I’m going to let you in on a little secret that’s been collecting lint and dog hair under the Calendar desk for a long time now. No, make that a number of secrets—so many, in fact, that as I sit down to write this I don’t even know how many are going to come tumbling forth like so many make-out lies at a pre-teen slumber party.
The first one is that my two-and-a-half year hitch as the Calendar Kid will soon be coming to an end. (OK, I’m taking the liberty of injecting some gasps of shock and utter dismay on your end, here.) It’s totally true. As of Jan. 1, a successor is to be anointed with the lotions and scented oils of Calendardom and the chimneys of the walled city will issue forth the telltale smoke of my passing into a new role: that of a powerful behind-the-scenes strange-o who still has keys to the club gym. They re-keyed the Aston-Martin and made me give back the helicopter, but I got to keep the cattle prod and the souvenir money clip. I kept the socks, too. Suckers!
But the real secret, and maybe it’s not even that much of a secret if you read the calendar like I always wanted you to (which is to say, as though it were the last and only thing left to read on the planet), is that I think I’m getting out of my people’s ancient craft of calendar-making just in time to avoid becoming an irredeemably bitter and judgmental Calendar Kid. No, oh no, I don’t regret a minute of the bar-owner-goading and the band-name-making fun-of. But at some point, and without me noticing precisely when, the magic of discovery got lost in a pile of lookalike McBand photos and slavering press releases obviously penned by the bands themselves, and I started to feel like it was the Calendar versus the Kid instead of the blessed union implied by the name itself. It’s been a great job; I just feel like it’s hazardous to do it for too long. Show me a guy at a mirror factory who can still stand to look at himself.
Not that I blame myself, mind you. I mean, you can’t believe how much stuff comes across this desk every week. Talking about music, every day there’s a new stack of bubble-wrapped jumbo envelopes, all from bands clamoring for a piece of the Kid (or “current resident”) and coming on like they’re the first bunch of groovy kids ever to pick up a mandolin. The same six or eight clichés kept popping up in the press releases with such frequency that I started hearing them in my sleep: “currently one of the most popular live acts in [insert location here],” a unique blend of [insert wad of wet tissue here] with [who cares?] influences,” “growing fan-base of [insert bong-addled pack of pitiful hangers-on here],” and so on, ad nauseam. Of course, I understand the importance of making a strong first impression, but Jiminy Christmas, do they think I just fell off the turnip truck? Music journalists invented the art of the odorless promotional air biscuit! What do they think they’re doing trying to sell it back to us?
And the promo photos. Man, you shouldn’t have gotten me started on the promo photos. I’ve got a stack of them as tall as you are, and every time I have to go through them to find the one I need I’m still as amazed as I was the day each one came in the mail. Amazed at the ludicrous poses a group of regular folks (I suppose) will strike to promote themselves as a band.
Some of them are just past laughing at. For instance, there seems to be some kind of unwritten rule among bands from Boulder that they have to have their photo taken, preferably with each member clutching his respective instrument close to his bosom, on the deck of whichever ski lodge offers the most unspoiled view of the mountains. As though to suggest that they are, in fact, simple mountain folk quite pleased to be plinking out Dead covers by a chuckling alpine brook after a long day of mending fences and whittling pornographic woodcuts.
Other photos in my rogue doofus gallery display a compact elegance of carefully-posed composition that would be perfectly marvelous if, when you consider the obvious time and effort involved, it wasn’t so perfectly goddamned ridiculous. A trouser cuff pulled back just enough to reveal an anklet of Tibetan provenance, a dreadlock or single golden tress uncurling across the body of a $1,200 guitar, coupled with an impassioned facial gesture meant to convey the rapture of playing but actually suggesting nothing so much as an imminent bowel movement. And it never fails: There’s always someone in the band caught looking like they’re in dire need of being chased into the locker room and given a wicked swirlie.
Bands of today, bands of tomorrow: Please heed the wisdom of my hard-won senescence. The best kind of band photo is the naturalistic live shot of the kind that can only be taken when not a single band member knows that a photo is being taken. If you insist on having a posed shot taken, stand up straight, make friendly eye contact with the camera and for crying out loud try to look like you’re having a good time. If you know ahead of time that the photographer is using a fisheye lens, under no circumstances should you contrive to cup the resulting shot in an outstretched palm. It’s been done to death and, if it was ever cool at all, it only happened once.
Having come this far, and having unburdened myself of so much long-repressed rancor, I should tell you one final secret. Well, it’s more like a loophole, actually. An instance in which everything I thought I knew about judging a book by its cover (and everything I’ve just told you, in fact) was proved dangerously false when an absolutely awesome band launched its longboat up the boat-eating rapids of my time-tempered prejudices and made a picnic lunch of caviar on the sandy shores of my still-tender heart.
The band is McGnarley’s Rant, and they did almost everything wrong to make me love them. Their name rings as hollow as the name of an Irish bar with no real Seamus McGillicuddy or Molly O’Dougal behind the painted sign. The very top of their Web site (www.rantmusic.com) trumpets their style as “Gypsy Monkey Punk,” which ordinarily would be enough to make me vomit bile forever. (A final note to bands putting together first press releases: Cutesy phrases like “Gypsy monkey punk,” “ethno-Cajun slamgrass” and “funkpunkhippiethrash” might sound like great tokens, but the currency they put in the hands of music writers is as worthless as Confederate money. The idea press release should dispense with the fiddle-faddle and get right down to it: “We are the best band in the world. Put the CD in right now.”) Their PR girl even called me up, twice, and asked if I was “going to do anything on them.” Yes, I told the poor thing, yes I am going to “do something on them.” Although it might not be something they’d want “done on them,” if an article of some sort is what you had in mind.
And oh, mother, did I ever have another think coming. This Victoria, B.C. outfit has got it all, and the nine songs on their Fisherman’s Pride CD are probably just a fraction of what they pull out live. Right outta the gate, it’s obvious that these scalawags make good on the Gypsy end of the bargain, to say the very least. Instead of breaking from the safety jam just long enough to make the obligatory tip o’ the cap to the usual rap sheet of purported “influences,” McGnarley’s Rant start with the Gypsy and make everything else bend to their will. There’s bluegrass to be sure, and dense knots of Celtic fiddle, but more often than not it’s tough to tell where one thing ends and something else begins. That alone puts McGnarley’s Rant head and shoulders above so many fellow would-be fusioneers, who either aren’t interested in hiding their stitches or choose to flaunt them as proof of all the components supposedly at work in the Frankennoodle.
How can a band so good at everything it tries not outstay its welcome at least once in awhile? For McGnarley’s Rant, it all comes back to the bittersweet minor key foundations of ciganska muzika, the distinctively Eastern European sound that bassist and songwriter Mike Brcic grew up listening to in a Croatian household in Toronto. Not surprisingly, when the music hews most faithfully to this particular influence, it’s Sara Hart’s soaring fiddle that speaks for everything the two-note Gypsy basslines mean but can’t say. That and a whole lot more. I love this woman.
My spider sense is tingling me like a toaster in a bathtub. Give your old Kid the benefit of the doubt one last time when I tell you I’ll be surprised if this isn’t the most amazing live show of the winter. Fans of Gypsy fiddles, staggering dirges, klezmer fireworks, cimbalom music and slivovitz-cranked Transylvanian hoe-downs take special note. Everybody else: people get ready.