Not as weird as carnies

Thirteen hobohemians and one chicken roll into the El Rey for the Yard Dogs Road Show

Photo courtesy of Yard dogs road show

El Rey Theatre

230 W. Second St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 342-2727

Few people are familiar with the logistical conundrums faced daily by Eddy Joe Cotton, road manager, hobo poet and “straw boss” of the Yard Dogs Road Show.

“We have 13 people in the show,” Cotton said. “There are a lot of women now; it takes quite a bit of wrangling to get everyone on the bus and moving to the next town. Then, there’s the chicken. He’s gotta get out at truck stops sometimes and run around a bit.”

The Yard Dogs are an amalgam of traveling performers and artists based in the Bay Area. Cotton (née Zebu Recchia) spoke by phone in an interview bookended by meetings and late-night rehearsals, as the troupe is preparing for a two-week jaunt down the West Coast.

Cotton is a founding member of the Yard Dogs, which started eight years ago as a three-piece jug band. As the band evolved into a full-blown hobo cabaret, he said, he spends less time performing and more time managing the rolling rabble, though he doesn’t shoulder the responsibility alone.

“Everyone does a lot of stuff,” he said. “Musicians are also dancers and magicians and all kinds of other performers. Everyone plays lots of roles on and off stage, and everyone helps set up and tear down. We relegate a lot of duties, including tour management and production stuff, because there are so many of us it would be impractical to bring extra people.”

The Yard Dogs are equal parts old and new—punks and modern misfits, self-described “hobohemians” steeped in Vaudevillian traditions more than a hundred years old. The act is a combination rock concert and sideshow, featuring a live band, burlesque dancers, sword swallowers, hobo poets, hypnotists and fire eaters.

One thing they are not is a common sight in small-town America, though Cotton said confrontations between his merry band of tattooed troubadours and overenthusiastic authorities or small-minded yokels are not as common as one might expect.

“People are just curious but there aren’t many problems,” he said. “They know we’re coming and expect us or put it together that it’s a show.

“Actually, the Midwest is all about the midway,” he said. “Traveling shows, circuses, carnivals; it’s a long tradition there and they’re very into it. Besides, we’re weird but, well, we’re different from, like, carnies. Carnies are really weird.”

The Yard Dogs are weird enough, though, to appeal to starry-eyed standbys who dream of life on the road. More than 70 dancers auditioned for one opening in the show recently, and Cotton said it’s not uncommon to meet people after shows who want to tag along.

“Everyone has a little part of them that wants to run away with some kind of show, or a band or a circus,” Cotton said. “We’re pretty accessible. We’re approachable. It’s a lot of fun and we don’t set the bar too high. We’re not superhuman. We’re not Cirque de Soleil.”

The call of the road is something Cotton knows well. He left his home in Denver at 19 to travel, and chronicled some of his adventures in a book called Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America. He said the road show is made up of like-minded individuals, gypsy artists who travel, entertain and create year-round.

“The whole road show is just another way for us to collectively express ourselves and our art,” he said. “We’re like a family, and the circus is an extension of all the other things we do, everything from building shacks to making films, playing in bands, dancing, designing costumes—one of the members makes electronic music. The list goes on.

“Traveling together is really inspiring. We make up a lot of the show as we go along. When you have 13 creative people together on a bus for a long time, sure, sometimes people get a bit surly, but you also get some great creative energy.”