Sideshow Tramps, Revelator

Sideshow Tramps, Revelator

It was the kid who opened my eyes on this one; I can’t take credit, not really. I’d put the Sideshow Tramps’ brand-new full-length, Revelator, on in the car on the way to school/work, and partway through lead-in track “Here Comes the Party,” my music-savvy-beyond-her-years seven-year-old piped up, “Is this Gogol Bordello?”

And it hit me that she was right; on an outward-appearance level, definitely, the song does resemble those crazy polyglot gypsies, especially, say, “Wonderlust King” or the wild end section of “Start Wearing Purple” — the accordion, the sharp-edged, mournful violin (courtesy of Hilary Sloan), the gang-yelled backing vocals, the theatrical chunk in the middle, and the overall folk-party vibe, they all dwell comfortably in the same neighborhood as Eugene Hütz’s band of misfits.

Beyond the superficial resemblance, though, there’s a deeper kinship, I think. Like Gogol Bordello, the music the Sideshow Tramps play is vagabond music, as fits their name; here they come off less like a “band” in the traditional sense and more like a troupe of vaguely sinister carnies, roaming the land seemingly at random while bellowing out these murky songs of the road and music and drugs and partying and love and death.

“Tramps and Freaks,” which melds the great, great strings of Sloan and Two Star Symphony to a mysterious, Eastern European-sounding, meandering rhythm, operatic voices, and carnival-esque sounds, almost serves as the band’s manifesto (which may be why it’s the only song with lyrics in the CD insert), with lead singer Craig Kinsey (aka “The Reverend”) playing the part of ringmaster, carnival barker, and gypsy king all at once — he lays out their reason for existence plainly, bowing down to music as he and his cohorts’ true love and promising that they’ll keep on so long as you keep paying. It’s an incredible, ridiculously layered track, one that evokes Something Wicked This Way Comes in a surprisingly friendly, come-along-with-us way.

That isn’t to say, of course, that carnival and gypsy folk is all the Tramps do; quite the opposite, in fact. Those two tracks are just a couple of stylistic points the band hits as they roll on through Revelator, dabbling in heavy-lidded, old-timey, slyly Cole Porter jazz on the light-fingered “Siddhartha’s Dancers,” cry-in-your-beer country on “Only a Drop Left,” and raw, bluesy garage-rock on “Shady Little Girl,” which sounds like a long-lost Sugar Shack song more than anything else.

Throughout there’s a jaunty, wide-grinning feel, even as the band spins out tales of woe and loss of souls doomed to live in the gutter, like on the jangly, ragtime-ish “Hambone’s on the Needle,” which is quite possibly the only bluegrass/folk/barbershop track about heroin addiction you’re ever likely to hear (and I have to say, Geoffrey “Uncle Tic” Muller’s astoundingly cheery vocals kind of make the track). At the same time, though, it’s all united by the specter of the Grim Reaper, evoked specifically on the medley of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and the classic gospel-blues song “In My Time of Dying” but lurking in the background everywhere else, too. It makes sense, at least to me — death, after all, is the only thing that can truly tie the vagabond down to the ground.

The latter medley is awesome in its sheer muscular ferocity, with the Tramps roaring through the often-done tunes like a runaway freight train and Scott “Rag Tag Mac” McNeil’s murderous slide guitar (which makes me think of Austin blues-metal band Grady, by the by). That same heavy, bluesy fire’s evident on “John The Revelator,” too, which stomps along over a fuzzy bed of White Stripes-esque distortion and Kinsey’s snarled Biblical references while a talented crew of gospel singers do their thing over it all.

The album closes on a quieter note, with “Farewell,” a song that points over to yet another band of country-less rovers, The Pogues. The harmonica and guitar swing and sway along sweetly as Kinsey tips his hat to all his Houston compatriots, to old Taft Street haunts, and the result is a surprisingly heartstring-pulling song that sees the band waving goodbye.

Like all vagabonds, they’ve got to keep moving on, so off they drift into the morning light. And as the music echoes out over the just-waking-up countryside, you find yourself hoping they’ll be back very, very soon, with those easy, sneaky grins at the ready and the dance-with-death party trailing along in their wake.

[Sideshow Tramps play their CD release party 9/9/11 at Fitzgerald’s, along with Hilary Sloan & Mydolls.]
(ZenHill Records --; Sideshow Tramps --; Sideshow Tramps (Facebook) --; Sideshow Tramps (Myspace) --
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Review by . Review posted Friday, September 9th, 2011. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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10 Responses to “Sideshow Tramps, Revelator

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Sideshow Tramps (Rev’d!) + Black & White Years + Houston Rocks! + Ryan Lee Hanson + More on September 9th, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    […] Anyway, back to tonight. The biggie for me is the {Sideshow Tramps}‘ CD release show at Fitzgerald’s for brand-new album Revelator, which I’ve fallen in love with big time this week — it’s seriously amazing, folks, a mishmash of wild, gypsy-fied folk, jazz, blues, rock, polka, ragtime, and whatever the hell else they can imagine, all stitched into one mind-blowing crazy-quilt of sound. They bring to mind Gogol Bordello and The Pogues in the best possible way, and I don’t make those two comparisons lightly. Full review over here. […]

  2. Belinda on September 12th, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    That singer on John The Revelator is Houston’s own Kam Franklin. She accidentally got left off the credits by the band.

  3. Jeremy Hart on September 12th, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Ah, okay — that makes sense. I had wondered who the heck that was, actually, but I couldn’t tell which of the listed backup singers sang on what songs; thanks! :)

  4. Belinda on September 16th, 2011 at 9:53 am

    They forgot to list her on the liner notes, so you wouldn’t have seen her name. Kinda shitty, but I heard at the show they’ll be listing her name in the next print. Love your blog btw!

  5. Jeremy Hart on September 16th, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Thanks! :) And I’m glad to hear she’ll be credited in the next version…

  6. Ross Wells on September 27th, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    We apologize for the awful oversight…Kam Franklin is an integral artist and contributor to the Revelator project and she has been added to the credits for the second print run… which, thanks to the album’s popularity will be printing shortly…

    Thanks Kam for understanding… thanks to all for the support!
    Sideshow Tramps/ZenHill Records

  7. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 1: Manchester Orchestra + Hell City Kings (Rev’d!) + Jon Langford + Empress Hotel + More on October 21st, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    […] at Heights Live! tonight; I’ve never seen/heard him solo, no, but the Tramps’ latest, Revelator, is/was pretty damn […]

  8. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 3: Via Colori + Katz Coffee Porter Party + Indian Jewelry + Folk-Punk + More on November 20th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    […] string quartet oddballs Two Star Symphony playing, but so are The Sideshow Tramps, whose new album, Revelator is pretty […]

  9. SPACE CITY ROCK » FPSF 2012 Rundown, Pt. 3: Erykah Badu + Starfucker + Two Door Cinema Club + Eyes Burn Electric + Orgone + Sideshow Tramps + More on May 30th, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    […] but I was still wary. So I cringed a little bit when I got the band’s most recent album, Revelator, in the mail, figuring, “ah, crap — I have to listen to these guys […]

  10. SPACE CITY ROCK » Tomorrow: ZenHill Records Night at Fitz on October 14th, 2014 at 9:17 am

    […] Roky Moon & BOLT!’s stellar American Honey, the Sideshow Tramps’ bone-rattling Revelator, and, most recently, the Backtones’ Goth-Western-rawk opus La Vie En Noir. And while I […]

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