Baby Gramps

We made the drive out to Ft Worth on Saturday night to see The Gourds play The Aardvark (and to have a great dinner with our friends). When we got to the club we found out the slated opening band wasn’t playing. Instead of Malt Country, the show would be opened by none other than Seattle’s freakiest bluesman, Baby Gramps, in his first ever Texas performance.

I’d actually heard Baby Gramps before; he does a great cover of “Sunny Afternoon” on a Kinks tribute CD called Give the People What They Want. But I had no idea…

Before the show started our friends were searching the club for him. I asked if they knew what he looked like and they said he’s supposed to be an old hippie. I told them this was a Gourds show- so that would pretty much describe the entire audience. Then I saw the strangest looking guy in the club, Hell- the strangest looking guy in the city- climb up on the stage. Dressed in a striped suit coat and a hat, he made the rest of us old hippies in the audience look pretty mundane by comparison.

He took a seat on the stage with a 1930s era National steel resonator, looking every bit as old as the guitar, introduced himself and started to play.

That’s the part that’s hard to describe- the playing. I’ve been told that an old National has a difficult to play fret board but you wouldn’t know it by watching Baby Gramps. He twitched and jerked as he plucked and strummed like he was actually possessed by the ghosts of a legion of delta bluesmen on acid. Then he started to sing.

His voice is easier to describe, just think of a cross between Tuvan throat singing and the sound a didgeridoo makes.

Yet unlike throat singers and didgeridoos, which usually just make tones- strange, prolonged, guttural tones, Baby Gramps actually sings words. Let’s just say it sounds like it probably hurts to do that. And it’s a little scary to watch, as well.

Of course I mean that in a good way.

Along with the spastic playing (or “stunt guitar” as he calls it) Gramps has a kind of intense look while he performs. Underneath his fedora, his eyes fix on nothing but the center of the room and stare out hard from behind a pair of wire rim glasses and a wild silver cloud of a beard. He definitely gets your attention.

His choice of material runs to the traditional and the profane. He played a nineteenth century seafaring ballad- from another recent compilation of pirate songs called Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys. He played what sounded like an original composition called “Scrotum.” He had a little catchphrase of sorts that he shouted out a couple times: “Fuckle-doodle-doo!” He twirled his resonator and at one point, when he seemed to get really inspired, he got up and danced.

In short, he was fascinating to watch, surprisingly entertaining to listen to and just about the perfect opening act for the Gourds- given their propensity for the more eccentric elements of Americana.

It would seem like overkill to review another Gourds show on this page, so I’ll just say that as always, they made the drive west more than worthwhile. The crowd was a little light for a Saturday night but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in enthusiasm. The band’s set list was drawn from their entire catalog with only 3 songs from their latest release and most of the crowd was up dancing and singing along with every word. “Dollar Bill” Johnson was there and he joined them pretty early in the set for “Smoke Bend.” Usually, you only get that when they play Dallas.

But even while they cranked out one old favorite after another, I just couldn’t help but watch Baby Gramps over on the side of the audience dancing that strange dance while they played.

It wasn’t a show I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

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