad standup comedian. The risk is great for such folk. All they have to protect themselves is their songs. My own experience of the high wire is from TV. Curtis has a big tent on this American Circus. Whatever he's getting at with that, I certainly hope it doesn't burn down. Circus tents are magical places of wonder. Sparks are very real and unforgiving. We should not bring the two together.
Billy's Bunker: Why do you call yourself "the angriest yodeling banjo player in New York City?"
Curtis Eller: All of my music is specifically about being American and that's been a pretty frustrating thing to be in recent years. I was just trying to crack a joke about the other dark subject matter of some of my songs and the phrase kinda stuck.
Patriots and revolutionaries can be an impediment to setting up the new government. Those folks keep reminding everyone why we fought the war and such. They keep looking under the rug and pointing out what hasn't been done. There's an artistic swirl of social observation in Curtis Eller's songs, and that prized commodity in American literature: the ability to empathize with a criminal, an enemy, the unforgiven or the forgotten. Curtis feels his way through history and beyond it in these songs. Sing along and you can feel it too.
1. AFTER THE SOIL FAILS sounds a little like a Bruce Cockburn mythic conservation-conscious assault spiced up with anachronistic images in the style of Neil Young's Pocahantas arranged with the backing vocals and chords of Leonard Cohen's First We'll Take Manhattan. 'Nuff said? Guess not. Everything on this album has that Ken Burns' "Civil War" soundtrack simplicity like a document from back in the day. The slow rhythm is so insistent it has that Tom Waits drunken shuffle feeling in the percussion. Okay, that don't help either? This song haunts me. "You're gonna find me / Right here / After the soil fails." Sounds like a futuristic dust bowl song. Hope he's not prophetic. Starts with Nixon, Fidel, General Sherman, Jack Ruby and a Russian Oil Tanker. Ends with a whimper. Ain't no further west to go. Just go home and recycle, I guess.
2. JOHN WILKES BOOTH (DON'T MAKE US BEG) has that echoplex driven Elvis' Burning Love setting on the vox box for a plea to John Wilkes Booth, Jack Ruby, John Brown and Lee Harvey Oswald with a pretzel of irony in the lyric. The 50's style female backing vocals are right off Sun Records, with a twisted difference. Despite the sweet fairy tale concertina solo, this song may be one reason brother Eller likely has a file in Washington, D.C. If you listen carefully, there's a history lesson here with roots all the way back to the Civil War. Gotta wonder if Curtis' banjo don't bear the inscription, "This machine kills fascists" somewhere writ in invisible ink. Woody Guthrie might have sung along to this one.
3. HARTFORD CIRCUS FIRE, 1944 is a true story dirge of a waltz to the 168 souls lost in the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. There's a plaque at the spot with those 168 names written around a medallion to commemorate this loss. "Except for the nightmares and the coughing, it's like the circus never passed through." You can add a soft spot in your heart somewhere near the one for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald for this tragedy. Curtis provides the detail for this tragedy complete with a spark coming from the high wire drifting down through the stands. The Flying Wallendas draw a deep breath above the tent "trying not to look down." That deep bass drum beats a cadence to humanity lost to ashes. "And no one in Hartford is sleeping easy, because the circus lives here in our dreams." One hundred and sixty eight souls lost in 1944. "And Jesus Christ himself was struck dumb." Remember these 168 lives. Do not repeat.
4. SUGAR FOR THE HORSES skewers William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (April 3, 1823 ~ April 12, 1878) is that politician convicted for stealing between 40 million and 200 million dollars from New York City taxpayers. He died in prison. This song drills home the American equivalent of "Let them eat cake" in the recurring chorus: "There's always sugar for the horses when there's no one left to sing." Curtis don't stick with his time so there's a banging reference to A-Bombs blowing out the desert near Vegas. This song is an upbeat talking blues with a wealth of taste. There's plenty in the way of related historical reference here and there. I expect this might be a job for Wikipedia! Maybe Noam Chomsky can skip the research. I'm not that well informed. $200 million meant something back when.
"I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles, my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures."
~ Boss Tweed
5. THE CURSE OF CAIN takes on the character of a Confederate soldier running from the new order after the shadows of southern secession have ceased to leave a meaningful outline on the earth. "Useless! Useless! They're all worse than cowards. Every Confederate heart has set me free! I am abandoned with the curse of Cain upon me." Now, this soldier has feelings all his own, appropriate to his circumstance. He thinks "Abraham Lincoln had it coming" just like Malcolm X once said "the chickens have come home to roost" after John Kennedy was killed in Dallas. This waltz is the circular ballad of a loyal soldier on the wrong side of history. This rendition sticks to the period, but for some drama on the drums just a tinsy bit Bon Jovi in the felt mallet buildup. Guess we can whip this one out and sing it if we ever get on the wrong side of history. Face facts, we might need this song soon.
"I am abandoned with the Curse of Cain upon me."
~ John Wilkes Booth, Assassin
6. SWEATSHOP FIRE has a haunting backing vocal so far out the harmonics sounds like Gyorgy Ligeti's Illuminations shimmering around the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. "And I'm gonna get drunk like Ulysses S. Grant. I'm going down to Antietam with a quart of bourbon in my hand." Keep that haunted feeling. Time slips a bit. "And just as sure as Jack Ruby's gonna set things right / Well there's always daybreak at the edge of night. / And this time I'm gonna burn like a sweatshop fire." I believe Curtis Eller's Confederate soldier is a pawn for a surviving confederated mentality. Maybe it's that certainty run rampant, or some other fleeting political target Eller eviscerates here. This is persuasive speech hidden in fiction and fantasy like William Faulkner and Neil Young. That electric guitar seeks to sear the sky. There's something in the air that banjo can't quite reach. That cluster of voices haunts me. It's getting hard to sleep at night.
7. PLEA OF THE AERIALIST'S WIFE is the sweetest and bluest song on the album. I take this song to be a detail of the "Hartford Fire" sung this time by the wife of an aerialist. She man be one of the soon to be widowed Flying Wallendas. Curtis excels at finding that just enough description to set the stage and open our hearts to the story. This song is a prayer for the life of a high flying husband. He had promised her he would not be there. She watched him fall in Detroit, and "like a fool, all [she] could do was stare." This song is about the circus about to go up in flame, focusing on the aerialist who had promised not to go up again. You can sing "Leaving on a Jet Plane" or "Wasting Away in Margaritaville" to these chords for added irony, but you won't likely be so inclined. There is true sentiment sung to the woman watching her worst fears come true as the tent burns and her husband is stranded on the wire. The name of the band is a circus. The subject is America. I'd like to put my hand on the shoulder of that longsuffering woman and tell her it was all going to be alright. I would like to tell her, if it were true. Song says, "Don't walk away and let it burn." Hear her plea.
8. DAISY JOSEPHINE is Curtis Eller's song to his daughter. He has a picture of her with daisies on myspace. This song is as close to a private moment recorded between a father and daughter as I can remember in song. Curtis' voice sounds like Dylan in 1960 singing Woody Guthrie's songs for children. This is as fine a tribute to a child as Lennon's "Beautiful Boy." If you don't know what it feels like to be a proud father, imagine singing this one to a child about to fall to sleep at night. Call it love.
9. FIRING SQUAD is the title song of the album, not to be taken lightly. The story starts all the way out in Tokyo and New Motor City where they are "digging up Henry Ford." Detroit is sinking into history. Our hero has a badge he's turning in, leave the keys in the car, he "can't believe he took this job." "Now the wirewalkers and assassins are the only ones that risk a fall." The advice here is to "take it to the wire," but not that thin blue line. Guess the "firing squad" requires a badge. "I must have been crazy to take this job / I'm giving up on the firing squad." This song is a parable. You'll hear what we are meant to hear.
10. SAVE ME JOE LOUIS is the wispy lullaby to finish this volume. There's a nod to "Roosevelt in the White House" who can't do anything "down here." Who can you turn to in a workingman's gospel song? "Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis, save me, and let the gas chamber take me away." There's a rousing unison chorus for emphasis. Somehow, this seems a little more thoughtful than the typical sing along. There's a hint of "Take It To The Limit" in the chords of this song. This song on this album takes the place of "I Shall Not Be Released" as the closer for the concert -- another prison song yearning to breathe free. Have to wonder if this plea to the strength and power of Joe Louis in the face of the gas chamber is more than a dying wish. Time will tell.
THE AMERICAN CIRCUS: Curtis Eller ~ Banjo, Lead Vocal
Chris Moore ~ Drums, Percussion
Gary Langol ~ Lasp Steel, Upright Bass, Organ, Mandolin
Joseph "Joebass" DeJarnette ~ Upright Bass
Liisa Yonker ~ Harmony Vocal
Marilee Eitner ~ Squeezebos and Harmony
Gerald Menke ~ Pedal Steel
Amy Kahn ~ Accordion
Rima Fand ~ Violin, Harmony
Songs by: Curtis Eller
Recorded & Engineered by: Brian Fulk & Monkeyboy
Artwork: Jamie B. Wolcott
Photo: Tim McGuire
Mastering: Richard Morris