Rube Waddell: Hobo Train: Deluxe CD

Rube Waddell
Hobo Train: Deluxe CD

Rube Waddell
Bound for the Gates of Hell
US release date: 14 November 2001

by Mark Desrosiers
PopMatters Features Editor

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He pretended to be a store-window mannequin. He rescued women from fires. He wrestled alligators. He was also Connie Mack’s prize pitcher. Often escorted by Pinkerton guards to keep him from running away, legendary eccentric Rube Waddell was the Philadelphia Athletics left-handed strikeout king from 1902 through 1905. Well, I suppose it’s inevitable that a wild-eyed fin de sihcle street-corner band would name themselves after this Baseball Hall-of-Famer. Mixing raucous folk-Americana with arty-farty eclecticism, Rube Waddell are a fun, strange bunch. Their latest scrap heap, Bound for the Gates of Hell, will rub your face in loose-limbed tuba-inflected grunge like you’ve never heard before.

Rube Waddell were famous first for their “Live at Leeds” gigs. Marching up the street with their instruments (dime-store mandolins, a two-string bass, tubas, tin whistles, spoons, pots, pans) piled in squeaky shopping carts, they parked themselves at the corner of 22nd and Mission (site of the old Leed’s Shoe Store), and started playing. These shows were loud, funny, and punctuated with rants about their namesake. The people loved ’em. Of course, as with most bands who build their rep on live gigs (not to mention street-corner daytime live gigs), translating the magic to compact disc is almost impossible. So Bound for the Gates of Hell settles for a distorted lo-fi folksy clatter, heavily larded with genre-jumping excursions into Javanese dangdut and Irish reels. In other words: acoustic grunge. Is it authentic? Of course not. Is it fun? You bet.

This ramshackle disc is perfect for the random-play button, that way the ace highlights will pop up in new patterns every time. The opener, “I’ve a Lovely Piece of Crumpet in My Pocket” (“Don’t you want it / You can have it / Come and get it”), is some sort of Irish jig with penny whistle, tuba, and Jew’s harp. (The singer adopts the phoniest Irish accent you will ever hear, too.) The hilarious “Ballad of Little Billy Barnes” is a breathless tale about some antisocial nutcase. Dig the hyperventilating harmonica and the shouted time-signature shift! Stoic listeners will enjoy “Born to Suffer”, which bellows the title refrain about a million times while an actual electric guitar (!) churns up some new-style racket. The mandolin-driven “Skippy Said” skips the usual bellowing and growling vox to fashion a gentle tune that evokes both Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Jonathan Richman’s “Astral Plane” while hooking us with the theme, “I’d rather be crazy than dumb”.

My own two favorite tunes are two of their best genre exercises. Their fake theme to the TV series “Mannix” is a hoot. Complete with wah-wah guitar learned from Isaac Hayes and grumbling bass learned from Curtis Mayfield, they really do evoke something. Not Mannix, of course. But something, even though the Mannix sound samples (“you gonna get outta my way, or do I walk right through ya?”) try real hard to echo the source. The mewling harmonica sounds more like the theme to Roseanne, and the melodic hook is straight out of Sanford and Son. And the fake-preacher call-and-response (“Mannix is the man!”) takes the tune into a whole new plane. I love it. Similarly, fans of Javanese dangdut will not recognize “Assoi”, supposedly a dangdut melody with English lyrics (“Baby let me walk your dog / Baby let me fetch your log”). It’s really just a beautiful, funny take-me-back love song, fast and plaintive. Great stuff.

Supposedly there is a “theme” to this disc, something about hell and evil. Although these guys are probably better experts on the subject than Rammstein, I doubt that they’ll be admitted at the gates of hell. They’re too nice. The album’s only drawback is the singing. Too often the growling and bellowing sounds more like a comedy album, as if we’re hearing John Goodman parodying the blues or Tenacious D. doing the talk-show circuit. Of course, some of the songs really are funny, but I don’t think this is supposed to be a comedy album. All that talk about Satan and suffering just doesn’t seem so spooky when channeled through the jocular pipes of lead singer Reverend Wupass. Still, fans of Mojo Nixon and Tom Waits will eat it up.

Those who are hankering for more of that Rube Waddell magic are in luck. Their 1996 debut one-sided twelve-inch Hobo Train has just been reissued seven bonus tracks. On this wonderful disc, you get something a little closer to their street-corner origins, a noisier junkyard stew that actually becomes scary at times. Throughout it all they honor their namesake with songs that sound like alligator-rasslin’ (“Rube Yelp”), store-window mannequins (“Boogie Woogie Polka”), and fire-rescue heroics (“Six Feet Down”). “Metal Circus” is genuinely frightening: a nightmare tablas ‘n’ bass soundscape with a screeching banshee chasing us away. “Go to Satan” is an easily disobeyed command, and the Tom Waits imitation is pretty obvious. Finally, the stinky Latin inflections of “Mierda Heda” are quite a lot of fun, but you can’t dance to it.

The bonus tracks are a mixed bag of five live tunes (yay!) and two Hobo Train outtakes. The outtakes — “Going to the Mountain” and “Brass Menagerie” — are both terrific. “Mountain” is a blur of squalling harmonicas and droll vocals, while “Menagerie” is a strange world of disgusting burps, screams, and animal sounds, ending in a fake-opera. Definitely stick around for the live tracks (“Recorded live on the SS Slubnitz, Rostock, DE”): they are a blast. “Vienna Waltz” is just that: a waltz with vocals that sound like Bela Lugosi. The mandolin-and-bugle cover of “Mack the Knife” sounds more like the Mexican Revolution than Weimar Agitprop (not to mention Bobby Darin). “Eunice Irene” and “Hobo Train” are engaging down-and-out tales of immigrant widows and shivering hoboes eating on the rails. And “Westward Rider” actually rocks! Song remains the same, dude.

On the whole, Hobo Train Deluxe CD and Bound for the Gates of Hell are great snarling treks through the grungy underbelly of Americana. Sure, they appropriate all sorts of idealized dirty hooks and sounds, and sometimes the folksy demonology seems a tad contrived. But if you’re hankering for fat possums and bone machines, yearning for that phony Alan-Lomax street funk, then definitely give these crazed street urchins a listen.