Hecklin’ your Jeckle
Delightful West Yolo trio the Joy Buzzards whip up a comically cosmic stewpot of musical roadkill
Using the term “all over the musical map” to capture the charm of the Joy Buzzards’ new CD is like saying that water is wet or that cartoonist Robert Crumb has an obsession with kind of bulbous cabooses usually concealed by tight skirts.
“Something for everyone to hate” is how Bob Armstrong, one of the West Yolo acoustic trio’s three remarkable multi-instrumentalists, described it.
Of course, that’s a lie. You’d have to be on the bilious side of curmudgeonly to pick fault with any record that touches on 1920s pop numbers, Hawaiian guitar meditations, mutant backwoods string-band tunes, musically cubist Thelonious Monk covers and oddball blues, which The Joy Buzzards does.
And the group’s motivation isn’t to win over the crowds, anyway. “We’re doing it for ourselves, basically,” Armstrong said. “We’re not really trying to impress anyone else.”
The Joy Buzzards, which formed in 1999, are similar to another group claiming Armstrong as a member. The graphic artist and Pasadena native had formed the Cheap Suit Serenaders (né the Keep On Truckin’ Orchestra) with fellow cartoonist Robert Crumb and Allan Dodge in San Francisco in 1973; that group later included film director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb and Ghost World), ethno-musicologist Bob Brozman and Tom Marion. They still play together once in a while, whenever Crumb visits from France.
But where the Suits concentrated on reanimating obscurities from the band members’ 78-rpm record collections, the Buzzards are less predictable. Armstrong, who lives in the hamlet of Winters, may bring in an occasional ukulele-driven number lifted off a 78, but Bill Scholer, a longtime Davis blues guitarist who now lives near Lake Berryessa, prefers later jazz and blues repertoires. “His tastes seem to run more toward the 1960s and up to current times,” Armstrong explained. Keith Cory, the Buzzards’ third member, who designs and builds such instruments as the commodium (a toilet-seat resonator mandolin) and the pan-cello in his Winters luthier’s workshop, is harder to pin down. “He describes himself as ‘easily distracted by shiny objects,’” Armstrong said. “He loves everything from Ornette Coleman and free jazz to the most traditional backwoods tribal music.”
As for Armstrong himself, his heart is in the 1920s and 1930s bailiwick of the Cheap Suit Serenaders—hotel orchestras, Hawaiian ukulele superstars and the un-self-conscious bliss of country and blues performers from the earliest days of electrically recorded 78s, before they started reacting to their own performances. “I go way back,” he put it succinctly. But Armstrong also digs early R&B and bebop, styles that lie outside the parameters of the Suits’ repertoire, and admitted that the Joy Buzzards give him the freedom to explore areas of music that were off-limits for the Suits.
The Buzzards’ instrumentation is a joy to behold. Armstrong plays guitar, steel guitar, ukulele, banjo (four-, five- and six-string), accordion, commodium, percussion, the jug and the musical saw. Scholer plays six- and 12-string guitar and steel guitar. Cory plays cello, commodium, fiddle, tuba, harmonica, pan-cello and various basses. Oh, and all three Buzzards sing.
Unlike some groups that mine old-timey repertoires, the Joy Buzzards don’t seem to be terribly concerned with authenticity. “If we do a blues number or an old hillbilly tune,” Armstrong explained, “it’s not like we’ve been working in the Delta picking cotton all our lives and living in some shotgun shack. We don’t come from some coal-mining town in West Virginia.”
Armstrong paused. “We’re from the suburbs!” he enthused.
“We’re buzzing the highways and musical byways, looking for some musical roadkill to pick clean,” he added. “Whatever smells good on the hot highway pavement that day, we’ll descend on it, and we’ll have our way with it.”
Said musical roadkill will be on display at the Palms this Friday, at the Joy Buzzards’ CD-release party. Think of it as a roadkill stew, a bouillabaisse of tuneful varmints.
“When we do stuff, we just mix it all together,” Armstrong said, adding, “and try not to take ourselves too seriously.”