More powerful than a magic mushroom

Mad Tea Party
They want more, they want more: Mad Tea Party. Photo by Michael Traister

They’ve got Barry White’s drummer in the studio.

They’ve also got Hammond B3 organ, early Pink Floyd psychedelia, and a slinky Donovan-esque groove — hardly typical fare for Asheville’s demiurgical vintage-eclectica trio Mad Tea Party.

“The band has a lot of synergy right now,” ukulele-slinger and vocalist Ami Worthen muses. “Our little mantra is we’re open to all the possibilities, [and] we’re also really excited about where we are this very minute.”

Where Mad Tea Party is right now happens to be in the process of releasing their fourth CD, Big Top, Soda Pop, due out this September. And they’ve got way more up their collective sleeve than just a ’60s-era rock beat.

Will play for funding

“For the past few years we’ve been exploring vintage music,” Worthen explains. “But this album is all originals.” She jokes that they’re getting less vintage, more retro, moving up through the decades. And there is the promise of one cover song for old time’s sake, but the singer isn’t about to give away that surprise. What she is offering up, however, is a bit of insight into the band’s new direction.

To begin with, fans get to take part in the creative process before the CDs are neatly packaged in their jewel cases. Where most bands hold CD-release events, Mad Tea Party’s May 6 show at the Grey Eagle is a pre-release show — a new model of indie recording tested by the likes of locals Stephanie’s ID and Eliza Lynn. Listeners contribute to the cost of making the CD through fund-raiser performances, purchasing the disc in advance or making larger contributions (see themadteaparty.com for more details).

In the past, Worthen has invested her own cash into the group’s recordings. “They generated profits, which went into the next CDs,” she says. “But now we’re bumping it up a notch. We recorded in a top-of-the-line studio, and we want to invest in promoting it.”

The band has hired Dolph Ramseur as their booking agent. Ramseur manages the Avett Brothers, of whom Worthen notes, “[they’re] really grassroots, too” — making the match a good fit.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the singer quips. “We haven’t sought out management or a record label, because of [desire] for creative control. But with turning it up a notch, I think the whole landscape will change.”

Prophetically, her new album’s title song goes, “They packed into a caravan, barely fit for beast or man/ And when the clown washed off his smile, I turned and ran for miles and miles./ Big top, soda pop, sawdust on the floor/ To be a circus star, I want more, I want more.” But the sound is, happily, classic poppy-swingy Mad Tea Party hi-jinx.

Have booking agent, will travel

“I’ve heard the saying that if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get the same results,” Worthen says. “So, we wanted to do something different this time.”

Past Mad Tea Party projects have hardly flopped, however. The quirky trio (formerly a duo with Worthen and multi-instrumentalist Jason Krekel — more recently a threesome with the addition of bassist Lora Pendleton) has amassed an audience base enthralled with the group’s colorful stage presence, old-timey sound and upbeat something-for-everyone performance.

Mad Tea Party has also been at the forefront of a local grassroots music scene that includes other bands (mainly various amalgamations of Worthen and Krekel’s artistic cronies) like Sugar and Spice (Worthen with Caroline Pond of Snake Oil Medicine Show), A.V.A.S. (a prog-acoustic project with members of Snake Oil, Acoustic Syndicate and Mad Tea Party) and the Sufi Brothers (Krekel and man-about-town Woody Wood). The bands are housed under their DIY label Whose That Records — Worthen and Krekel’s push to produce, record, market and book the music they love.

But this time around, things are a little different.

“We’re excited about our new material and how it’s presented,” Worthen says. “We’re excited about our live touring act.”

Still, don’t expect to see Mad Tea Party strutting about in leather pants or demanding green-M&M-free dressing rooms.

“For all of us, integrity is really important. In such a competitive, difficult field as the creative arts, compromise is tempting. For the three of us, not compromising our artistic vision is important.”

In the past, that’s meant running the business themselves. Now it means hiring a booking agent to handle some of the work, and directing their energy toward making music.

It’s a case of the more things change, the more they remain eccentric. But here’s one difference the local fan base is sure to pick up on: Mad Tea Party’s beefed-up touring schedule has them playing a greater number of out-of-town dates, and only a handful of Asheville shows this year. Jump on that bandwagon while you can.


Mad Tea Party plays a CD pre-release show and fund-raiser at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Saturday, May 6. Eliza Lynn opens at 9 p.m. Guests include painter Phil Cheney, musicians Sean Foley, Shaker Maisey, P.K. Dwyer and more. Tickets are $8/advance, $10/door; discounts are available for late-comers with a Dylan/Haggard stub. Call 232-5800 for info, or go to themadteaparty.com.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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