I know what kind of night it’s going to be when I run into Alan Scalpone, lead singer for the Bitter Tears, in the line for the bathroom before the show. He’s wearing a satin wedding gown hiked up over a pair of blue jeans, and his face bares traces of white-face make-up. “Are they both taken?” he asks, making a final adjustment to his costume—appropriate for either the men’s or the women’s room—as the sound of trombones filters in from the green room.
Thanks to this encounter, I’m more or less ready when Scalpone wanders on stage clutching a thrift-store acoustic guitar that appears to have been whitewashed, and begins singing plaintively in high falsetto. The other four members join him casually: the string bass player’s hair done up in a Peebles coif; the trombone/slide whistler sporting a Chicago Bulls singlet and not-quite-zipped cut-offs; the keyboardist costumed as Sherlock Holmes in deerskin cap and pipe; and the drummer glittery in gold lamé.
The band’s first song, “Grieving,” sets a manic tone: ringing at first with sentiment and heart-ache, it builds quickly with big, brassy change-ups. There’s a moment in the song where the trombone player sets down his horn and takes up two slide whistles, playing them simultaneously in ghostly counterpoint. It’s beautiful. It’s a little mad. It’s the Bitter Tears going all out in a small-town club where, chances are, no one will understand.
The band’s sound is all over the map, with damaged country laments leading directly into Dixieland stomps, roadhouse blues tromping on a maniacal Western two-step. You could draw the usual comparisons—Waits, Reid Paley, and Man Man spring to mind—but such a reductive approach misses what’s unique about the band… which is pretty much everything they do. For example, there’s a song that, according the front man, is “about impregnating fruit” that contains the repeated, nearly hysterical line, “Was it you who got my vanilla bean pregnant?” During the piece, the singer takes it into his head to climb the stairs in the back of the club, holding his long wedding skirt knee-high as he flounces up the step. All the way up, he continues to sing, and the band continue to vamp, but the audience seems to lose the thread. “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! I’m up here,” he belts from on high—it could be part of the song, or a special performance thought up on the spot.
The Bitter Tears stage show is freakish in a way that’s fun to write about, but it wouldn’t work if the band’s members weren’t such skilled musicians. They remind me of Bobby Conn, in a way—the insane theatricality layered onto real musical prowess. The finale, “Murdered at the Bar,” finds a vein of raunchy, old-jazz groove, like a return trip from a New Orleans cemetery, except, on this ride, the corpse is singing. The Bitter Tears have put together a fantastic, over-the-top live show that’s as carefully staged as Kabuki theater but still manages to feel loose and funny. It is much better than the downloads I’ll find the next day at the band’s website (www.thebittertears.com), but this only means that they are improving so fast that they haven’t had time to record.
You might think that Califone—seasoned elder statesmen, serious students of ethnic music, jazz, and blues—would raise the tone at the set break, but it’s simply not that kind of evening. Tim Rutili squints out at the stage, and, almost immediately, things take an absurdist tone. He begins by apologizing for some sort of “negative” remark he made the last time he played the Iron Horse, something, it sounds like, to do with the food. He vows to be more positive this time. You don’t really know whether he’s serious at first, and it’s safe to say that a few members of the audience may never quite catch on to the sarcasm. And yet, from here on in, every time the music stops, Rutili finds something ridiculous to be positive about… from hitting small animals in his car (“And they look at me like, hey, I’m done. It’s okay.”), to masturbating with cuts of meat (he stops dead in the middle of a monologue about a kid who does this to grin delightedly and say, “Did you know girls masturbate, too?”).
At one point, he veers dangerously towards negativity, observing that Northampton is full of “fucking hippies” (true enough, by the way), but then amends himself, “which I love.” These observations become ever wilder and more improbable as the evening goes on. (I don’t really think that Rutili’s car has one, let alone two, “Mean People Suck” bumper stickers, as he claims.)
In between short positivist tirades, Califone plays its unique brand of percussion-laced, blues- and country-influenced folk tunes—always just a little smarter and more self-aware than it seems on the surface. Rutili is touring with an unusually full band: Joe Adamik, the kit drummer, is locked in communion with the alternate percussion sounds of Ben Masserella, who has brought a drawer full of instruments that includes Tibetan chimes, wooden xylophones, shakers, bells, brushes, and cymbals. On Rutili’s right, Jim Becker switches between fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and Rutili himself plays keyboards, guitar, and synthesizer. As if that weren’t enough, three of the Bitter Tears join in on about half the songs, scrubbed of make-up, conventionally dressed, and bearing a trumpet and two trombones. Califone uses the added brass in a variety of ways, sometimes approaching a free-jazz-ish fever pitch, and at other points slipping good-time flourishes into more predictable, pop-structured compositions.
As a result, even the most familiar songs from Califone’s wonderful Roots & Crowns sound denser, more rock, and hardly recognizable. “The Orchids” has ditched its folk purity for a faster, more driving beat; it’s a third over before I recognize it. “Our Kitten Sees Ghosts” sneaks up on me, too, luminous but utterly different from what I expect. And “Pink and Sour,” which closes out the set, is pure sensory overload—the two drummers lock like gears around its clattering beat, the brass swooping in for dizzy accents, Rutili and Becker’s voices keening in dream-like soul falsetto.
It is all so very good, so hard to pull off, and so adventurous that you’d excuse the men of Califone for taking themselves a little too seriously. But you don’t have to. When it ends, Rutili takes the mic again and grins lopsidedly, still relentlessly, unconvincingly positive. “Thank you,” he says in a passable imitation of Las Vegas smarminess. “I hope you all felt the love tonight… because you are… loved.”