By Dave Howell, Special to The Morning Call
7:43 p.m. EDT, August 4, 2012
“Badly dressed men having way too much fun” is how Chandler Travis describes his Chandler Travis Philharmonic. “It’s a disaster. Look away! Look away!”
Actually, it is not as bad as all that.
“We are as silly as can be, but the level of musicianship is high,” says Travis, in a statement closer to the truth. He is a singer-songwriter who loves ballads as well as songs that display his quirky sense of humor.
The Philharmonic backs him up with a full band that includes a three-piece horn section, specializing in a Dixieland/New Orleans sound with some 1930s-style swing. However, the music might not be the first thing that you notice if you see the group Sunday, Aug. 5 at Musikfest‘s Liederplatz.
“We lean toward smoking jackets and pajama pants, which are very comfortable,” says Travis, whose group performed in 2009 at Musikfest’s Liederplatz and has played at Bethlehem’s Godfrey Daniels. You can also expect to see the musicians wearing a variety of elaborate hats that do not necessarily match their multi-colored and patterned outfits. After a bit, your attention may be drawn to the musicianship of cross dressing drummer Rikki Bates.
The group does not have a set repertoire. “I usually don’t make out a set list. I like to improvise,” says Travis. “That’s when fun things happen. After all, you play differently on a rainy day than a sunny day, and a cold one than a warm one. We have about 200 songs we can draw from, most of them original. I love writing new stuff, and I get bored really quick. I like surprises, whatever is unexpected.”
There will be a few sensitive and reflective songs in Travis’ Musikfest show, but it will take a while to discover them.
The first thing that you miight notice is the band’s propulsive rhythm, with three horns, keyboards, Travis’ acoustic guitar, accordion, bass, drums, and singing valet Fred Boak. Boak, one of the few singing valets, started out as a fan and sold merchandise before he attained his present position.
“The horns came about by mistake. I don’t know how that happened,” says Travis. He got the chance to play with horns on a gig at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass., in 1996, and then adopted them to his sound.
“I never had an interest in them. I come from a rock background. Rock bands always used them the same way, like with Stax Soul or James Brown recordings, with tight arrangements. It’s odd that back then that people didn’t get more reckless and branch out a little bit more. There is more than one thing to do with horns. Travis says he prefers “anarchy and going wild without a lot of structure.”
The title of group’s latest CD has the double meaning, “Chandler Travis Philharmonic Blows.” The CD sleeve is a tribute to a James Brown album, and emulates the original as close as possible. The CD is subtitled “It’s Chan’s Chan’s Chan’s World,” and features a photo of Chandler on the back cover that is suitable for framing.
The CD has 12 originals that include “Taoist Vacation with Mashenka” and “Fruit Bat Fun.” The former is a lounge ballad, while the latter is a horn workout that has lyrics consisting of two words, “fruit” and “bat.” “Mid-Morning in Moscow” is an instrumental tribute to Benny Goodman‘s “Midnight in Moscow,” while “The Day the Casuals Went to Sweden” is a true life story of the travel problems one of Travis’ bands had in Europe. The latter song also refers to The Incredible Casuals, a pop/rock group Travis helped to begin in the early ’80s that still does occasional gigs.
There are so many different influences in Travis’ music it has been called “omnipop.” “I listened to all kinds of stuff, which gave me the freedom to play a lot of things really badly.” Travis was a record collector, which brought a friendship with Terry Adams of NRBQ, another band with omnivorous tastes. And with George Carlin.
Travis and his partner Steve Shook were the designated opening act for the late comic for 10 years, as Travis Shook and Club Wow. “Carlin was a deep guy, really wonderful. No one treated me as well as George did.”
The Philharmonic has put out a number of releases, even putting out 22 within a one year period called the “Radioball” series. “I still can’t believe we did it. We wanted to put out an album every two weeks as a special for the millennium, and we missed a few weeks. It was a disaster promotionally. It confounded the critics, and because we did so many they thought ‘How could they be any good?’ But some of them are pretty good.”
Travis tours with a number of different bands. The Chandler Travis Philharmonette is a pared down version of the Philharmonic. The Catbirds and the Incredible Casuals are rock bands. The Chandler Travis Three-O is a smaller and quieter but equally perverse group.
You can be assured that the Chandler Travis Philharmonic is fun for all ages.
“I love doing family stuff. We get audiences from four to 84,” says Travis. “The kids love the crazy stuff and costumes onstage, and the adults — well, you will have to come and see for yourself.”
CHANDLER TRAVIS PHILHARMONIC
•When: 9-11 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5
•Where: Musikfest’s Liederplatz, downtown Bethlehem
•How much: Free
•Info: http://www.musikfest.org; 610-332-1300
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