By Ed Bumgardner
JOURNAL ARTS REPORTER
No, Chandler Travis is not a wealthy man, but he is blessed with the riches of a cadre of friends and fans who believe in the power of fun-filled music taken to the weirdest degree.
And he has a valet named Fred – but more on that later.
‘Uhhhh, well, that doesn’t keep the power on, but that’s true enough. I manage to keep going, although with a pronounced limp and perhaps a bit of a stagger from time to time,’ Travis said, as he prepared to leave the splendor and sanctity, if not sanity, of home and hearth in Cape Cod. He was embarking on what he described as another ‘guaranteed money-losing tour’ with the Chandler Travis Philharmonic – a bona fide bizarre musical menagerie that is neither a philharmonic, by common definition, nor originally Travis’ idea, not that he is passing the buck.
‘I accept full responsibility whenever it is applicable,’ Travis said. ‘I manage to stay crazy. I have found that crazy is one’s best defense in these cases, although for me, crazy is really not much of a journey. I am a living, breathing example of the adage that some people never learn.’
Travis is one of the music business’ longest-running and most tenacious and talented optimists – keeping in mind that he refers to his musical endeavors as ‘business’ in only the loosest and most intentionally misleading of definitions, in that on the odd blue moon, he may actually make a few shekels for his efforts.
‘It has happened,’ he admitted. ‘We have six to eight people to pay, so, let’s say we have managed to survive on a retinue of intent, in that we intend to make money, but are content to make pure music and have a good time doing so. We usually managed to do that. We just do it our way.’
Travis has been flirting with fame and reshaping perceptions and possibilities since the 1960s, when he and partner Steve Shook toured the comedy circuit as Travis & — Shook, recording an album – ‘we are highly collectable, I’m told,’ said Travis – and touring with comedian George Carlin, who remains a friend and supporter of Travis.
Travis composed the be-bop-like theme song to the ill-fated The George Carlin Show in the ’90s, and Carlin returned the favor by phoning in some entertaining gibberish for the Philharmonic’s latest disc, Llama Rhymes, released on Travis’ Sonic Trout label.
‘We are not up there with Sony or Warner, but we are plenty fishy,’ Travis said of his label, home to, among other splendors, discs by his previous band, The Incredible Casuals (which featured guitarist Johnny Spampinato, now of NRBQ), and two studio albums by the Chandler Travis Philharmonic (Let’s Have A Pancake! and Llama Rhymes).
Then there is Radio Balls – a run of 22 albums released in 2000, most of which are attributed to the Philharmonic, that were the result of Travis’ intent to release 26 discs, one every two weeks.
He predictably hit the wall, but, hey, 22 discs in a year is nothing to sneeze at.
‘Sneezing is not the usual reaction,’ Travis said. ‘But to each his own.’
The Philharmonic, though aesthetically a distant mutation of the wacky musical universe created by NRBQ, is proudly its own beast.
The band members wouldn’t know a musical boundary if they stumbled over it in a drunken stupor. At any given moment, the band can veer from klezmer music and Dixieland, to mind-warp pop and Beat poetry, to anarchic sea chanteys to the sort of avant/savant jazz madness associated with the likes of the late Charles Mingus, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa – all bound together with that magical something that is Chandler Travis.
‘Again, I accept full responsibility whenever it is applicable, though I suppose since my name is in the name of the band, I will be the one getting served or sued, so what the heck,’ said Travis, who has been immortalized in the modest sing-along anthem ‘Chandler Travis, King of the World’ (‘Old, but not too old, bald, but not all bald, oh what a dreamboat, oh what a dreamboat, they all love him, waitresses and stewardesses, especially waitresses’).
‘Everybody needs a theme song, eh? Can I help it if they love me?’ Travis said, not altogether convincingly, given that he wrote the song. ‘Well,’ he said, when confronted, ‘Somebody had to do it. A fellow can’t wait around forever for these things. The sentiment, the nuance of the song, still holds true.’
The Philharmonic is an intriguing conglomeration of instruments and personalities. The horn section, decked out in assorted fishnets and fezzes, are highly trained musicians, suitably warped and known as the June Trailer Dancers.
Rikki Bates, formerly Vince Valium, is on drums, a truly gifted and dangerous drummer. Plus, it must be noted that the tall and lanky Bates, who now sports breasts, can wear a wraparound skirt like nobody’s business.
Keith Spring, late of NRBQ, plays keyboards.
Dinty Child plays accordion, mandocello and mandolin.
It is actually the enormously talented Child, said Travis, who is responsible for the formation of Philharmonic. (That Travis, always quick to point the finger.)
‘It was all a big mistake,’ Travis said. ‘Dinty was doing a series of shows at a place called the Lizard Lounge. He had a little band and would feature a different guest star each week. He called me and asked me to do it, and wondered if I needed anything. I told him some horns and keyboards would be nice.
‘And that’s what he did. Suddenly, all these songs that had never worked before began to work. We’ve spent all our time since trying to get the guitars out of the songs and learning what not to play.’
Travis plays guitar and sings. He does so, quite convincingly, in his pajamas, a sense of decency and decorum provided by an ever-shifting array of robes provided him by Fred Boak, his trusted valet.
Boak can be found at Travis’ side, an embroidered ‘Chandler Travis’ towel draped across his arm, immaculate in bowler and bow tie, riding herd on a rack full of robes and smoking jackets.
He also occasionally comes out front, stoic and cool, to sing a couple of tunes.
He also oversees the Philharmonic’s Web site (www.sonictrout.com/bands/chandler), where he is in charge of selecting the weekly downloadable ‘Song of the Weak.’
‘Fred is absolutely indispensable,’ Travis said. ‘He wields a mean towel. Fred was this superfan who was at all our shows, and he eventually worked his way into our act after we played in New Orleans with Ernie K-Doe just a week before he died. K-Doe had a valet, although he looked more like a pimp. Fred just seemed eager to perform the same function for me. Imagine my pleasure when I lived longer than a week.’
The Philharmonic, which performs in various incarnations, has a large time when and wherever it plays. The music, though odd, is equally brilliant in its ability to tackle subjects serious and lighthearted and place them within frameworks that are pop on the inside, abstract on the outside and deliriously entertaining all the time.
‘I can’t say how rewarding this band is for me,’ Travis said. ‘It’s a pity the way that horns have been used in rock ‘n’ roll in the last 30 years. The rock horn arrangement has, for many bands, been the next-to-last gasp of dying creativity. The last step are chick singers.’
Chandler Travis is his own man. ‘We follow no trend, no blueprint. Our use of horns in modern pop is the crown of thorns in a bed of roses, and I’m proud of that.
‘We are not the standard, we are the exception.’
He laughed. ‘In other words, I don’t have a clue.’
– Ed Bumgardner can be reached at 727-7365 or at firstname.lastname@example.org