Pesadilla en la calle del olmo

Orangevale’s Las Pesadillas reinvent old, weird California

Las Pesadillas, fixing that trademark “happy hour” pose.

Las Pesadillas, fixing that trademark “happy hour” pose.

Picture, if you will, a world peopled by one-armed banditos, swampy backwater towns, scorpions, patent-medicine hawkers, suicidal drunks and murderous husbands. Picture, if you will, a world of whacked-out darkness, a world where the knife-wielding maniac comes a millimeter from slitting your throat before suddenly leaping into a whirlwind of song and dance, punctuated by yodeling and periodical fits of snake oil-style preaching.

Picture, if you will, the world of Las Pesadillas. If it were 1870 and the Sacramento streets were dirty with cow dung and bootprints, Las Pesadillas might roll into town on a flatbed wagon. They would be toting a remedy for all your ills in a magic bottle. Just give them a nickel and they might even play you a song or two.

Fast-forward in your petite nightmare to this afternoon. Somewhere in our fine hamlet that same snake oil medicine band is still playing. They’re writ larger now, due in part to their buying into Tom Edison’s little invention of electricity—guitar a little distorted, drums louder to keep up, fiddle shrieking every now and again, bass thumping along.

The man up at the microphone (mostly) goes by the name of Noah Nelson. He sings, he shouts, he plays guitar like nobody’s business, and the good people of Sacramento were kind enough to hand him a 2001 SAMMIE award for Best Songwriter on account of a few quirky little ditties that hang about in the listener’s mind like bad thoughts about your best friend’s mother. Then there’s the drummer, Jason Cox. The sound is akin to a two-ton sturgeon in a metal bucket filled with turpentine, recorded and then played back at three times the normal speed. As for the bassist, Jon Mack, he plays the fretboard like some people tickle the ivories, fat chords and slow melodies. Fiddler Damian Mack-Husted, also a member of the world-famous Freight Train Riders of America band, screeches like Stephane Grappelli crawling on hands and knees through a Juarez strip club with his two front teeth in his shirt pocket.

Las Pesadillas have been together six years, with this particular lineup for the last three. “We’ve been percolatin',” Noah will tell you. It’s true. You can hear percolation in their sound. The casual listener might think of Grappelli, Tom Waits, Niccolò Paganini, Man or Astroman, Primus. To this list, drummer Cox adds, hastily: “We don’t sound like the Residents"—although Nelson chimes in, perhaps in defense: “We use bad notes, though.”

As for their sound, the Pesadillas throw out a few choice metaphors: rambling carnival balladry, flying scorpions on PCP, a broken-glass enema, pouring urinating doubles down a 454, baby coffins. I’ll make it easy for you: think of a Louisiana-reared version of Primus doing Django Reinhardt covers.

The band hails, predominantly, from Orangevale—although one member is from Carmichael. Nelson talks with a slight but distinct drawl. It sounds about as Southern as Ab Snopes selling stolen horses to the humble citizenry of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, but it is said he’s as Orangevalean as they come. Go figure.

The first Las Pesadillas CD, Dear Customer, came out this month. Mixed by Oz Fritz (who has worked with both Tom Waits and Primus), it consists of thirteen tracks and is the band’s first full-length CD release. Dear Customer is as dee-lish as a peanut butter and glass-shard sandwich—and that means mmmm good. Buy it, hold it close to your heart, and be wary, for Las Pesadillas might be gibberish in this tongue but remember that California was stolen from old Mexico and out there "las pesadillas" means "the nightmares."