The Radio Ball Series
By John Swenson
[ed note: this is an unedited version of the review which originally appeared in Stereophile]
Radio Ball, Vols. 1-22. Iddy Biddy 7652-7673. (2000). Chandler Travis, prod. and eng. AAD TT: 44:14 — 51:36.
Rock music’s geniuses, much like the great poets of history, have by and large been diehard eccentrics. Chandler Travis is among the most eccentric rock songwriters working today, a Walt Whitman of the Cape Cod artists colony whose fans marvel at his outlandish constructs and whose townie detractors talk of a secret day job that finances his improbable musical whimseys. As part of the legendary New England duo Travis and Shook; co-founder of Cape Cod’s answer to the Beach Boys, the Incredible Casuals; leader of the surreal traditional jazz band the Chandler Travis Philharmonic; solo artist and major domo of Iddy Biddy records and Sonic Trout productions, Travis has been responsible for some of the strangest musical utterances made under rock’s ample banner since Don Van Vliet hung up his book of verse.
After the usual years of trying to interest labels in his demo tapes, Travis took a cue from Sun Ra and decided to make and distribute his own records. A classic American regional songwriter whose eccentric vision is rooted in the self-determinism and awe of nature characteristic of people who live in the small New England village of Eastham, Massachusetts, Travis is generous to his audience, constantly writing new songs and offering a close look at his influences with covers of a wide range of songs by others, many of these as esoteric as his own work. He is hands down the greatest interpreter of Kinks material, particularly the lesser known songs from the music hall-inspired RCA period Kinks albums (see Radio Ball #7, “Dog Suit”). His writing is steeped in descriptive detail and emotional observation, with a liberal application of ruddy humor and, on occasion, a touch of bitterness that yields some of his most interesting (if not his best) songs. Travis is also an openhanded and risk-taking bandleader who attracts creative musicians.
On summer afternoons at the legendary Cape Cod club The Beachcomber Travis holds court with the Incredible Casuals, a band that connects him to NRBQ via guitarist Johnny Spampinato, brother of NRBQ founding bassist Joey Spampinato and currently a member of both bands (see Radio Ball #11, “The Future Will Be Better Tomorrow.”) The Chandler Travis Philharmonic, a loose collection of musicians centered around drummer Rikki Bates and featuring a horn section made up of a number of local players who view the CTP as a busman’s holiday from their regular jazz or orchestra gigs, gives Travis tremendous latitude to cover whatever material may strike him at the spur of the moment.
Travis figured out an ingenious method of documenting this work. Marrying a primitive remote recording system and CD-burning technology to the publishing schedule of a traditional magazine, over the course of 2000 he released the Radio Ball, a series of recordings on a bi-weekly schedule, that covered his career in a kind of audio diary. He fell short of his goal, releasing only 22 Radio Balls, but the series stands as a significant achievement in the annals of American folklore, one more worthwhile than, say, Pearl Jam’s decision to release an entire tour’s worth of shows as individual CDs.
Travis combines truth in advertising and his own sardonic wit by labeling the CDs as being recorded in “Horrend-O-Phonic.” He sells them at gigs, and through the website www.sonictrout.com/bands/chandler/index.html. It’s hard to imagine anyone buying the whole series, but I did pay cash to the man himself for my copies (he threw in #16), and have spent many wonderful days listening to this music. Here’s a sample of what I heard.
[Radio Ball #1: Holiday Time!]. The series begins with a recording of various Christmas-related songs and a show from late 1999 at one of the band’s regular venues, The Midway, a funky Boston bar. Travis likes Christmas, at least in part because he can have a stupid time even if his wife gets mad at him. “I Want a Puppy” reveals his soft spot for dogs, one of his songwriting’s repeated themes. “Memories (of Other New Year’s Eves)” is a holiday song in the Elvis Costello tradition. “Backwards Christmas” traces Chandler’s Christmas Day activities in reverse. The self-explanatory title “Not Unhappy” is as close to a self-description as Travis has written.
[Radio Ball #2: Y’Gotta Have the Mental] is a good place to start. The live rant “2000 or Bust” is a kind of statement of purpose for the entire [Radio Ball] project, and there are covers of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Surf’s Up.” It’s also the first appearance of one of the new Travis classics that recur during the series, “Stay Like That.” The song is Travis at his best, an infectious chorus wrapped around a Dagwood sandwich of dysfunctional-relationship lyrics, a wild bridge, and a lengthy improvised break.
[Radio Ball #4: Miss America Presents the Chandler Travis Philharmonic]. Recorded at several performances in the first week of 2000, this one features the tuneful “Fruit Bat Fun” followed by the 1950s-style tearjerker “You Killed My Love” and the infectious melody of “Toaster.” Travis indulges his love for the Beach Boys with a cover of “All I Wanna Do.” The CTP can be satiric and sentimental at the same time, as in their loving take on “Midnight in Moscow” (with a fine trumpet solo from Steve Lefebvre). This versatile unit goes on to play a terrific R&B medley that combines Bill Deal and the Rondells’ “I’ve Been Hurt” (found by Travis on the soundtrack to [Trees Lounge], which he recommends) with a Tilt-a-Whirl NRBQ-style version of “Get Right Back (Where We Started From),” which gives Travis a chance to mention [Slap Shot] in the liner notes. The band’s versatility is on further display via the Township Jive cover of South African swing band the Jazz Dazzlers’ “De Makeba,” followed by the rousing “Eje Ka Jo,” driven by Dave Harris’ trombone. Travis closes out the set with a soft reading of the Lonnie Johnson chestnut “Tomorrow Night.”
[Radio Ball #5: Let’s Music] collects material recorded by the Philharmonic in 1998, mostly at another Boston-area club, The Kirkland, where they played every Tuesday night for the door, an arrangement that led Travis to refuse to change chords until the audience paid him (examples included here: “E” and “F;’;’). Audience participation was also encouraged, as the elderly woman who served as the guest drummer on the version of “Wipe Out” demonstrates. The sound on this disc is particularly dodgy, but some terrific Travis originals, including “Haircut” and “Money Won’t Buy You Happiness,” make it well worth a listen. Drummer Rikki Bates is killer on “Razorclams and Watercress.”
[Radio Ball #8: The Dog Ate My Album] is an extremely good 1997 set from The Midway with a terrific cover of the Kinks’ “I’m On an Island” and a magnificent traditional jazz piece, “Cab is Dead,” dedicated to Cab Calloway and featuring a great muted-trumpet solo by Keiichi Hashimoto. Also included is the definitive version of “French Toast Man” and another wonderful dog song from Travis, “Get Out of Here.” NRBQ’s Terry Adams sits in on “What’ll It Be.”
[Radio Ball #12: Live at Bickford’s] is my favorite of the series, a documentary recording of the record-release party for the Chandler Travis Philharmonic album [Let’s Have a Pancake!] That “official” album, released in the middle of the [Radio Ball] series, includes studio versions of many of the best original songs from the live recordings, as well as the fan favorite “Chandler Travis, King of the World,” curiously absent from [Radio Ball]. The release party was a breakfast set at a local pancake house, with a mixed crowd of CTP fans and unsuspecting diners, who seemed to like it just fine. In that context, these versions of “Toaster,” “French Toast Man,” and “Fruit Bat Fun” take on new meaning.
[Radio Ball #21: Le Spectacle de la Lizarde]—By the end of the Radio Ball series Travis has become a kind of omniscient ringmaster of this music, assembling a three-ring circus of performances including the pretty amazing Planet Philharmonic Trombone Shout Band (a dozen trombones and a bass drum playing in a brassy interlace over a reggae-fied parade beat); the in-your-face folkster Alastair Moock; the amazing guerilla folksongs of Pete LaBonne; and the CTP, augmented by Ramona Silver and Suzi Lee, for a Cookies medley. The centerpiece of [Le Spectacle] is a massive aural collage, reprising elements of the whole Radio Ball series. Travis wishes us “Merry Xmas” at the end of the notes, bringing the concept full circle from [Holiday Time!]
Additional Comments: [Radio Ball #6: More Mayhem from The Midway], includes “Super Bowl XXXIII,” written on the spot an hour before the show. [Radio Ball #9: Bosoms] is worth getting just for the version of another Travis classic, “That’s What She Said.” [Radio Ball #13: Monkeys of Nothings], opens with the rabble-rousing “Here We Go Audience” and includes a beautiful version of Travis’ great love song, “(You and Me) Pushin’ Up Daisies.” [Radio Ball #14: Weekend on Mt. Cod], collects mid-1970s material from the legendary duo Travis and Shook. [Radio Ball #17: Day Job] compiles tracks from other bands that the Philharmonic members play in, from the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra to The Beach Men doing—you guessed it—a basso profundo version of “Don’t Worry Baby.” [Radio Ball #18: Thank You Please Call Again] has unreadable liner notes and a cover of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” [Radio Ball #20: You Must Come Over To-Night] is a collection of mostly lounge material (a Travis specialty), with a great version of “Sometimes I’m Happy.” And [Radio Ball #22: Lester] documents 1992/93 recordings by the quartet Lester, led by Steve Wood and featuring Chandler Travis.
Travis has scaled back the release schedule since the Radio Ball series, putting out Pete LaBonne’s incredible “Meditation Garden,” United Press International’s “Album of the Year” in 2001, and “Dream Life” from P.J. O’Connell. The Chandler Travis Philharmonic just released “Llama Rhymes” and Travis is currently putting together another Incredible Casuals album. “We’re trying really hard to do something you can’t describe,” noted Travis. “Maybe that doesn’t work in our best interest commercially, but the thing that’s important about it is getting to do it in the first place.”
– John Swenson