Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mammals sing to their young

When a pair of fans wearing Macy's-parade-style inflatable costumes bounced along in front of the Live Oak stage just as festival emcee Joe Craven was introducing The Mammals, Craven asked the band if they would qualify as mammals.

Mammals vocalist Ruth Ungar laid out some of the qualifications of the class: Do they sweat? Do they sing to their young? But Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, grandson of Pete Seeger and a member of the band, noticed that the costumes seemed to depict characters wearing pants but no shirts, and he settled the question: "They have nipples."

[Photo: The Mammals' Tao Rodriguez-Seeger channels his granddad.]

With that, the band ripped into it's first-ever California festival performance, a 90-minute Sunday night set that delighted the audience of Central Coast roots music fans.

I've been writing a lot about the so-called "new-generation" string bands, a class in which The Mammals are a charter member. But though I have caught bits and pieces of their act at Merlefest 2006 and Wintergrass 2007, I always seemed to be distracted when they were performing. At Live Oak, I finally got a chance to pay close attention.

Like another of the new generation bands, Crooked Still, The Mammals mine the catalog of traditional American folk songs--but with a hopped-up energy and improvisational attack that makes the material new and exciting. In this set, we heard versions of "John Henry" and "Worried Man Blues" along with a square-dance reel and several old-timey instrumentals.

Besides Rodriguez-Seeger on banjo and guitar, the band includes Ruth Ungar, also the offspring of folk music pros, on fiddle, and Mike Merenda on guitar and banjo, as well as an electric bass and drums. The three front-liners all sing, with Ungar as the primary vocalist.

Besides the old-timey stuff, the band plays some modern material and its own songs, many written by Merenda. One of the highlights was what Ungar called "the best motorcycle song ever" (sorry, Arlo), Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Another was their original "Kiss the Break of Day," about an all-night jam with another new-generation band, The Duhks. (Apparently, The Mammals and Duhks sometimes perform together under the combined name Platypus.)

They also did a nice cover of The Biscuit Burners' "Red Mountain Wine" and Merenda contributed a Dylanesque original (at least the lyrics were original) involving a snowboarder and didgeridoo.

Overall, it was a very satisfying performance that only whetted my appetite. I expect to see much more of The Mammals down the festival trail.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They sound like a good choice for Strawberry!