Sweets for the sweet

No panties are thrown on stage at Eddie From Ohio shows. No bras. No hotel-room keys.

But one year, right around Thanksgiving, bass/harmonica player and songwriter Michael Clem was surprised with something even sweeter. Literally.

Pecan pies. Three of ’em.

“They weren’t thrown,” Clem explained by phone from his Virginia home. “We have a little more considerate crowd; a lot of times, [things] are just placed on stage.”

EFO is the kind of group you’d bring dessert to. Sweets, as they say, for the sweet.

There’s nothing brooding or bellyaching or broken about this quartet of old college buddies; while their shows run the emotional gamut, the Eddies put a real premium on fun. Even somber and tender songs are buoyed into near-effervescence by the group’s accomplished playing and lavish vocalizing.

Clem’s trio of baked treats arrived on the second night of back-to-back Thanksgiving-weekend dates at an Annapolis, Md., club. The night before, he had explained to the crowd that he believed in a Holy Trinity of Thanksgiving pies: apple, pumpkin and, yes, pecan.

Only the audience didn’t get too enthused on the pecan front, which stumped the candy-toothed Clem. And then, the next night, he got his nuts, as it were.

Percussionist Eddie (“Not Really From Ohio”) Hartness sometimes receives snifters of a favorite beverage from the audience. Chrome-domed guitarist Robbie Schaefer, EFO’s other principal songwriter, has racked up Sponge Bob trinkets.

And singer Julie Murphy Wells, with her sparkly personality and gorgeous pipes, has been gifted with — but of course — flowers.

“I don’t see many of those myself,” Clem quips.

EFO fans — dubbed “Edheads” — take their band seriously, even if the group itself embraces silliness with open arms.

You could argue that EFO play folk in the modern American mode, since they headline a lot of listening rooms — but their music handily evades quickie categorization. EFO songs, bounding atop Hartness’ spry hand percussion, are damn peppy, even vaguely theatrical — there’s something hinting of ye olde English street fair about them.

Routinely, critics are stymied on how to describe the band (one Alabama paper dubbed them simply “alternative,” which is kind of like giving Jethro Tull a Grammy as a heavy-metal act).

EFO has settled on “folkternative” — that is, alternative folk. But even that sells them short.

“Folkelicious,” maybe? Their three- and four-part vocal harmonies are beyond tasty, layered in mountain-gospel freshness and barber-shop-quartet familiarity.

Or how about “folkomedic”? EFO’s manic, goofy humor produces inevitable audience shout-alongs on cuts like the Clem-penned, happy-rhyming “Let’s Get Mesolithic” and “Tommy the Canexican” (both originally appearing on 2001’s Quick and reprised this year on the charming double-live CD Three Rooms).

“Let’s get Mesolithic,” begins one set of lyrics. “Let me drag you by your hair/ Call this guy old-fashioned, but I say a cave is where/ You’ll find submissive woman/ With her Stone Age Tupperware.”

Most reviews of EFO albums and shows are effusively positive, though Clem readily recalls a backhanded compliment once thrown out by the Chicago Tribune.

“They described us as ‘probably Martha Stewart’s favorite band,'” he says with a chuckle. “Our response is, ‘Well, the Chicago Sun-Times is EFO’s favorite paper.'”

The irony is that the Tribune actually buried a big compliment in there. Until about 1996, EFO members did it, like the Manic Homemaker, all themselves — booking, publicity, running their own Virginia Soul Records, handling the mailing list. They were the quintessential DIY outfit, out of necessity — until necessity and a burgeoning fan base dictated that they enlist some outside help.

If you’ve followed EFO through the years, you’ve seen them wear the Next Big Thing hat over and over since the release of their first album, the then-cassette-only A Juggler on His Blades (1992). Seven more albums down the line, and the band’s ever-burgeoning support remains largely a grassroots affair — it’s just much, much thicker grass now.

“Our growth has always been incremental as opposed to exponential,” Clem muses. “I try to see it on the optimistic side: There’s always new people to reach … a lot of new ears to reach.”

And, yes, pies to eat. Remember, fans: Clem prefers pecan.


Eddie From Ohio returns to the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.; 232-5800) after a two-year absence on Friday, Sept. 5. Showtime is 9 p.m.; tickets are $15.

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