By definition, traditional music is conservative, holding tight to centuries-old tenets to give antiquated forms continued life. But form, technique and styles are different from ideology, even though modern purveyors of age-old sounds are infamous for turning their obsession into completely stoic scenarios. If one believed four-fifths of old-time musicians, pre-pop America was a land of adultery, penury, pestilence and Sunday morning purity.
But, hard times notwithstanding, early American music could be ribald and raucous, built on humor, puns and knowing winks aggrandized by oral tradition. Now, more often than not, bluegrass bands playing a song that hints at fun must play it off as the shtick portion of their repertoire, as if meeting troubles with guffaws is somehow unhealthy.
Fortunately, a new matrix of string-toting bands, including The Avett Brothers, Chatham County Line and Old Crow Medicine Show, ignore that aspersion, playing what amounts to post-pretension traditional music capable of emotional range. Take spirit: They now have help from northern allies.
Long Island's The Two Gentlemen Band pushes the comical curtain wide open, searching for at least a grin on each of Great Calamities' 13 tracks. Sex is compared to a sandwich ("Your skin is brown/ Your lips are sweet/ I've always said you're good enough to eat"), and a woman's departure is likened to Southern secession ("It's like I'm hunkering down in Fort Sumter, and, honey, you're shooting cannonballs at my heart.") Even songs about unnatural disasters like the Hindenberg explosion--full of burning men and crying kids--come spry enough to sound like two men shaking off sadness with musical smiles.
Importantly, it never feels as though gents Andy Bean (banjo, lead kazoo, vocals) and Fuller Condon (double bass, tenor kazoo, vocals) are laughing anything off or trivializing it: "Prime Numbers," the funniest song on Calamities, tells the tale of a male suitor who takes the measurements of his lovers while they sleep. If their numbers are robust composites like 36, he knows he's in for a rocky ride through adultery, having to share her with men numbered two and nine.
In head, it springs from the same adultery, untrustworthy lust and fear of cheating hearts that spawned "Long Black Veil" and "Omie Lee." In spirit, though, it sports the same all-weather grin that makes perseverance--the oft-unspoken dogma of the best traditional tunes--possible.
The Two Gentlemen Band play Aug. 17 at The Cave at 7:30 p.m.