Chandler Travis Philharmonic
The world is full of acts who get it into their heads they can revive (imitate) some specific past musical genre or other and devote a career to it. They can be pretty good at it, but are also totally unnecessary when the real thing is preserved on record. Rarer, however, are those acts that have assimilated all sorts of musical styles – from rock to ragtime, brass band and klezmer to jump blues, swinging dance music to sensitive songwriting – and know how to mix it all together with energy, humor, unpretentiousness and consummate chops.
They are not imitators; they’re creating something new out of a knowledge of the past and a joy for the present. NRBQ comes immediately to mind (although they’re on hiatus while members pursue individual projects). But another band that belongs in this category is Boston’s Chandler Travis Philharmonic. Travis’ history is actually intertwined with NRBQ’s – Johnny Spampinato was a member of Travis’ Incredible Casuals band before joining his brother Joey in NRBQ. But more than that, the overall sensibility is close.
Blows first and foremost is a showcase for the horn section – at various times ten players are featured, and they add cheerfully exciting color and snazziness to the proceedings. And goofiness – the polite punctuations on “Fruit Bat Fun” sound like a novelty hit. But then the players go off on irresistible, finely attuned solos that flow together like hot lava and the song climbs to a higher level. It’s like Mingus’ Big Band with grounding in rock rhythm (courtesy of drummer Rikki Bates), or Sun Ra’s Arkestra playing with NRBQ.
But as satisfying as the Philharmonic is musically, and as prone as Travis is to let the songs exist primarily to showcase the playing, he is also a fine pop singer-songwriter. His ear for melody, as well as his smarts at combining humor with romanticism and mundane observations with the poetic, place him with Todd Rundgren or Ben Folds. And his voice can have the tender vulnerability of Terry Adams.
While his recent solo album, After She Left, showed that writing talent off, he has saved some poignant tunes for this. “Anne,” with a lovely opening trumpet flourish reminiscent of “For No One,” and about an alluring neighbor, starts with this lovely, novelistic refrain: “When it’s after Judge Judy in the afternoon/And it’s time to walk the dogs/Across the street/Sometimes I see a friendly face.” It tells as much about him – and his life – as her.
The humor of “The Day the Casuals Went to Sweden” is so deadpan – a la Randy Newman – it can be hard to realize how excited Travis is about this travel adventure. That sneaks up on you as the details accumulate and the Dixieland horn arrangement provides momentum.
Travis seems to be so in demand in Massachusetts as a live act (and a musical institution) that he doesn’t get out much beyond that area. Glad to know he has such a supportive base, but it’s a shame for the wider world. The Philharmonic could tear up the summer festival circuit – maybe on a bill with a reunited NRBQ?
DOWNLOAD: “Fruit Bat Fun,” “Anne” STEVEN ROSEN