January 6-12, 2005
under the rock
Master of Serpents
One of the best albums of last year was Taking Up Serpents Again, a self-released disc by Curtis Eller's American Circus. On it, Eller a 35-year-old banjo player from Astoria, N.Y. is supported by friends contributing accordion, tuba, vocal harmonies, lap steel guitar and the like, and they bring an enriching, joyous warmth to his songs.
And when he gets on a stage, he does away with all that.
This is how a Curtis Eller solo performance might start: The shy, gangly man with the full brush moustache and a well-worn suit begins plucking a halting, hesitant melody. Not for him the fingerpicking fireworks of bluegrass, not ever. While the restless crowd shuffles about, Eller will make a move to garner some nervous laughter. Then, he may begin to sing.
The audience's reaction, Eller says over drinks at an Astoria coffeehouse, is "almost like it seems like fear or confusion. People are quite taken aback and they lean back in their chair. And they don't know what they're supposed to do with it. And those [people] you have to work on."
During the course of a show, Eller may play kazoo solos, or he'll abandon the stage to sing amongst the audience. He may let out a yodel that's more like a primal howl, or he'll leap around the club like a battered marionette at the mercy of a panicked master. All the while Eller sings songs, alternately poignant and furious, that travel across the treacherous landscape of America's past, relishing every bump and thud of the trip.
Eller has played the banjo since he was a teenager in his native Detroit. He picked it up from his father, who also briefly ran a local circus for which 7-year-old Eller performed acrobatic acts and juggled. "All the space," he enthuses about the instrument. "It's the only stringed instrument which gives you that much space, which I just love all the ugly silence, the air."
While in high school, he also played in a rock band and listened to Son House, Carl Perkins and Eller's fellow Motor City-folk, Iggy and the Stooges. Later, he moved to North Carolina, serving as the musical director for a ramshackle theater troupe. But "I got fed up with theater people," he says. "Everything's a melodrama and there's a crisis all the time.
"And I felt the work was suffering because of it. And it also drove me nuts that theater people always seemed to need all this money to produce something, the perfect space to produce it in, and wouldn't compromise. And I felt like rock 'n' roll people are willing to just plug in anywhere for free."
So he moved to New York, giving up theater "like a drug." But something of those days is absorbed into the very being of Eller's work. "I hate the culture of theater, but I love the performing aspect of it, the idea of being honest about the artificiality of the performance. And that's what I feel is missing from rock 'n' roll, especially these days. You get all these folky guys."
Or, as Eller also notes, there are the bands with all-too-studied ideas of showmanship. "They have a routine and a way of dressing. And they just present it, and they don't change it. The audience needs to be part of the show."
Neither the earnest coffeehouser nor the over-caffeinated rock poseur, Eller's somewhere in the big space between the cliches. It can leave club bookers stymied as to what exactly to do with the guy. So he'll wind up on a bill between polite, harmless strummers, and he'll slip the crowd one hell of a mickey. He'll perform with wild abandon, for sure, though lately he's had to be more careful. ("I keep forgetting that I'm not 19," he says, before recounting a tale that ends with him performing a string of shows in the Midwest on crutches.) At the heart of the performance and this goes for Taking Up Serpents Again, too are some magnificent stories. A prayer is said for Buster Keaton. A last glimpse of Amelia Earheart is caught before she vanishes forever in the clouds. And good ol' Honest Abe Lincoln holds seances on Pennsylvania Avenue in a morose daze. "That's the father of our nation with a sickness in his blood," Eller practically spits out. Through his expert hands and whiskey-warm vocals, these subjects become as alive as you or me.
Curtis Eller plays Fri., Jan. 7, 9 p.m., $6, with Desoto Rust, Lou Dog and Chris Kasper, The Fire, 412 W. Girard Ave., 267-671-9298. Taking Up Serpents Again is available at curtiseller.com.
And we can keep a secret no longer, this column has a blog undertherock.blogspot.com.