Snake Oil Medicine Show, Mellow Mushroom, Chapel Hill, NC- 9/30Photos by Todd E. Gaul
Snake Oil Medicine Show is like a Saturday morning cartoon come to life. Colors and costumes, spectacle and sound, the music of the entire planet is channeled into one band. Like denizens from an over stimulated alternate universe, their music whirls around your head until finding the fastest path to your eardrums, then heading for the feet to funkify your footsteps.
Originally based in the eclectic North Carolina mountain town of Boone, Snake Oil is at heart a family affair. Bassist George Pond started the band with his wife Caroline on lead vocals and fiddle and his brother Andy on fantastic frenetic banjo. Together with Phil Cheney, who paints large psychedelic paintings onstage in real-time as the band plays, they've spearheaded a ragtag group of bluegrass trailblazers intent on bringing their view of world unity to the public at large.
A list of all the styles Snake Oil touches on reads like a list of departments in a record store: bluegrass, jazz, klezmer, rock, funk, polka, reggae, old-time, tropical, swing and more all come together in a delicious stew of uncommon flavor. An infectious love for music from all around the globe combines with an unmistakable aura of celebration. They seem to singularly personify the unclassifiable ethos of the genre-jumping jamband, with lyrics focusing on love and unity in these troubled times.
They rolled down the mountain into Chapel Hill for the latest installment of Bluegrass Tuesdays at local pizza haven The Mellow Mushroom, whose dr sports a curious conceptual continuity with Cheney's canvases. While Snake Oil's base remains the Pond family, they often feature other friends sitting in with the band for a show or a tour. Thus, like the ever-changing nature of their music, you never know exactly which lineup will appear for a Snake Oil show.
On this night, there was both good news and bad. Lead singer and thrillbilly fiddler Caroline Pond had done a number on her vocal chords at the Harvest Festival the previous weekend, and decided in the interest of good sense to make the difficult decision to sit out the show. Painter Phil Cheney was also unfortunately unable to attend, but his paintings were set up behind the band to ensure his spirit was well represented. It was unusual indeed for these two integral members to miss a show, but the band more than made up for it with their incendiary performance and with the addition of two very special guests in the lineup.
Sitting in on acoustic & electric bass, while regular bassist George Pond moved over to acoustic guitar, was Acoustic Syndicate's Jay Sanders, who also brought along his bandmate Jeremy Saunders on saxophone. Fellow residents of Boone, the Syndicate have crossed paths with Snake Oil many times over the years, and the combination created a Mountain Supergroup which left the crowd spinning in its wake. Sanders' furious bass runs and Saunder's intrinsically deft saxophone excursions lent a special energy to the show. The lineup was rounded out with Sean Foley's mighty chops on keyboards, accordion and melodica, and the impeccably dressed and inescapably tasteful Billy Seawell on drums.
Their Mellow Mushroom show was a free-wheeling affair that touched on all of their unique styles while leaving plenty of room for Saunders' outrageous saxophone shenanigans. And while George's vocals could never match the sweet, sultry jazz inflections of his wife Caroline, he belted out the lyrics with raw abandon and unbridled emotion. From unreleased songs recorded in Jamaica with legendary ska shufflers The Overtakers, including Jacob Miller's classic "Tenement Yard," to the dual banjo & alto sax melodies in bluegrass standard "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Snake Oil spared no part of the planet from their conglomeratic concoction. Slinky sax spilled over silky bass lines, turning a Bluegrass Tuesday into a 70s disco dance party, including brief touches on Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" and Parliament's "P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)."
Billy Seawell's drumming is Snake Oil's secret weapon, weaving between textures with a punch and panache rarely witnessed in even one of their myriad styles. Special guest Jeremy the Saw even appeared onstage to blend his otherworldly, ambient saw sounds into the mix. Creating strange magnetic warbles not entirely different from a theremin, the saw soared above the sound, adding even more strange frequencies to the circus-like proceedings.