By BILL O’NEILL
Cape Cod Times
Chandler Travis once described himself as the George Brent of rock ‘n’ roll. Remember George Brent? Probably not. He was a bland leading man who gained what little renown he still holds by playing opposite Betty Davis in “Dark Victory.”
Maybe you’ve forgotten “Dark Victory.”
“No one knew who George Brent was, so that’s pretty much prototypical me – to make some joke that nobody can get,” says Travis, who opens for George Carlin at the Melody Tent Tuesday and plays with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic at Harry’s later that night.
“It was just a funny image to me. People thought it was George Brett: ‘Oh, the baseball player.’ ”
Here’s another comparison: Chandler Travis is the Pee-wee Herman of rock ‘n’ roll. No, Travis doesn’t have any bizarre scandals attached to his name. It’s more that he shares Pee-wee’s childish spirit, while making art that only grown-ups can truly understand.
Since his days in high school bands (the Good Fairies and the St. James Infirmary), through his years in the duo Travis-Shook, during his nearly two-decade stint with the Incredible Casuals and now in his latest project, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, one thing has remained true about Travis: He wants to have at least as good a time as his audience.
In honor of himself
For instance, there’s his theme song, “Chandler Travis, King of the World,” which appears on the Philharmonic’s soon-to-be-released CD, “Her Spanish Suitcase.” It features the insanely catchy kind of hook that sets a song to replaying in your head after a single listen – the kind of song you’d use for theme music to a children’s TV show.
The lyrics have the same sort of bizarre humor that kids enjoy, but childish adults love even more:
“Chandler Travis, Chandler Travis – so humble and good.
“Chandler Travis, Chandler Travis – whatever rhymes with humble and good!
“They all love him; waitresses and stewardesses – especially waitresses,
“But they can’t touch him – he is unknowable!”
No wonder the crowd always joins in. Travis has his audience eating out of his hand, eager to pay tribute – even if it’s a tribute he wrote himself.
“I try to write songs that stick with you, that don’t evaporate after the first few listens,” Travis says.
Travis’ main fame comes as singer/bassist/guitarist for the Incredible Casuals, a Cape-based quartet that plays Sunday evening shows at the Wellfleet Beachcomber during the summer. Guitarist Johnny Spampinato spends most of the rest of the year playing with NRBQ, and the Casuals go on hiatus.
“Even though the Casuals only get to play three months, it’s just the cutest little situation,” says Travis, 49, of Eastham. “You look out in the audience and it’s like maybe 70 percent people you actually know, all these people that we’ve been seeing for 15 years. That’s pretty funny. Especially when most of them are really too old to be doing this. Just like we are.”
After 18 or 19 years with the Casuals (Travis says no one is really sure when the band started), Travis found a new creative outlet with the Philharmonic, a band that goes beyond – way beyond – the Casuals’ guitar-bass-drums sound to include a range of stringed instruments, horns, and an accordion.
“The Philharmonic is much more theatrical,” he says. “I’ve found that for some reason it’s a lot easier to get eight people to do something crazy than four people. There’s a safety in numbers thing that seems to be working for the Philharmonic.”
Compared to everyone
The Philharmonic came together “completely by mistake,” says Travis. His friend multi-instrumentalist Dinty Child (who’ll join Travis at the Melody Tent) was setting up a series of shows at the Lizard Lounge in Boston and asked Travis if he’d like to have some supporting players.
“I couldn’t think of anything, so I said ‘Get a couple horn players,’ ” Travis recalls. “One of them was Keiichi Hashimoto. He was just great, a young Berklee guy, trumpet player. Some people just have the spirit. Dinty does and Keiichi does.
“I always hated the way the Rolling Stones used horns – and I love the Stones. But I just think so often guys do that when they run out of ideas – ‘OK, bring out the trio of girl singers and the horn section.’ It’s always just a real pale echo of Stax stuff.
“I never would have done that on purpose in a million years, but once you get into horn music, there are so many great things to do with it. Horns are so wild. How come people never do anything that relates to the Dixieland thing, which to me is one of the wildest things?”
For the uninitiated, the Casuals sound like the Kinks after the Davies brothers have been in the sun too long. The Philharmonic gets even further out into the land of rock looniness; The new album sounds like a recording of a Joe Jackson/They Might Be Giants rehearsal session, or maybe what you’d get if Spike Jones, instead of George Martin, had been the producer for the Beatles and he’d had a recording budget of about $500.
If those comparisons sound a bit off-the-wall, consider that over the years, Travis and his bands have been compared to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen, Tiny Tim, Prince, Bo Diddley, Percy Dovetonsils, Popeye, Ogden Nash and Henry Rollins. It’s enough to give a guy an identity crisis.
“I’ve always considered myself a champion of the jarring segue, possibly much to my financial detriment,” says Travis. “I just really like surprises, and artists that keep changing.
“I don’t want to be chasing the golden ring all the time,” he says of the Casuals’ mix of critical adulation and commercial indifference. “If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.”
Copyright © 1999 Cape Cod Times. All rights reserved.