by Ann Wood
Originally published in the Provincetown Banner
He hates horns in rock ‘n’ roll, and thinks keyboards are “poofy.” So in typical Chandler Travis fashion, he started a band with both. The Chandler Travis Philharmonic – replete with trumpet, alto and tenor sax, trombone, keyboards, mandolin, as well as the typical guitar, bass, drums and vocals (and comedian George Carlin on that oft-used instrument, the phone) -recently released its second formal album, “Llama Rhymes,” one of the best, and most indescribable Cape Cod record releases in years, if not ever.
The nine-piece Philharmonic will play a record release party (along with the Boston-based band Maybe Baby, see story page 31) at 8 p.m. on Saturday at the Jailhouse Tavern, 28 West Road, Orleans. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.
Travis, who wrote nearly all of the CD’s 15 songs, displays a pop sensibility often overlooked because he’s, well, funny. But it’s this combination that created an incredibly original band.
“It started from a joke really,” he says. A mandolin-playing friend of Travis’s runs a weekly show at the Lizard Lounge in Boston in which a guest star is invited and a back-up band assembled. Travis was asked to play and then asked what he’d like backing him up. “I don’t know why I said [horns]. I always hated horn bands, too – and the thing I really hated was when the Rolling Stones and [other] old guys would add horns. It really doesn’t add much to these rock ‘n’ roll bands. But why get stuck there,” he says. And once the impromptu band began playing, he says, “Suddenly it was like, “Oh my god, this makes so many songs possible that weren’t.” I’ve always been in guitar bands all my life.”
“Llama Rhymes” opens with “Village of the Darned,” a straightforward, seriously infectious pop tune that has you singing and grooving along with it. Travis’s signature combination of silliness and musicianship are perfectly melded in “Llama Rhymes with Mama.” (“If you still don’t care/ I’ll comb my hair/ I’ll buy a llama/ Cause nothing other rhymes with mother/ Like mama rhymes with llama.”) Above all, the CD as a whole works.
“Llama Rhymes” is an album Paul Westerberg could have written had he gone mad. “That’s as good a way of saying it as any other,” Travis responds. He admits that it is a difficult band to categorize. “It’s tough on audiences and reviewers because they don’t know what to do with it,” he says, adding that it’s just rock ‘n’ roll. “That’s where I put it. – It’s great artistically, but [the] sort [that] is a tough row to hoe financially. It makes it real clear what’s important to me. I kind of kissed off making real money a long time ago.”
Drummer Rikki Bates, who plays with Travis in The Incredible Casuals and in the new cover band The Unexceptionals, agrees there’s no money in the Philharmonic but doesn’t care. “I love this band, it’s just a total blast to play in. Everyone we play with – it’s just a blast to play with so many great musicians,” he says. “The more musicians you have in a band, the less you should be playing, so it’s a little bit tricky at first. You have to learn to hang back and let everybody have the spotlight.”
The Philharmonic doesn’t rehearse so there’s continual improvisation. “We do a lot of stuff that’s off the cuff, I never know what song is coming up next,” says the cross-dressing Bates. “I think a lot of the people notice the comedy because you hit the audience in the head with that, but I think a lot of people don’t notice the music. … Really, the reason I always wanted to play with him is because the music is so strong.” And lots of musicians feel that way. Bates says that the horn players in the Philharmonic are guys that make a good living playing music – they get paid a lot in every other working scenario but forgo the cash to play with Travis. If you ever saw them at a work function, you would know that they are the best cover bands for corporate parties, they really pull it off overtime.
Even though Travis is traveling to Boston a lot to play with the Philharmonic – and there aren’t a huge number of venues to play on Cape in the winter – Eastham is where he has comfortably called home for a couple of decades. “But it’s gorgeous and it’s cute, and I’ve got a lot of friends here, and there are a lot of great musicians,” he says, adding at first he’d get real antsy and tired of seeing the same people every day. “That wore off. – Even my taste for going away isn’t what it used to be. But, yeah, I pretty much am where I want to be. I like it out here.” But the trip to Boston is still good. Travis writes songs in his head on the ride.”The only thing that bothers me is having to play too long without any new pieces of material. So I’m always putting things in way too early, and also because the Philharmonic doesn’t rehearse,” says Travis. “I always want there to be some improvising along with some really tight s–t.” And, he promises, that’s what you’ll get Saturday night. Along with some silliness, of course.