Gimme that old-timey funny stuff
FreeBadge Serenaders, performing this week at the Sacramento Music Festival, joke their way through traditional Dixieland jazz
While most 16-year-old musicians were out banging drums and thrashing on distorted guitars, Greg Sabin and Patrick Skiffington kept busy performing Dixieland music in the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Youth Band Festival, playing banjo and bass guitar, respectively.
So when nearly 20 years later, the pair decided to start a band, it seemed like a natural fit to return to their roots.
Still, the resulting band, FreeBadge Serenaders, which will perform several shows at the upcoming Sacramento Music Festival ( previously known as the Sacramento Jazz Festival & Jubilee), isn’t exactly typical Dixieland. For starters, there are only the two members (Sabin on banjo and vocals, and Skiffington on washboard and vocals). The band’s also admittedly silly: It’s dubbed its sound as “discount jazz” and “irreverent jug jazz,” with funny lyrics and the occasional slide whistle or kazoo solo.
But really, both members insist, they have utmost respect for the genre.
“We absolutely, 100 percent in our hearts, love this music. Patrick’s got a [jazz] LP and 78 collection that would rival a lot of guys,” Sabin says.
If anything, Sabin adds, the band has simply made the most of its limitations.
“We kind of needed another hook, and we’re both funny guys. So we decided to write funny music,” he says.
When they started the group four years ago, Sabin had already been playing banjo for a while, but Skiffington needed a new instrument, so he chose the washboard—it seemed like an easy enough thing to play while drinking, he reasoned.
These days, Skiffington is more serious about it. In fact, he calls himself a “washboard gearhead,” thanks to his own customized rig, which includes a washboard and two cowbells.
But, despite a connection to old jazz, music isn’t the biggest inspiration behind FreeBadge Serenaders. Rather, the pair says it’s more inspired by the classic comedian-musicians, such as the Smothers Brothers and Tom Lehrer. Like these players, FreeBadge writes humorous songs such as “Sacramento, CA USA,” notable for its self-deprecating approach: “You’re always only two hours from where you’d rather be.”
The band’s original goal was to play as many Dixieland festivals as possible and, effectively, get into them for free. The band’s name references this intention.
“The whole point was we’d play for a free badge,” Sabin jokes. “We know that we’re not really a serious band that people would really voluntarily pay to see.”
Of course, they’ve gotten plenty of paying gigs over the years, and when they do play jazz festivals, they’re more likely to play some traditional old-timey tunes, and crack family-friendly jokes. At a bar show, however, it’s a different act.
“It’s about connecting with people, having some drinks, having some fun, not being afraid to use profanity,” Sabin says. “We’re not playing it really old-timey [or] straitlaced—everybody’s in on the joke.”
And although it has myriad classic jazz songs in its repertoire, FreeBadge has also been known to whip out something more modern, such as a Cars or a Nirvana cover song.
“The nice thing … if you’re doing a kind-of-jokey act [is] that if you do something musically really well, you get just a ton of respect,” Sabin says. “People don’t expect you to actually know how to be a musician on top of being a comedian.”