Good Times with the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues

The Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues played the American Folk Art Museum last night, which actually turned out to be a good place for them since the room’s boomy sonics gave extra resonance to Arturo “Jugman” Stiles’ jug. The pulse of that instrument versus the quieter sound of an upright bass is one of the reasons why jug bands are fun; the other is the sly, surreal blues songs in the repertoire. This band does a lot of old standards, mostly from the Memphis Jug Band catalog, but also originals and covers from different oldtime genres. Guitarist Ernie Vega sang Muddy Waters’ Honeybee – the original version was just Muddy, his electric guitar and Big Crawford’s skeletal bass – so the way the jug’s murky presence beefed it up was especially cool to hear (yeah, electric blues bands do it all the time, but it’s not the same). Frontman Ernesto Gomez sang with a sardonic, deadpan cool, playing guitar and harmonica, mostly in the key of G which in these guys’ case stands for “good.” It was obvious that he was enjoying the weirdness and constant innuendo of the lyrics. They didn’t have guitarist/violinist Jack Lynch with them, but just the three of them were still able to draw curious listeners from around the museum (it’s fairly small) and keep them there: a group of tourists sat down gleefully during the band’s last song and looked very sad to see the show end so quickly.

The songs ran the gamut from the R-rated She’s Got Big Thighs, the band giving it an exuberant, tongue-in-cheek call-and-response on the chorus, to an original that seems to be their signature song, to a hypnotically shuffling hobo tune, to Sleepy John Estes’ Lawyer Clark, a tribute to a Memphis attorney who was apparently very good at keeping his clients out of the slammer and the electric chair. Vega switched back and forth between mandolin, banjo and guitar, playing effortlessly mean solos on each: swooping slide work on the guitar, biting flurries of notes on the mandolin and plenty of hard-hitting licks on the banjo. Stiles got a workout blowing into the jug (and building a low buzz on Honeybee), but he held up throught over an hour onstage – as Vega said, this was just a warmup. Like a lot of the best Americana bands in town, this crew makes the Jalopy their home, where Vega’s work behind the sound board is one of the reasons why the place sounds so good. They had another gig right afterward at Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club; they’re also at the Brooklyn Folk Festival on the 20th at around 9: it’s good to see this band get out of Brooklyn for the sake of people who haven’t discovered the Jalopy yet. By the way, the weekly free Friday early evening shows at the museum are a great way of discovering talent like this if you can get there early enough since bands or songwriters start a little after 5:30.