Ypsilanti's Black Jake & the Carnies' new CD offers more murder, mayhem
On their second full-length recording, the band’s fascination with the darker side continues, with a collection of cautionary tales about poisonous prosperity, diabolical pied pipers, mass hysteria and even an evil chicken.
An evil chicken? The song is based on an experience with some real-life poultry, recalled “Black Jake” Zettelmaier.
“When I was growing up (in West Michigan, near Paw Paw) we had a bunch of chickens, and the dogs killed all of them except for one, for some reason. She wandered around and had free rein and none of the dogs would mess with her. I figured she must have hypnotized the dogs.”
Of course, the song has meaning beyond the mere facts of the matter.
“It’s about how demagogues play on people’s fears and passions, and set people against each other,” Zettelmaier explained. The CD’s first single, “Farmer Had Him Rats,” is available for free download on the band’s Web site, www.blackjakeandthecarnies.com. The song tells the story of a farmer’s battle with an army of the furry critters, luring the rats to their death by giving them what they want—but with a smidge of poison mixed into his secret recipe.Overall, “the new CD has more slow songs, but it’s still got some uptempo songs. I think overall it’s a little more manic than the first CD,” Zettelmaier said.
He admitted that darker themes continue to run through the band’s new songs.
“That’s just kind of how I am,” he said. “Most of the songs come from me having a hard time dealing with reality and trying to express it in a way that is positive rather than negative. You make kind of fun music to dance to, you put the dark lyrics in there, and nobody even knows.”
The name of the CD, “Sundry Mayhems,” comes from an old “Wanted” poster Zettelmaier once saw. “Someone was wanted for murder, and this and that, and ‘sundry mayhems.’ It was some old-timey phrase I thought was pretty cool. I was kind of playing on a theme of having a bigger variety of sounds on this CD than we had for the first CD, so that’s where the sundry came from, and mayhem because it is a manic kind of album, broken glass (sounds) here and there, and stomping.
As strong as the band sounds on CD, it is at it’s most charismatic during live shows, especially when Black Jake cranks up his banjo (complete with flashing, colored lights on the body), and the bells, whistles, kazoos, hoots and hollers mix in. When old favorites, such as “Jasper Watkins” or “No Diamond Ring,” or new tunes, like “My Evil Friend” and “Smoke and Mirrors, ” really take off, it sounds like the wheels are about to fly off the rails.
Zettelmaier said he can’t recall who first coined the “crabgrass” moniker, with it’s obvious reference to bluegrass, although he said it evolved from another farmyard term, “s grass.” Crabgrass, he observed, is a perfect description of the band. “It’s fitting in attitude, and the annoying stickiness of it. It’s bolder and it’s going to crowd out lesser grasses. It’s not very well manicured,” he said.
Even Europe has caught on to the Carnies’ brand of craziness. A recent tour included stops in Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium.
“(The shows) went over really well,” said Zettelmaier. “They told us Belgians don’t dance, they just stand there and look at you and clap politely (but) only at one of our shows did they do that. The rest they all got up and danced. We did a prison show (in Belgium), and we got the prisoners to get out of their seats and dance, and they assured us that has never happened before.”
For the Woodruff’s gig, the Carnie crew will be joined by friends Andru Bemis (modern folk from South Haven, Mich.) and Scotch Bonnet (Chelsea-based glam-rock foursome fronted by Scotty Karate). In addition to the usual high energy / carnival atmosphere, Zettlemaier said the release party will feature interactive carnie games and guest musicians, and Black Jake’s original artwork from each of the songs will be on display (each song features a painting and lyrics in a 24-page songbook insert).
The CD was recorded by Joe Allsop at Pretty Suite Recording, mixed by Geoff Michael at Big Sky. It features a handful of guest musicians, including Ann Arbor folk singer Brian Lillie, singer-multi-instrumentalist Merrill Hodnefield and the horn players from Hullabaloo and Back Forty. Following the record release, the Carnies will be appearing at a number of festivals this summer including the Wayfarer Roots and Bluegrass Festival in Detroit (June 25), Michigan Roots Jamboree (Aug. 5 in Ypsilanti) and the Wheatland Festival in northern Michigan (Sept. 9-11).