Going Solo: The Return of the One-man Band

Pop music is getting smaller. Giant amp stacks are no longer the rage, trios and duos are horning in on territory traditionally held by five-man rock bands, and solo artists are outselling combos. The economy probably has something to do with it, as does a preponderance of cheap technology, which makes it easier for one artist to make music that previously might have taken four or five.Whatever the reason, the downsizing of pop is bringing a quirky but venerable musician back to clubs and halls everywhere: the one man-band.

No one will ever know who the first one-man band was, because the figure dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when some anonymous but enterprising troubadour figured out how to play a flute and a snare drum at the same time. If the medieval music scene was at all comparable to today’s, we can assume that whomever invented the one-man band did so because his drummer quit on him two hours before a gig and, too stubborn (or too broke) to call off the show, our troubadour rigged up something janky and took the stage alone, thus facing showbiz’ ever-present uncertainty with ingenuity, humor and a sense of determination so fierce it was, I will assume, a little unsettling.

We can assume this safely because those are the traits shared by every one-man-band who has ever strapped a bass drum to his back and levers by which to beat it to his feet. It takes a unique and committed musician to attempt the one-man-band act. It takes guts and tenacity, and a willingness to be weird.

In the popular imagination, the one-man band looks something like Dick Van Dyke’s Bert, the pseudo-cockney chimneysweep in Disney’s 1964 musical, Mary Poppins. Bert is a goofy jack-of-all trades who sidelines as a street balladeer, playing a band-contraption consisting of a drums, trumpet, harmonica, bicycle horn, concertina and a tambourine which hangs demurely over his crotch. Bert belongs to the busker variation of the one-man band, a tradition that speaks to the genre’s street-corner roots.

Probably the most famous one-man band of the 20th century is also one of the world’s best known buskers — Don Partridge, a London street musician whose compositions cracked the UK pop charts three times in the ’60s. Partridge could easily have set his sights on a more traditional music career, but true to form, he became disgusted by the biz and returned to busking in the ‘70s. He has happily played guitar, drums and harmonica in subway stations and on sidewalks ever since, with occasional forays into the studio.

It’s been said that Partridge is the only one-man band to have ever had a hit single, but that claim is only valid if one considers a strictly traditional version of a one-man band, one which doesn’t include the likes of Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin, who scored a massive #1 hit with his 1988 song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, is an example of another type of one-man band — the solo artist who doesn’t even bother with instruments, using only his voice to mimic a full compliment of musicians. (see McFerrin’s video of “Don’t Worry be Happy”, here)

Today, there are a host of performers using sampling technology and other devices to turn their mouths into bands. Some of them, such as comic artist Reggie Watts, are becoming fairly successful in doing so. Watts, like so many one-man bands before him, served time in traditional bands for years, but was eventually drawn to a solo career, one which this year will produce a DVD from Comedy Central entitled Why Shit so Crazy.

Watts’ comedy is a surrealist mash-up of bizarre character sketches and non-linear jokes. In between, he creates realistic instrument sounds with his voice and then loops them through a sampling guitar pedal, which provides backing tracks for his odd, but often soulful singing. Watts might not be what most people think of when they hear the phrase “one-man band”, but his inventive use of instruments, coupled with his strange and often raunchy comedy elements, puts him squarely in that genre.

“I used to do something like this in high school,” Watts told PopMatters in a recent phone interview. “Just get on the mic and improvise. When I was in bands, it was kind of a gag that I did sometimes, I didn’t really practice it… but the decision within the last six years to really concentrate on it was a mixture of economics and creative intent. It’s got to where it’s impossible to make any kind of money in a band.”

Watts may bill himself as a comedy act, but his music is much more than a novelty. With just a microphone and a guitar pedal, Watts mesmerizes club crowds by creating legitimate jams that veer unpredictably across genres. Evocative sometimes of classic R&B like Curtis Mayfield, Watts’ next number might sound more like Metallica or Wu-Tang. Everything is improvised on the spot, and the results often surprise Watts himself.

“There’s a lot of beat boxers out there who can do three or four things at once, but you can only sustain that for so long, whereas I’ve figured out how to use technology which allows me to do an entire evening of music and have dynamic things happen to all the various parts,” he said “Music can be made in so many different ways and it can be made unconventionally. I would liken myself more to the old time musicians from the country — they might be using washtubs and jugs or these makeshift instruments, but they’re just playing good music.”

So while Watts hasn’t embraced the one-man band label, it’s hard to categorize what he does in any other way. A one-man band is best defined as a solo musician (usually but not necessarily a man) who plays multiple instruments simultaneously. Invariably, the one-man band incorporates comedy and novelty elements and displays a radically individualized aesthetic. Watts certainly qualifies under those criteria, just as Van Dyke’s Bert does, in a Disney kind of way.

Yet an even better example of the modern one-man band might be found in Appalachian wildman Hasil Adkins, who set the gold standard for the outrageous party-time one-man rock band way back in the ’60s. Adkins’ performances were as deliciously lewd and screwy as his songs, most of which dealt with either booze, chicken or sex — sometimes all three at once.

It’s said that Adkins, who grew up in a tarpaper shack in West Virginia, first conceived of his musical style while listening to classic country songs on ’40s radio. Adkins, isolated from any other musicians and unable to see the performers he was listening to, naturally assumed that because he heard more than one instrument in songs like “Hey Good Lookin’,” that Hank Williams must have been playing all those instruments by himself.

Obsessed with the idea as a kid, Adkins managed to get hold of a guitar and assemble his own drum set, rigging it up with pedals so he could keep a beat while he played guitar. In doing so, Adkins accidentally invented the rock subgenre now known as Psychobilly. (The Cramps cover of Adkins’ “She Said” is a prime example.)

Adkins didn’t play out all that much, and he died under suspicious circumstances in 2005, but remnants of his sound live on in current one-man rock acts like Mosquito Bandito, whose bombast and volume descend directly from Adkins’ three-gallons-of-coffee aesthetic. Mosquito Bandito’s sole member, John Larsen, started out as a drummer in Lansing, Michigan.

“I was in this band, we were doing really well, except one guy was a junkie and one guy was a pill freak,” Larsen said after a recent show. “It was horrible. So I started doing this thing where I had all my stuff set up with cinder blocks and I was playing everything, and I realized, ‘Shit, I can do this myself!’”

Larsen is a bonafide rambler, traveling and playing constantly, a lot like the one-man bands that flourished in the ’20s and ‘30s vaudeville circuit (see Abner Jay). When I talked to Larsen outside a tiny club in Chico, California, he was headed home to Portland after a four-month tour, which he booked himself and completed in a small car. In a traditional band, a DIY tour of that length would be a ludicrous endeavor, but with just one adventurous member and a low overhead, Mosquito Bandito makes it work.

“I can tour as much as I want,” Larsen said. “I remember my first trip. It was fourth of July weekend 2006, and I was all by myself, and just drove. It was like a five-city thing in the Midwest, and it was great. I thought, fuck, I’m gonna do this forever! And I went back and quit my job and started doing it.”

Maybe it’s the crappy economy, or just an extension of the long-term trend in popular music toward smaller and smaller ensembles, but it sure seems like there are a lot of Mosquito Banditos out there lately. There are no statistics to back up that observation, but some evidence can be found in the fact that Mosquito Bandito regularly plays shows with lineups constructed entirely of one-man bands.

“I’ve played a handful of one-man band shows — there’s no shortage of them out there.” Larsen said. “There’s just a lot of weirdos out there searching, which is a lot of fun. But the one-man band circuit is ridiculous. Nobody’s going to go to a show with five one man bands–for the most part, people are like, ‘Oh good, now I know what I’m not going to do tonight.’”

Larsen’s just being coy — there were plenty of people at his show that night, and why wouldn’t there be? For a measly $4, you could dance, laugh and wonder at the weird spectacle of seeing one solitary musician taking on the workload of three or four.

Editor’s notes: Even Bonsai trees are getting into the business. Check out Diego Stucco’s one man Bonsai tree band video, here.

Theresa Andersson brings the art of the One Man Band to a higher level. See what she does with the gospel classic, “Oh Mary”, on this Mixed Media post.

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