Curtis Eller, the foremost yodelling Banjo player from the Big Apple made his annual trip across the pond and (as always on the Manchester date) settled in the steadfast setting of the Ruby Lounge to perform to an eager, if not expectant crowd.
Peddling his unique blend of Victorian infused bluegrass, swing and showmanship, the show was part of the tour that is ostensibly for the 2011 remix of his album ‘1890’ (originally released in 2000). As ever he played songs that are familiar and entertaining, with the standard thrusting kicks and bizarre audience participation, such as ‘cooing’ in time to ‘Last Flight of the Pigeon Club’.
This time, however, there were two differences: he had picked up an illness of some description and he was accompanied on stage by a drummer and bassist. His illness had an obvious effect on his voice, and while in parts it gave him a gravelly quality that was as raw with emotion as much as it must have been in his throat, it also caused his delivery to occasionally falter in songs like ‘Save me Joe Louis’. Conversely, it made me admire his showmanship even more, being able to overcome the desire to retire to a dark place and still put on a spectacle that is as much visual as audible.
The addition of the backing band was initially a welcome change, although as someone who has seen Curtis several times previously, it soon jarred with what I like about his encapsulating show. I felt that they only acted to fill out the sound, which not only missed a great opportunity to add an exotic dynamic to his minimalistic music, but detracted from the performance. I have always felt that one of the most exciting elements of his shows has been his ability to whip the audience into a frenzy, only to pull the ground from under their feet and leave them in a stunned silence fixated on him, with no more than his words, his banjo and his moustache.
Despite playing more or less the same set from his previous show, it was enjoyable and fun to watch. For people who were watching him for the first time would have been an excellent introduction to his eccentric display of musical prowess and ability to create instant rapport with the audience. The high lights for me were when he became a storyteller, with tales of “elephants, Buster Keaton and Jesus”, and displayed a character of warmth and depth it almost made you want to follow him on the rest of his tour.
WORDS by Chris Mitchell
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