Of the art world’s many and varied mediums, music stands on its own as a giant whose footfalls shake the very Earth itself. If we are so inclined, we can trace this giant’s colossal tracks back through the pages of humanity’s recent history. That timeline would show us that the genius composers of classical music are long since dusty in their satin-lined coffins. It would show us that the great jazz masters and bluesmen have had their day. And it would also show us that early country has run its rustic course, just as folk has. That is not to suggest in any way that these styles of music no longer exist; they simply exist today as expansions and variations of that which preceded them, occasionally better, more often than not worse, sometimes equal to, but almost always under the same categorical banners.
It was what came next that really shook things up, though.
And what came next was rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock ‘n’ roll smashed onto the scene like a Molotov cocktail through a storefront window during a riot…and I think those who witnessed its birth knew that the world would never be the same again. They were right, too; the world hasn’t been the same since. That fire is still burning today. Of course it has dimmed somewhat here and there, nearly going out altogether once or twice. But just as the last cinder was about to go cold and dark forever, an incendiary band or singer/songwriter would come along and reignite it …from a slight sizzle to a few sparks to a blazing inferno of sound. Some of those notable presences were Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Charlie Feathers, Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Link Wray, and so on.
Throughout the years, each great artist has represented his era as a example of rock ‘n’ roll evolution up to that point. Each passing year has seen rock ‘n’ roll become a broader style of musical expression, a more diverse and open-minded art form. And although I have missed a lot of incredible bands and singer/songwriters on account of being born too late, the flame of rock ‘n’ roll is still burning in numerous ways, and I have had both the opportunity and pleasure of experiencing many modern artists that may quite possibly one day find their way into the pages of history…if nowhere else but in the underground chronicles.
Of all the musical phenomena I have observed and researched over the years, I have found none as impressive and interesting as the One-Man Band Movement. Let’s be honest, one-man bands are not a new addition to the music world. But this, right now, our time, is the time of the one-man band. You see, though the earliest mention of the one-man band goes back all the way to the pipe and tabor players of the 13th Century, I am confessedly better versed in the modern incarnation of the practice. And when I say the modern incarnation of the practice, I mean beginning with one-man bands such as the late, great Hasil Adkins, who successfully combined Appalachian folk, African-American blues, and rockabilly to create a signature sound all his own. There was also Abner Jay, of whose life and music I am also knowledgeable — a Georgian one-man band, who paid his dues by working in medicine shows and traveling minstrel outfits, eventually going solo and driving around the South in a modified mobile home complete with a portable fold-out stage, amplification, living space and furnishings. More recently, I have spent my time with the songs of several of today’s one-man bands.
Today’s one-man bands I am referring to are artists such as, say, Reverend Beat-Man, who simultaneously plays guitar, drums, and sings, creating a sound that can only be described as primitive rock ‘n’ roll and blues trash. Pete Yorko is another example of today’s worthwhile one-man bands, with his bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and punk sound. Then we have Bloodshot Bill, with his half clear channel guitar sound and hiccupy vocals that harken back to a more innocent era of rock ‘n’ roll. Al Foul plays a more acoustic-sounding version of the one-man band standard, serving up a nice combo of old school rock ‘n’ roll and Western neo-folk. One of the most amazing one-man bands I have come across in the past year is Phillip Roebuck, who, with a high degree of skill and vision, plays bottleneck slide on a five-string banjo, with a bass drum rig that, slung over his shoulders like an oversized rucksack, rests on his back while he operates it with wires that extend to the backs of his shoes. It’s a frantic yet controlled sound that Phillip Roebuck owns, a sound that, with crafty finger-work and stompin’ feet and wailing vocals, he delivers to awed audiences all over.
In the one-man band set there is certainly no shortage of interesting and unusual acts. Take, for example, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave. This man arrives at his shows clad in a sequined, one-piece Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit, a rockabilly zombie mask that looks for the world like Elvis Presley himself after several years rotting in the grave. Dead Elvis’s theme isn’t even the best part; his sound is. And that sound is a mixture of primitive rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly. Another example of unusual and interesting one-man bands is Bob Log III, who plays electric slide guitar, works the drum kit with his feet, all the while wearing a stuntman one-piece getup and a motorcycle helmet with a telephone mouthpiece built into the faceplace to allow for vocals. Then we have the luchador rockers of the one-man band set, who wear lucha libre masks (or Mexican wrestling masks, in layman’s terms), but rather than tackling other human beings in the ring they fiercely handle their guitars and drum kits on stage, like Uruguay’s Amazing One Man Band. As I said, there’s no shortage of unusual and interesting one-man bands, and almost all of them have something that makes them stand out from the rest.
Last year I went to see the gutterbilly blues outfit The Godd@mn Gallows at the Sterling in Allentown, Pennsylvania. While I went solely to catch The Gallows’ set, I ended up discovering a remarkable one-man band talent, Mosquito Bandito, whose home is the road, and who plays wild rock and blues sets, strumming the hell out of his guitar, hitting the hi-hat fiercely with the head of his guitar, working the drum kit with his feet, and pouring forth a barrage of vocals, all at the same time. Suffice to say, I became an instant fan. And I have been listening to his songs ever since.
For those new to the one-man band scene, I would suggest some compilations from Rock N Roll Purgatory, “Attack of the One Man Bands,” and Kizmiaz Records, “One Foot in the Grave.” The former is undoubtedly the best compiled release of one-man band material I have yet to come across, and I recommend it to even the most seasoned one-man band enthusiasts. Those looking for one-man band material can also visit the Swiss label Voodoo Rhythm, which is home to one-man bands such as Reverend Beat-Man, King Automatic, John Schooley, Urban Junior, Delaney Davidson, Elvis Pummel, Bob Log III, and more. At Australia’s Squoodge Records site you can find such artists as Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, Mosquito Bandito, Uncle Butcher, King Khan, Urban Junior, The Fly & His One Man Garbage Band, J. Marineli, and others. Frances’s Sh*t In Can Records has released recordings by one-man bands such as Chuck Violence and Made For Chickens By Robots. Germany’s Alien Snatch! Records has released material by Mark Sultan, better known in the one-man band scene as BBQ. And Fat Possum Records has given us releases by both the great Hasil Adkins and the very talented, eccentric Bob Log III.
There are a lot of one-man bands that are keeping the independent, Do-It-Yourself scene alive and well by recording and releasing their own material. This admire a great deal, truth be told. However, I also admire most of the labels that are working with one-man bands, as the music written and played by these soloists isn’t exactly marketable in the wide work of capitalism. Hence its obscurity, its long standing underground status, and its impoverished artists who certainly don’t do it for the money or fame, since there are neither to be had.
Keep watching for articles and interviews on select one-man bands, as I am currently working on a series including such artists as Bloodshot Bill, Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave, Phillip Roebuck, Skip Jensen & His Shakin’ Feet, Rollie Tussing, Mr. Occhio & His Imaginary Friends Band, Chuck Violence, B.O.M.B. (Big One Man Band), and many more. In fact, I have already published an article/interview on Reverend Beat-Man, which can be viewed here. And the second installement in the Series will be available in the very near future.