Snake Oil Medicine Show, Winstons Bar & Grille, Fairmont WV- 5/30
Snake Oil Medicine show brought its eclectic blend of bluegrass, country, ragtime and klezmer music to Winston’s on Thursday night. I had never been to Winston’s, or heard the music of Snake Oil Medicine Show, but on a good tip, decided to head down from Morgantown to check it out.
By the time I rolled up to Winston’s, located just off I-79 in Fairmont, WV, I was more than a little bit dumbfounded. Unlike any other venue I had ever seen a band in, Winston’s is in a gas station. I knew I was in for an evening when I realized that it was a very crowded gas station, complete with a row of 50 Harley’s lined in front of the entrance. Once inside, the bar was crowded with an interesting mix of bikers, hippie kids, bluegrass aficionados, and the like. They all shared a common theme: they were getting down.
To the left, set up in a corner, with no stage to speak of, Snake Oil was busily tearing through their first set, bordered by a row of windows that looked out on the gas pumps, “Pump 7 is ready,” one band member would remark mid-set. To the right was a bar doing a brisk business, as those who had danced themselves into a fevered sweat needed a cold beverage. Past the band, glass doors lay open to reveal a wooden patio area with an open grill in the center, bordered on all sides by high fences, so that briefly you aren’t in a gas station but, “anywhere you want to be,” to quote Ashley, the bar’s owner, who is dedicated to bringing quality bands to Winston’s.
Snake Oil Medicine Show does not have a typical line-up, as most bands go. Set up from left to right were: Sean Foley on keys, Caroline Pond on violin, George Pond on the bass, Jason Krekal on mandolin, and Andy pond on banjo. Their line-up is rounded out by Phil Cheney, on the art. You see, each Snake Oil Medicine Show features Phil doing what he does best which is paint. At this show, while the band was wailing, Phil was quietly working on a painting called “Flies Around Egg and Bacon” (or was it “Flies Around Ed Begley”?). All in all adds ambiance to Snake Oil’s music, and it is one more thing that Snake Oil Medicine show does, that nobody else does.
By the time I gave a look around the place, and made a quick stop at the bar, the intermixing licks of banjo, violin, mandolin and keys on top of a thumping bass had my feet briskly bouncing along. Before long I realized that the bluegrass groove was, in fact, a cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK”. Caroline Pond’s lilting vocals, backed by strong harmonies, added a very new feel to the song. I was hooked. Between the gas pumps outside, and the acoustic band breathing new life into a punk classic, I learned that things aren’t always what they appear to be. Sometimes they’re even better.
The rest of the first set continued to hook me on the sounds of Snake Oil Medicine Show, but a glance around the room assured me that I was not alone. As the band tore through an instrumental number with a Scotch-Irish flair, banjo player Andy Pond traded in his banjo for a set of wooden spoons, which he quickly went to work on. As the frenetic clickity-clack’ urged the crowd to dance a bit more, the rest of the band passed around a tray of tequila shots. After each band member gulped down their drink, they would return to the mix with a bit more bombast and intensity.
To close the first set the band was joined by a group of friends from the area, including Keith McManus of Stewed Mulligan on fiddle, Amos Ross of the Recipe of the Recipe on banjo, as well at least two others. The expanded group ran through an instrumental trio of “June Apple”, “Maid Behind the Bar,” and “Fairy Dance”. By the time the set had ended, the crowd and the band, were in need of a breather. Much of the crowd sought the cool breeze on the deck to cool their beaded brows as they awaited the start of the second set.
The second set opened with “Riceville Rag”, an instrumental piece weaving together bluegrass, folk, and klezmer, which is par for the course, so far as Snake Oil Medicine Show’s sound is concerned. “Lotus Queen” followed, described by the band as “yoga-grass”, and was one of the high points of the show. The melodic theme between verses evokes childhood melodies, which seem so familiar harking back to Spike Jones, or reminiscent of the hokey-pokey even. In fact, it is a melody that self-described “yoga nut”, Caroline says has always been with her.
“Really Reel” was next, followed by “Kolomeiki” a traditional Ukrainian folk song, which bassist George Pond described as a “Jewish version of Julie Andrews”. Described as drinking music that the band “hardly remembers”, “Kolomeiki” started slow and ominous at first, but built with intensity with each passing of the melodic theme. By the conclusion of the song, the band and audience had whipped each other into a frenzy.
The next song, titled “Suzy & Gus Discuss Seussian Philosophy Discover that Sushi is Disgusting”, found the drum machine, which would lay down beats between songs throughout each set, turned up, and George taking center stage to lay down a weird rap about, as the title suggests, Suzy, Guss, Dr. Seuss and some disgusting sushi. It added an uproarious touch to the set, with Snake Oil adding acoustic hip-hop to their ever-thickening musical soup. Following Pond’s lyrical chicanery, the band brought it back home with a pair of blistering solos courtesy of Ms. Pond on Violin, and Jason Krekel’s mandolin, before the groove was brought to a close.
“See You In My Dreams”, an Ishram Kahn song featured in the Woody Allen movie “The Sweet & Low Down”, and the aptly titled “Snake Oil Rag” brought the show to it’s conclusion. No encore was needed, as the band had already played past last call.
All in all, a few things were learned on Thursday night. You can paint in a rockin’ band. You can dance in a gas station. And if Snake Oil Medicine show is around, you’d better be there.