The Holy Modal Rounders

+ {Stampfel & Weber}

One of the most unconventional and uncompromising outfits of the 60s folk-rock movement, the HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS combined old-timey jugband blues and hillbilly bluegrass, rolling it into one “unplugged” country-folk moonshine.
Formed in March 1963 by friends Peter Stampfel (vocals, banjo, fiddle) and Steve Weber (guitar, vocals) in Greenwich Village, New York, the off-kilter duo performed improvised free-form gigs around their local patch. Prestige Records was the first company to give the guys a chance, issuing their eponymous THE HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS {*9} early in ’64, a seminal set steeped in country-folk-blues inspired no doubt by LEADBELLY, DOCK BOGGS, WOODY GUTHRIE, et al. A weird/fun mixture of group originals (pick out: `Blues In The Bottle’, `Mister Spaceman’ and `Bound To Lose’), traditional fare (`Hesitation Blues’, `Long John’, `Hop High Ladies’ and `Reuben’s Train’) and choice cover material from CLARENCE ASHLEY (`The Cuckoo’) and their good friend George Remaily’s `Euphoria’.
Their free spirit was given a second chance to shine through THE HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS 2 (1965) {*6}, although their idiosyncratic blend of everything-goes, melting-pot folk wasn’t to everyone’s taste – Weber was later to change the running order on a subsequent two-fer-oner. Stampfel’s noisy nasal nods to the likes of UNCLE DAVE MACON through `Down The Old Plank Road’ and trad cue, `Bully Of The Town’, BLIND WILLIE McTELL’s `Statesboro Blues’, BILL MONROE’s `Hot Corn, Cold Corn’ and The STANLEY BROTHERS’ `Clinch Mountain Backstep’, were less effective and leant more to the country/bluegrass side.
After further live stints, the duo were put on hold in 1965/66 when both Stampfel and Weber teamed up with the equally weird and cult-like, FUGS, staying around for two early sets before resuming activities with The HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS. Adding actor/playwright and drummer Sam Shepard to the fold was indeed inspiring, while their chaotic drug-fuelled days with said FUGS found them with another added member, Lee Crabtree (keyboards), albeit briefly.
For INDIAN WAR WHOOP (1967) {*7}, the guys raided the vaults of the soon-to-be Smithsonian Institute, coming up with near-unrecognisable source material such as the title track (scribed by Hoyt “Floyd” Ming), `Cocaine Blues’ (by Luke Jordan), `Sweet Apple Cider’ and `Bay Rum Blues’, two penned by buddy MICHAEL HURLEY (including `Radar Blues’) and a handful of Weber dirges, some under a minute long.
Having kicked around various embryonic versions of a band entitled the Moray Eels (that formerly featured guitarist Dave Levy and Peter’s lyricist wife, Antonia), Stampfel, Weber and Shepard (tambourine) returned to its crazed conception and musical philosophies through the 1969-released, Frazier Mohawk-produced LP, THE MORAY EELS EAT THE HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS {*8}; two new Eels were now on board: Richard Tyler (piano) and the hopefully pseudonymous John Wesley Annis (on bass and drums).
High up there – as the proverbial kite! – due to its opening salvo, `Bird Song’, the LP was initially met with jaw-dropping awe by non-acid-heads, until, of course, it was featured in that year’s cult biker film, Easy Rider, and its wigged-out, trippy soundtrack. At times several slices short of a loaf, the deranged hillbilly-meets-avant-garde album (example “The Cuckoo”-esque `Werewolf’, `Take-Off Artist Song’ and `Mobile Line’) alienated purist folkies too old for any “Trout Mask” replicas – Sam Shepard would regain dignity once more when he subsequently became a stage and Oscar-nominated film actor, director and screenwriter.
With America hell-bent on going country, Stampfel, Weber & Annis (plus new recruits/songwriters, Robin Remaily, Michael McCarty +1) ill-advisedly took the option to record their fifth set, GOOD TASTE IS TIMELESS (1971) {*5}, in Nashville, under the wing of former ELVIS guitarist turned engineer, Scotty Moore. Although it sounds like a fun time was had by all, it lacked the ability or zaniness to transmit their jugband blues to their audience, with the exception of Stampfel’s folk pastiche, `Spring Of ‘65’, Weber’s former FUGS forte `Boobs A Lot’ and MICHAEL HURLEY’s `Love Is The Closest Thing’; two oddities came via Jimmy Cajun Newman’s `Alligator Man’ and Joe Maphis’ `Melinda’.
The punningly-titled ALLEGED IN THEIR OWN TIME (1975) {*3}, was in its own country land that time forgot, although it did introduce one-time INSECT TRUST muso, Luke Faust, to the fold. A subsequent part-V/A collaboration, `Have Moicy!’, with their long-time associate, HURLEY and others (as The UNHOLY MODAL ROUNDERS) was quickly forgotten.
Another good-time group effort (with several members pictured on the sleeve), LAST ROUND (1978) {*6}, re-established them as purveyors of fine folk fettle. Modifying the old HMR songs of Remaily and Antonia by way of respective ditties `Euphoria’ and `If You Want To Be A Bird – Wild Blue Yonder’, the songwriters also contributed a fair share of the others including the former’s `Pink Underwear’ and the latter’s `God, What Am I Doing Here’, while Stampfel and his trusty sidekicks penned the southern-tinged `Snappin’ Pussy’.
Credited to just STAMPFEL & WEBER, GOIN’ NOWHERE FAST (1981) {*7}, was a Rounders album in all but name, a record that recalled the duo when they created their own eclectic blend of fun, folk and frolics.
Either with his Bottle Caps ensemble or just solo, STAMPFEL released a handful of fun/novelty spin-off albums: `Peter Stampfel & The Bottle Caps’ (1986), `The People’s Republic Of Rock’n’Roll’ (1989) and crazy covers set `You Must Remember This…’ (1995), while just lately the group reconvened partly for `The Jig Is Up’ (2004; recorded throughout the 90s); look out too for a 1976-recorded STEVE WEBER album, `The Holy Modal Rounders B.C.’ (2006), in which the man compliments his old buddies in song.
Prior to him teaming up with former Beefheart acolyte, Gary Lucas (for a one-off DU-TELS set in 2001), the HOLY MODAL ROUNDERS, aka Stampfel, Weber and newcomer Dave Reisch, released TOO MUCH FUN! (1999) {*6}. Alongside the usual/unusual trad fare (check out `Skin Game’ and `Penny’s Farm’), there were notable renditions from the likes of Roy Acuff (`Precious Jewel’), Bob Nolan (`Happy Rolling Cowboy’), Henry Clay Work (`Year Of Jubilo’), MICHAEL HURLEY (`Tea Song’), BILL MONROE (`Little Girl And The Dreadful Snake’) and BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON (`New John The Revelator’).
© MC Strong 1997-2010/GPD-GFD // rev-up MCS Aug2015

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