Playing With Themselves | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

September 26, 2002 Music | Post No Bills

Playing With Themselves 

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Listening to the radio in rural Madison, West Virginia, in the late 40s, an eight-year-old Hasil Adkins heard the DJ credit some songs to Hank Williams and assumed the country great had played all the instruments. He tried to replicate those sounds with an old water bucket and other household objects, progressing to toy guitars and kazoos. By the time Adkins got his first real guitar in the mid-50s, he'd learned that Hank hadn't done it all himself, but he couldn't find any reliable coconspirators. So he jury-rigged a drum kit that allowed him to play rhythms with foot pedals as his hands flailed away at raw rockabilly licks and he sang about the WPA and eating candy on the moon in a demented hiccup. In 1981 the Cramps covered Adkins's "She Said," and the previously obscure rocker became America's most influential one-man band.

This week a phalanx of single-headed groups, many influenced by Adkins's innovations, marches into Chicago for the Uno-a-Go-Go one-man-band festival. Organized by Jake Austen--the underground pop culture maven behind the public access dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, masked garage band the Goblins, and the obsessive music zine Roctober--and Fireside Bowl booker Brian Peterson, the six-day extravaganza features performances by more than 50 acts as well as a full day of movies and videos. Austen and Peterson had been discussing such an undertaking for the last few years, but didn't get down to business until six months ago. The event coincides with Roctober's tenth-anniversary issue, a "One Man Band Encyclopedia," featuring more than 1,000 entries, from Abandoned Pools to Buh Zombie.

"I totally remember watching guys on the street--more traditional one-man bands--and being fascinated by them when I was a little kid," says Austen. "I really like 'show.' I like anyone who is perpetuating a spectacle." As he writes in the new Roctober, the earliest one-man bands were musical freak shows, buskers doing whatever it took to reel in an audience. To honor this tradition, Austen booked the well-known Chicago street performer Tampico, an Argentine woman who plays a hybrid guitar-violin in downtown el stations while tap-dancing and whistling.

Austen's definition of a one-man band is broad ("It has to be just one person and it has to be vaguely musical"), but he discounts the conventional guitar-toting singer-songwriter. "That seems like the antithesis of what makes a one-man band special--there's nothing to look at. As a rule, a one-man band will have something remarkable and captivating about it." For Austen, "one-man band" can refer to anything from the art-damaged country karaoke of LA's Honkitonkioke to the electronics-and-trumpet abstractions of Ernst Karel to the human beatboxes who'll compete in a contest held Wednesday, October 2. (For a full listing of Uno-a-Go-Go events, please see sidebar.)

Austen isn't the only culture broker with one-man bands on his mind. Toronto filmmakers Derek and Heather Emerson spent three years completing their one-man-band documentary, Let Me Be Your Band, which premieres at the festival, screening for free at the Chicago Cultural Center on Thursday, October 3, at 6 PM. "As you start talking to one-man bands or people who know about them, everyone has a story about another one that you haven't heard of," Derek says. "It never stops, which is one of the reasons it took us so long [to make the movie]." A 1998 performance by Chicago's Lonesome Organist (aka Jeremy Jacobsen) gave the Emersons the idea for the documentary. "When he did a song with field drum and tap dancing, that pretty much sealed it," says Derek.

Like the festival, the Emersons' 74-minute video showcases the variety of one-man bands. Wild man Bob Log III plays raucous blues-punk guitar while wearing a motorcycle helmet fitted with an old telephone that functions as a vocal mike. Boston's Eric Royer is an accomplished bluegrass picker whose hands alternate between banjo and dobro while his feet lay down bass lines on a custom-built contraption: his left foot controls various fretting bars while his right triggers a pick. And Canada's charismatic Washboard Hank is a street performer who strikes the bells and other hunks of metal that cover his body while he strums a guitar or banjo and toots a kazoo.

As the documentary shows, necessity drove most of these performers to go it alone. "Definitely, absolutely, 100 percent, I did it because I couldn't find anyone to play with," says Jacobsen, who sings and alternates between keyboards and guitar while playing drums with his feet and, sometimes, one hand. He was living in New York when he developed his Lonesome Organist identity, then moved to Chicago in 1996 to play with the instrumental rock band Five Style. But his solo stuff really got him noticed; within a year he'd released an acclaimed Thrill Jockey album and begun touring as a one-man band. (The Lonesome Organist performs Saturday, October 5, at the Abbey Pub.)

Not all one-man bands are technically accomplished musicians like Jacobsen. David Boyden (aka Earwig Spectre) is an untutored exhibitionist who bashes keyboards frenetically as he howls about insects. "I didn't set out to be a one-man band, and I'm still open to further collaborations, but I guess it just kind of happened," he says. "Now that I've been doing it, I enjoy the freedom. If I want some slowed-down satanic cackling, I just throw it in." (Earwig Spectre will participate in a battle of the one-man bands, which starts at 5 PM on Saturday, October 5, at the Abbey Pub.)

Boyden's rants make him as much outsider artist as one-man band. But Austen blurs such distinctions--Roctober's encyclopedia draws heavily on Irwin Chusid's study of outsider musicians, Songs in the Key of Z. Coincidentally, Chusid will appear at the Intuit gallery on Thursday, October 10, at 7 PM, introducing outsider music videos to kick off the "Intuitive Music Series." For anyone whose appetite is merely whetted by Uno-a-Go-Go, the Intuit series will also feature even more one-man bands, including Tampico and Thoth, the New York street musician profiled in the Academy Award-winning documentary bearing his name. For a complete schedule of "Intuitive Music Series" events, go to www.outsiderart.org.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Derek Emerson.

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