March 17, 2012
“Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future”. Turns out every Villain has a story, too. The “19-piece 1930s New Orleans Cabaret and Orchestra show” that goes by Vaud & the Villains seems to have stepped out of time to deliver us from ourselves. With the likes of The Animal, Big Daddy, Honeychild, Silky, Preacher, Babyface, Peaches Mahoney, Shady Sadie, Low Down Kate and a seeming cast of thousands under the watchful eye of one Vaud Overstreet, these Villains transport all who enter to an age when liquor only flowed through speakeasys, gals were skilled at financially relocating men’s wallets, and hard luck was religion. Yeah it’s 2012, and they time-travel seamlessly.
Part revival, part burlesque and all in, Vaud & the Villains dig deep into gospel, rhythm and soul, blues, New Orleans brass and Americana, to create a performance that resonates, entertains and seduces. This is a committed bunch – to the music, to the presentation and to the enjoyment of the audience. They have to be. Travelling from gig-to-gig with at least 4 horns, 3 singers, 2 dancers, fiddle, banjo, drums, upright bass, sousaphone, acoustic guitar and “one-string” guitar (as was the configuration at The Mint) is labor intensive as it is, let alone delivering over two dozen tunes in period dress with enough strategic wardrobe changes to give Cher a run for her money.
The arc to most Vaud shows unwraps like an Elmore Leonard novel. Beginning with Vaud Overstreet (Andy Comeau) taking center stage – part carny barker/part fire and brimstone, regaling the audience with tales of lust, grifting and generally bad deeds. Vaud sets the table for the respective Villains to share their backstory throughout the performance, stepping back into the shadows, as the Villains take over, re-emerging to pick up the story and receding again. You can’t help but buy in.
What is special about V + V is the attention to traditional musical roots, while making sure that everyone has a damn good time. Not a lot of acts can pull off a Depression era heavy repertoire and sell it to a predominantly younger crowd. It is a high compliment that a good chunk of the Mint show included many songs that reached a fresh audience with Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions project, and that Vaud and co. keep that flame very much alive. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two rather sexy and talented dancers add a little visual uplift to the whole affair. When these gals take their spots, heads turn, dates smile and the whole thing goes up a notch.
I first caught up with Vaud & the Villains in 2009, where they provided some after party entertainment to Cirque Bezerk, a locally infused brew of Burning Man meets Cirque Du Soleil for the loft district demo. In the past few years, they have taken up an irregular residency at Club Fais Do-Do. A former movie theater along a questionable stretch of Adams Boulevard, it’s a perfect room for this particular spectacle – an old warehouse feel of a place with an exposed barrel truss ceiling, plenty of couches and tables scattered throughout, and lots of room for audience and performers alike. V + V first played the Mint opening for the New Orleans Bingo Show (yes, that was a night) in 2010 and have been back a few times since. The room is almost too intimate to contain the show. It’s tight, but they make it work somehow. A rainy St. Paddy’s night was the perfect backdrop for their latest Mint return.
Opening with an old timey “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll” and the St. James Infirmary-ish treatment of “Eyes on the Prize”, V + V moved deftly through a first set with an old as the hills throwdown of “O Mary Don’t You Weep”, a blues ‘bone flavor to “Play Your Hall Tonight” (with an “Old Time Religion” teaser for effect), and Dr. John’s “Marie Laveau”. “Jacob’s Ladder” brought some big tent spirit to the small room and fiddler Big Daddy scatted his way through “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”. “St. James Infirmary” almost had a samba like twist to it. That’s new and different.
The second set went 16+ songs deep beginning with an operatic entrance by the Animal (Antoine Reynaldo Diel) belting the refrain of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. The Celtic abandon of “Americanland” was perfect for the occasion, “Rag Doll” had both dancers effectively channeling their inner burlesque and Honeychild (Jessica Childress) somehow turned “Que Sera Sera” into a soulful RnB tune. The Villain horns became one with the floor for a “John Henry” hoedown. Peaches Mahoney (Dawn Lewis) was in full chanteuse mode for “Slap and Tickle”. “Animal’s Testament” brought Sunday church to the bar with some nice NOLA swing from the brass. A personal favorite, “Samson and Delilah” bears no resemblance to the Dead’s interpretation. The Villains’ read is dark, brooding and elemental. The heartbreak of “Thanks a Lot” had Preacher twanging through a song that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1960s’ Bakersfield. Honeychild and newcomer Roxie pumped “Sister Got It Bad” with the appropriate bluesy bluster. As if “Iko Iko” is not enough of a crowd pleaser (in a good way), the Villains segued into “I Want You Back” (yes, Michael Jackson). Then, whiplashed back to the 20’s for Sidney Bechet’s saloon friendly “Viper Mad”, featuring the dueling banjos of Low Down Kate and Babyface (Adam Grimes). That’s right, Michael Jackson and Sidney Bechet in the same breath (don’t try this at home). “Night Time” (is the right time, for sure), a bittersweet “This Train” (with a taste of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”) and a foot stomping “This Little Light of Mine” closed out a very generous pre-encore set. More revival, less baggage.
V + V are a Los Angeles treasure with NOLA blood in the veins. They invite all to lose their abandon, shake it a bit, and forget their troubles. But there is something deeper, too. Traditional songs having a resurgence almost a century later. Look no further than Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s upcoming “Americana” with the infamous noise monsters covering familiar 19th century folk songs – another example of traditional material reinvigorated by one of the more influential musicians of our time. These songs are still who we are. With Vaud & the Villains we get the show, too. And any more fun would be illegal. Seriously.
At the end of the Mint gig, Vaud announced to the crowd they were officially “Villainized”. That’s a good thing. Be you sinner or saint, you can’t leave a Vaud & the Villains show half empty. Spread the word. These guys deliver big time. Life is better when you’ve been “villainized”.
Keep current with Vaud & the Villains at www.vaudandthevillains.com. While they have a few mid-western and New England dates on the books for this summer (getting 15-19 pieces on the road can’t be easy), you can catch them in town March 31st at Club Fais Do-Do.