Peter Stampfel pushes banjos to the limit

Peter Stampfel torturing a banjo and assaulting our ears at the Gerdes Folk City 50th Reunion in 2010. (Photo 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

Peter Stampfel on banjo at the Gerdes Folk City 50th Reunion in 2010. (Photo 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

The granddaddy of freak folk is still going strong with his latest album, ‘Better Than Expected’

Peter Stampfel defines freak folk.

It’s a category that didn’t even exist when Stampfel, now 75, was starting out as a young musician, releasing his first album, “The Holy Modal Rounders,” in 1964.

The genre developed to describe the work of current musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Akron/Family, and the like. But Stampfel was there first, and has provided inspiration and collaboration all along.

The  Holy Modal Rounders cofounder is an acquired taste, for some, with his cracked vocals, inimitable fiddling and banjo playing, and genre-busting choice of material.

His is a restless mind, and his art challenges the conventionality at every turn.

After his recent forays into early 20th century “drug culture” with his collaborators .in the Ether Frolic Mob, and his work with Jeffrey Lewis, who may be the only musician of the younger generation who comes close to Stampfel in terms of breadth and depth of curiosity and generosity, Stampfel has returned to the banjo.

His latest album, “Better Than Expected,” is billed to Peter Stampfel and The Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squad (a name that’s a challenge to any radio announcer to tackle that mouthful). It is an effort to answer the question, “How many banjos can play simultaneously without turning into musical slop?”

The group, which consists of nine people, including Stampfel’s daughter and sometime collaborator, Zoë, may try to answer the question.  But, after listening to this album numerous times, I still have no idea how to answer that question. And I don’t think Stampfel has a definitive answer, either.

Let’s just say that the album’s title sells it short. As weird as it is — with 16 tracks that alternate between fleshed-out songs and what I can describe only as musical doodles — it is every bit as good as expected, and then some. It has a warm, welcoming spirit and a larger-than life sense of fun.

For instance, the track “Vocal Exercise” opens with someone, probably Stampfel himself, saying “Deep breath.” What follows is the sound of a massive group inhale (in this case, no burning substances apparently involved), followed by some nonsensical vocal warm-up exercises that turn into a little musical adventure.

My personal favorite, though, is “Eat That Roadkill,” a paean to the joys of meat without the benefit of a butcher. It’s not something I would ever want to try, in reality, but Stampfel & Co’s take on the subject is a total scream.

For longtime fans of the genre, the real gem on this collection may be  “NSA Man,” a reworking of “CIA Man,” the paranoid, nose-thumbing classic by The Fugs, of which Stampfel was also a member for awhile.

The album is out now on the venerable New Brunswick, N.J., label Don Giovanni Records, home to such artists as Stampfel collaborator Lewis, the Screaming Females, Laura Stevenson, and Waxahatchee.

If you want to know more about Stampfel, check out the in-depth interview Jim Testa just wrote for Jersey Beat, his online fanzine. It’s a fantastic read.

 

 

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