“We’ve been accused of genre whiplash,” admits vocalist Rani Arbo — front woman for the strenuously inventive roots group daisy mayhem (note attention-grabbing lowercase letters).
Think African box drum with fiddle. Think spooky spirituals with layered harmonies. The band’s latest CD, Gambling Eden (Signature Records, 2003), ranges from the raucous, rhythmic “Stewball” to the watery, heart-aching strains of “Finland.” And then there’s that chilling Appalachian fave “Oh Death” — dressed up with a funky groove. Well, why not?
” … It’s not that we’re doing it just because we can,” Arbo insists.
In other words, they’ve got the chops to back up the bedlam. No stranger to mixing things up, Arbo started off playing cello and singing in the choir (at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, mind you) before stumbling into folk music.
“I had spent nine years playing classical music … ” she told Interview in 2003. “This was the first time I had seen live fiddlers. I was floored by the variety of music that could be made with the fiddle.”
The concert Arbo caught that night, as a college student, featured then-16-year-old Alison Krauss and 80-year-old Claude Williams, who’d played with Duke Ellington.
Inspired, the musician traded her cello for a fiddle and taught herself to play. A few years later, she took her newfound talent to a workshop with the late John Hartford, and when their famous teacher didn’t show, Arbo and fellow instrumentalists held an impromptu jam session — which led to her bluegrass-flavored band Salamander Crossing.
A decade and a couple albums later, that band folded, but Arbo (along with her husband/musical partner Scott Kessel) had no plans to let their instruments collect dust.
Rewriting tradition — again
“We made the first CD almost before we’d launched [daisy mayhem],” the vocalist says of the group’s 2001 debut, Cocktail Swing (Signature). Reminiscent of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and, locally, Scrappy Hamilton, the bubbly disc featured tunes like Guy Clark’s “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis” and Louis Armstrong’s “Butter and Egg Man.”
Now, four years since their inception, daisy mayhem plays on firmer ground.
“Gambling is really a result of what happens as a band percolates,” Arbo notes. “There’s a little more original stuff, and it’s a lot more groove-oriented.”
But what’s most apparent is the group’s updated treatment of the old-time style Arbo loves. “There are so many great bands out there doing old time,” she says. “[But] we’ve always been less interested in doing straight-up old time.”
For example, Kessel plays a drum kit fashioned from boxes, cat-food tins and an old suitcase. Guitarist Anand Nayak proffers jazzy notes and chord substitutions. And then there’s Arbo’s warm, intimate, easy-to-swallow vocal approach — light years away from a Songcatcher-style delivery.
“‘Red Rocker’ is the most straightforward old-time tune [on the album],” Arbo points out, “but it has a rock ‘n’ roll breakdown in the middle.”
She adds: “It’s not that we’re intentionally discarding tradition.”
It’s just that melding influences — from stomping fiddle licks to world beats — is what this band does best.
Though Arbo admits that daisy mayhem isn’t about to spend months at a time on the road — traveling with her baby is a bit tricky, she explains — the singer also insists that not much has changed since her early days in a band.
“I was never that ambitious, even as a young person,” she jokes. “It always surprised me that we were playing. Not that we’re not good — it’s just such a privilege.”
With nearly 15 years of band experience under her belt, though, Arbo can offer some words of wisdom about holding it all together: “There are three factors — music, friendship and being able to make a living at it. You can survive on two of those three.”
She continues: “We’ve had all three for most of the time.”
But then, Arbo was never striving for rock stardom, anyway. Somehow, the words “hard times” and “daisy mayhem” just don’t play well together: “We’ve never really been a bar band,” she says. ” … We’ve always preferred … listening rooms, where people were really paying attention.”
Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem play Diana Wortham Theatre at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 25. Tickets are $28/general, $26/students and seniors, and $10/children. For reservations and more information, call 257-4530.