America’s Premier Whatzit Band, the Red Clay Ramblers, opened their latest Anchorage visit to a small but appreciative audience Tuesday night.
The Ramblers made their Anchorage debut last November at the Fly By Night Club, also the scene for this week’s performance.
“Whatzit” is what the group calls itself, and so far it’s the closest anyone’s been able to get to naming just kind of music the Ramblers play.
Most of the front tables were claimed early in the evening by hoe-down fans, giving a clue to what type of music Whatzit is, but that didn’t tell the whole story.
Even the band has trouble telling the whole story.
“I wish we could come up with something. We could market it more,” says bassist-trumpeter-pennywhistler Jack Herrick. “I think of it as being a collection of different kinds of music. The members have divergent specialties, and we just kind of wing it on that basis.”
Those specialties, according to Herrick, include banjo player Tommy Thompson’s old-timey folk influenced, and fiddler Clay Buckner and Herrick’s jazz orientation, augmented by an interest in Irish sounds. Add pianist Mike Craver’s more urban style --classical, tin-pan alley and show tunes -- and Jim Watson’s bluegrass mandolin, and you’ve got some idea of the group’s varied material.
Another main ingredient, the Ramblers off-beat sense of humor, comes out in their ready patter and such tunes as the bluegrassy “I Crept Into the Crypt and Cried,” or the gospel number “I Don’t Want to Sing in Satan’s Choir.”
More serious songs include “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” a World War I ballad, and the liltingly sad “Aragon Mill.”
The glue that holds it all together, however, is their ability to play melodic, affecting music, despite a deceptively laid-back demeanor. Band member switch off instruments regularly, showing that not only is their material diverse, but so are their skills.
Tuesday’s show started with a thrilling tune using mostly strings and pennywhistle. Which gained momentum and substance as bass was added and the beat picked up.
By the second number, “Kiss Me Quick, Then Go Away,” dancers hit the floor.
In much the same way they played their opening song, the band started out the evening slowly, then came through with a burst of speed.
The five players at first seemed a little tired, with timing lagging in a couple of places and vocals slightly off. This could have been because the group had only recently stepped off a plane from Minnesota. Thompson later admitted the guys were tired on arrival, but caught a second wind from the audience’s warm response and enthusiastic clogging.
Whatever the problem, partway into the second set the group rallied for a wonderfully haunting version of “Woman Down in Memphis,” billed by one member as a “greasy blues tune about love and disease” (tuberculosis, as it happens).
Craver’s piano combined with Thompson’s ragtimey banjo, Herrick’s torchy trumpet and a tight group effort on vocals made this son particularly effective.
Next came “C-H-I-C-K-E-N,” a bouncy jug band tune that went through each letter of the word, removing any doubt about how to spell it.
Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” the title cut of the band’s most recent album, also included well-blended vocals, and more trumpet gave the song a Salvation Army-ish flavor.
The group completes its Anchorage gig Saturday before rambling off to Skagway and Juneau. From there, it’ll be back home to Chapel Hill, NC, to begin work on a new album, which they hope to release this fall.