Du-tels – Worm (Rotterdam, Holland) / Paradiso (Amsterdam, Holland) / Cockpit Theatre (London, England)
I first saw the Holy Modal Rounders in 1963, and it changed my life. At the end of the set, fiddler Peter Stampfel said, “That’s it. The next thing’s gotta happen because if it doesn’t, the universe will crumble.” My teenage mind tossed that concept around and around until it opened the door to an entire new way of thinking, which would leave it vulnerable to the ravages of the dreaded weed in years to come.
The second time I saw them was almost 20 years later, as the Unholy Modal Rounders, I think, at some bar downtown in New York. I was with Lester Bangs, and, hence, don’t remember much about it.
So when Peter Stampfel joined up with guitar whiz Gary Lucas as the Du-Tels and not only released a real good record but announced a European mini-tour, I just had to check it out. The first thing was to buy a ticket to Amsterdam, check into a hotel, and call my friend Alex, who’s got a good rock website, kindamuzik.net. On the hour’s ride to Rotterdam, we got to talking about how live performance has changed, and I commented on how I knew something had changed when you asked people how the Bruce Springsteen show they’d seen was and they answered “It was great; he played for three hours!” Like that had anything to do with the quality of the show.
Worm turned out to be an avant garde performance space tucked away from the main drag toward the harbor. There was a bar in the cellar, and upstairs a young woman was mixing various very odd records with complete ease and facility. Downstairs, Lucas, in his eternal black hat, and Stampfel, with his trademark squint and greying bowlcut, were avoiding herbal temptations being thrust at them by fans. Peter was rattling on about the new instrument he’d acquired, a National steel ukulele he’d had strung as a banjo and dubbed the j’uke, and about a revelation he’d had: “Gary and I don’t get to play together much, so now we’re going to be playing together every day, just about, and I’ll get to see if it gets any better.”
Certainly the show was equal parts enthusiasm and skill, with Stampfel switching off between his white fiddle and an old Gibson mandolin, and the two musicians exchanging badinage that usually related to what they were going to play next. They took a break in the middle, and the crowd, equally mixed between young curiosity-seekers and old hippies, buzzed with delight.
The second half was even better, since they were now sure the folks liked it, and they rolled out some doozies, including a complete version of “Good King Wenceslas” and a Stampfel/John Morthland collaboration on new lyrics for “Deep In The Heart Of Texas”. As we walked back to the station, realizing that now we’d have to get a night train, I looked at my watch. They’d played for three hours.
The next night in Amsterdam, I took notes. The local promoter had done almost nothing to promote the show, and only a couple dozen people showed up to the small upstairs room at the Paradiso. As at Worm, the show was a mixture of old and new, with a magnificent reworking of “Little Maggie”, a considerably rewritten Carole King song, “Bad Boy” (“He’s Sodom and Gomorrah/He’s Cairo, Illinois”), Lucas’ never-sing-this-to-your-kids lullaby “Sandman”, and, as a finale, the Teletubbies theme, with their September 11 song, “We’re Still Here”, which they’d record when they got back to the States for a Village Voice benefit disc, as an encore. The audience was largely young, largely puzzled, and, by the end, largely absent.
Still, the show was as good as the previous night’s, tighter, and with less goofy talking. Two weeks more might really make a difference.
It might have, but…ever hear of English reserve? Isn’t it embarrassing when stereotypes come true? They were polite: They applauded. They laughed at the jokes. It was a nice little intimate space, the theater for a small college, and everyone was on their best behavior. The Du-Tels tried everything: Lucas’ remarkable fingerpicking on the Joseph Spence masterpiece “Out On The Rolling Sea”, the Astro-Boy theme, enthusiastic fiddling from Stampfel (those who find his fiddling out of tune or primitive might like to consider that it almost always works in context, and that he may be the only harmolodic musician in the world not trained by Ornette Coleman), a beautifully bizarre rewrite of the Five Keys’ “Ling Ting Tong”, and the audience…sat there.
“Man, the other night in Dublin they were yelling and screaming and going nuts!” Gary fretted afterwards. But the act had tightened up since Worm, the surrealistic blend-all of folk and pop culture had completely jelled, and I was sorry there wasn’t another gig to go to. Well…1963, 1982, 2001…we’ll see what 2020 brings.