“The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine, a working machine, and any song that says, the pleasures I have seen in all of my trouble, are the things I never can get — don’t worry — the human race will sing this way as long as there is a human to race.” –Woody Guthrie
“We can sell you peace of mind.” –The Half Brothers’ “If, God Forbid”
There is a lot about The Half Brothers’ Old Time Variety Show, the Seattle-based bluegrass trio’s recent late night production at Annex Theatre, that evokes the spirit of Woody Guthrie, the late folk singer. It is more than simply the music — though that is the most obvious comparison point between the artists — they also share a similar comedic bent, as well as a fairly lofty place where humanity should stand in relation to consumerism or entities like corporations and its creations (e.g. commercial hucksterism, products-as-palliatives, etc.). For their part, the trio (Rick Miller on guitars, John Ackermann on ukelele and mandolin, and David Nixon on banjo) balance their fond homage to “old-timey music” with a healthy amount of modern sensibility.
While Guthrie’s work seems a bit overly sincere by today’s standards, a closer look at both the sentiment and the content of his lyrics reveal a sharp set of teeth hiding behind a folksy charm. The Half Brothers’ teeth are considerably more obvious to spot, although one is distracted by the group’s earnest smile first. Take “Never Felt More American” as an example; in the wrong hands, this could have been titled “Middle Class Bourgeois Blues,” and been just about as ham-fisted. Taken at face value, what we get is simply a Generation X Artist’s humorous litany of woe, until the weight of everything that’s being discussed in the lyrics and the chorus hits home. One laughs and then winces at the feeling that the sentiment is hitting a bit close to home.
Though it does comprise the majority of the evening, The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show, is not just a night of their music. Instead the music is packaged inside of a fake radio broadcast of a variety show. There’s an aspect of this approach that is expected, as Ackermann, Miller and Nixon are no strangers to this format — Miller has extensively written music for theatrical productions throughout the years (Macha Monkey’s Hearts Are Monsters was a recent highlight). Meanwhile, Ackermann and Nixon are both members of the artprognerdmath rock outfit “Awesome,” which has several of these kinds of musical revues under its belt (Delaware, noSIGNAL, West).
What was not expected was the level of gentle absurdity and satire within the semi-scripted show itself. The script — written by the Half Brothers with extensive contributions from Keri Healey, the locally celebrated playwright of Torso, surprisingly enough — is filled with touches that both honor and tweak the old school radio tradition: ever-present commercials, narrated by Tommy (Tim Moore) the announcer, extolling the excellence of its sponsor’s various products, all of which contain an oblique mystery ingredient that alternately sounds promising and nightmarish, and the same catchphrase for every product. Occasionally, there is a kitchen demonstration by Granny Half (Troy Mink, doing a variation of his Carlotta Sue Philpott character), which are barely controlled chaos played for hilarity. The entire endeavor is a genial good time, and then it starts getting darker when the corporate overlords start trying to maximize their profits using the old “more with less” maxim. The Half Brothers’ music becomes more blunt in its direct appeal for customers (“Knowing Is Half The Battle“).
In terms of theatrical productions, Variety Show is easily Healey’s most deliberately quirky show since her tenure with Pulp Vixens. This quality is further accentuated by the work from director Scotto Moore, who has shown his deftness in combining low-key science fiction concepts with comedy both onstage (14/48, Star Crossed, The Mouse Who Knew Me, Duel of the Linguist Mages), and off (his The Coffee Table web series). Moore conducts these proceedings with much the same airy, anything-goes vibe one would associate with the Monkees sitcom.
The Half Brothers complete the evening by offering more variety in their music than one expects from a trio playing stringed instruments, giving the audience an absurdly cheerful ode to eating corn, to a Dr. Demento-worthy take on lycanthropy (they even supply a bit of blue-eyed soul with “Embarrassment,”
which simply talks about that particular universal feeling of social inadequacy). Hidden underneath it all is a very subtle narrative of someone who is very content with life (“Right Every Time”, “Don’t Gotta Have”), then slowly starts turning to outside sources of happiness as life’s uncertainties make him doubt himself.
The result is an evening that packs the bite that was missing from Strawberry Workshop’s very sincere and well-intentioned hagiography, This Land: Woody Guthrie. Mr. Guthrie would certainly approve.
The Half Brothers Brand Old-Time Variety Show is no longer running, but the soundtrack (save for one song) is available on the Half Brothers’ website, where it is available to be previewed and digitally downloaded for $10. However, do take the opportunity to see them live, if it arises, as the difference is notable.