Sharps & flats

The Holy Modal Rounders are old-time counterculture folkies in form, but they're not afraid to toss a pie in the face of tradition.

By Andrew Hamlin
July 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Sociologists say that couples who stay together for a lifetime come to resemble one another, that they begin to share similar emotional reactions and physical expressions. That certainly helps explain the first Holy Modal Rounders record since the Carter administration. Modal mythology, which has followed the duo since they stormed Greenwich Village in 1961, stamps banjoist-mandolinist-fiddler Peter Stampfel as the acid-dabbling musician and guitarist Steve Weber the musical acidhead. But it's Stampfel behind the new album's sporulating liner notes, which tout Canadian candy bars, pose puzzlers and encourage the collection of 20-inch-high nun dolls manufactured by the Blessings company of St. Joseph, Mich. By contrast, Weber seems like the very portrait of sobriety, even though he's the one monkeyshining over the melody of "Euphoria."

Stampel and Weber joined forces in 1963 and cut their first album the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As the Holy Modal Rounders, and as part of audio-porn band the Fugs (the part that could play), the two have kicked around what used to be called the counterculture for, in Stampfel's words, "longer than Jesus was alive." They recorded for ESP, New York's amazingly inscrutable turn-of-the-'60s label, and their drummer back then was a skinny guy named Sam Shepard, decades before winning a Pulitzer or even meeting Patti Smith. Having spent 20 years letting the world forget them, the duo reformed and cut 44 songs last year with bassist Dave Reisch in Schomberg, Ontario. They're now threatening to release the tunes under various band names in roughly album-length sections.

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"Too Much Fun!" is the first release from those Schomberg sessions and it reaffirms the Rounders as cultivated folkies in form, but never in content. On "Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake" and "Penny's Farm" they take simple pleasure in singing, in mastering an ageless tale and, sometimes, tossing a pie in its face. Other times, they're downright blasphemous, playing off folk standards like Blind Willie Johnson's version of "John the Revelator." Where Johnson engraved the verses with a guttural caw -- answered with sweet innocence by his wife, Angeline -- Stampel attacks the words with the eagerness of a counselor at a campfire. He makes up new verses and then forgets. Reisch reminds him, and then he forgets them again, casting new revelations in an unknown tribal tongue.

Essential to the fun of "Too Much Fun!" are the lack of second takes and the healthy helping of tomfoolery that disguises -- or supplants -- lyrics forgotten or never learned in the first place. Longtime Rounders-rollers won't be disappointed. They're used to high jinks as gestalt.


Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin is a Seattle writer.

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