Grandpa-style: Seattle legend celebrates 50 years of music

VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: “I'm constantly exploring new wordplay and new inventions in song and reviving the rare, odd and unusual, as I always have," says Seattle-based singer-songwriter Baby Gramps. Photo by Michelle Bates
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE: “I'm constantly exploring new wordplay and new inventions in song and reviving the rare, odd and unusual, as I always have," says Seattle-based singer-songwriter Baby Gramps. Photo by Michelle Bates

A half-century into his musical career, Baby Gramps has plenty of highlights from which to choose. Ask him to name a few, however, and he points to a pair of recent opportunities that arose from his inclusion the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest companion album Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys. Gramps’ rendition of “Cape Cod Girls” landed him an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman in August 2006, when he was joined by Asheville’s Jason Krekel, The Akron Family and Bob Dylan’s band leader and bass player Tony Garnier. The resultant tour of England, Ireland and Australia with fellow album contributors Marianne Faithful, Tim Robbins and Lou Reed, among others, also ranks among the Seattle singer-songwriter’s standout experiences, and he’s hard at work making new ones.

Gramps brings his distinctive scratchy voice, inventive lyrics and lively acoustic strumming to Asheville for a LaZoom Tours show on Saturday, Aug. 16, and a concert the following evening at The Grey Eagle. A LaZoom veteran (he calls his sold out June 2012 gig “a hoot”), he’s excited to return to the mobile venue, and this time he’s coming prepared. “I ripped my pants out last time with the bus turning and swaying topsy-turvy,” Gramps says. “I approach this with two pairs of trousers or riding jodhpurs. Giddy-up.”

Accustomed to unusual performance locales, Gramps’ resumé includes such spots as a historic sternwheeler on Washington’s Columbia River “with a captive audience that had nowhere to go except overboard” and Java Jive, an old coffee pot-shaped building (complete with a jungle motif featuring a leopard skin bar and a zebra fridge) in Tacoma, Wash. “The bathrooms are named Tarzan and Jane,” Gramps says. “They used to have two monkeys named Java and Jive who looked like Johnny Carson that got busted for throwing monkey dung at the customers.”

Going more traditional for The Grey Eagle show, Gramps will attempt to keep material for the two concerts separate (“I’ll try not to chew my cabbage twice, but requests are requests”). His focus for both performances will be mostly new tunes, among them “Pick That Ol’ Sow Clean,” an original Halloween song “Ol’ Ma Cobb” and “Monkey Puzzle Stump,” which Gramps describes as being “about conundrums wrapped in riddles clothed in an enigma.”

“I’m constantly exploring new wordplay and new inventions in song and reviving the rare, odd and unusual, as I always have — from Dada reconstructions to surreal insensibilities,” he says.

Primarily a solo artist, Gramps will team with Krekel on fiddle and Henry Westmoreland on tuba at The Grey Eagle, one of several pickup bands he has spread across the country. Though fond of odd instruments, Gramps’ collection of such items as harp guitars, koras and a Zulu ceremonial wedding harp are too fragile to fly with him, so he travels solely with his guitar and lets his collaborators fill in the gaps.

In California, there’s tuba, stand-up bass and gypsy fiddle. In Oregon, he’s joined by professional tap dancer/sax player Shoehorn, Christopher Yarrow (son of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Peter Yarrow) on gut-bucket bass and other players on musical saw, jug, washboard, ukulele and jaw harp. In Washington, he has up to five toy pianos with him, and in New York, professional boxer Tom Brown plays the banana box with huge long paint brushes. “Jackson Pollock has nothing on him, but he might splash paint on you,” Gramps says.

Often playing with musicians a fraction of his age, Gramps hopes that he can be an inspiration to them in the way that Jesse Fuller, Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Furry Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, Libba Cotten and others provided him with foundation in his teens and 20s. To these artists and others just starting off, he also offers the following advice, the combination of which has worked well for him this past half-century: “Be true to yourself. Don’t jump on the bandwagon. A flash in the pan will disappear as quick as a skillet of snakes.”

WHO: Baby Gramps
WHERE: On LaZoom bus with Jason Krekel. Departs from Asheville Brewing Co., 77 Coxe Ave. Saturday, Aug. 16, at 6 and 8 p.m. $17. lazoomtours.com
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, with Blind Boy Chocolate & The Milk Sheiks. Sunday, Aug. 17, at 8 p.m. $12/$15. thegreyeagle.com

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin is a freelance writer and a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA), North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) and the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He also contributes to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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