Rumor has it that they escaped from the imagination of ’60s underground cartoonist extraordinaire R. Crumb, fugitives from a Zap Comics series-in-progress. But when the gossip on the street turns to the swingin’ ragtime/country-blues-based Blue Rags, you can’t always believe what you hear.
This much we do know: The ambassadors of rag ‘n’ roll have been skedaddlin’ on tour for a solid year, since signing with Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. “We play so much; when we’re not playing gigs, we’re off pickin’ in the parking lot. We just like playin’ and pickin’ up each other’s styles,” says bassist Bill Reynolds. “We’re trying to feed each other [musically] on the road.”
Guitarist/vocalist Aaron “Woody” Wood describes the band’s man-childish creativity: “Somebody comes in with a mound of Silly Putty, and they form an animal. By the time we all get through with it, it’s a zoo.”
“We’re positive people,” he unapologetically asserts. “We’re sick of all the gloom and doom. The world’s had enough of that for now.” So this group of merry pranksters chases its Muse every-which-a-way She leads.
“You just let the music play itself … and then the dynamic opens up, where it starts clicking and everyone’s feeding off of it,” says drummer Mike Rhodes. “It can suddenly take any [of] millions of turns, too, into other styles and everything, but then it comes back. It’s not just rambling and going off and never coming back to the song. … You do it, you say what you gotta say, and then you come back.”
Or hit the road for another ragout-tour.
Despite their enhanced status, though, the band — judging by their thrift-store stage wear — has apparently heeded Thoreau’s advice to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” But these boys may not have a lot of choice: Traveling in a van with an upright piano, a full drum kit, a stand-up bass and five lanky guys doesn’t leave much room for wardrobe trunks.
Or for settling down.
“We’ve covered almost every square inch of the whole United States,” vocalist/pianist Jake Hollifield reports. … “We do five, six nights a week, maybe seven.”
And guitarist Scott Sharpe’s calluses don’t go soft while he’s home on hiatus. He’s been busy sitting in with musicians from Asheville to Nashville. Almost nightly, audiences at blues bars, jazz clubs and fiddle fests can syncopate to the jangle and swagger of his riffs. When Sharpe straps on a guitar and starts pinching it, the instrument sings for its supper, then does an extra chorus for second helpings.
Suffice it to say, these players live and breathe music. “Yeah, the music plays us,” Rhodes says, laughing. “It’s instinctual. It’s spiritual. The mind really isn’t involved. … There’s nothing stopping you. … It’s just a wild ride. The train gets going at the beginning of the night, and you grab on and hold on till it stops at the end.”
Hordes of folks are dancin’ in that choo-choo car, it seems, from New York City across to Seattle and down to Austin — where a ticket line for their last gig snaked to the end of the street. Rhodes doesn’t try to explain the phenomenon, but says the band takes risks with music — albeit respectful ones. “We take the step, but we know where we’re making our step. … We know it instinctively. … I think a lot of it is [our] respect for the music. … If the song only calls for you to play [in a more reserved way], you don’t stomp all over it just to hear yourself play.”
And during intermissions, the Rags invoke whatever hokum it takes to keep the energy burning till the next set commences. At their upcoming Asheville shows, one “Reverend Chumleigh” (a performer they met at a vaudeville fair in Oregon) will preach — while literally breathing fire — and engage in social satire, or resort to standup comedy while lying on a bed of nails.
After their N.C. dates, the band plans to return to their home-away-from-home, New York’s Chelsea Hotel. They’ll record for a few weeks with producer Joe Blaney (who has worked with Keith Richards, Tom Waits and Shawn Colvin, among others).
For the moment, though, the Asheville-based band (Thomas Wolfe’s wisdom notwithstanding) has come home again. Their double-header Be Here Now show is expected to draw such a big audience of out-of-towners that the place will be expanded (using the “patio” in the rear of the building) to accommodate the overflow. After that, the Rags will play the L.E.A.F. Festival, in mid-October.
This wheel’s on fire, and you should never underestimate the power of barrelhouse boogie. The Blue Rags want to expand their range of venues into international circus/sideshow-type situations. That sounds like a blast from the past whose time has come full-circle, dancing from the last millennium right into the next one.