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Music Tapes in my living room

December 7, 2011

The Music Tapes

This year’s Music Tapes Caroling Tour was put together more hastily than usual. Booked only a few days in advance and lasting only a couple weeks (as opposed to the three months it spanned last year), this one had a bit more of a ramshackle vibe than years past. Which made it all the more Music Tapes-y.

Last night, the tour stopped in my living room, and for about an hour, the Music Tapes performed for about twenty of us. If you count the injured Mechanized Organ Playing Tower, Gingerbread Orchestra, Singing Snowman, and Bell-Playing Mice along with Julian, Robbie and Ian, the performers outnumbered the crowd members. As is typical, many of Julian’s songs came with whimsical anecdotes, about how we chop down fir trees for Christmas to teach them to walk or about how Cary Grant (né Archibald Leach) only became an actor after his skills for levitating oatmeal diminished.

Julian Koster

As is also typical for a Music Tapes show, every song featured a change in instrumentation. Sometimes, as pictured above, it was Ian playing a chord organ, Julian bowing his banjo, and Robbie blaring a trumpet. On another song, Julian and Ian bowed banjos together while Robbie played a muted euphonium over a decades-old tape loop of a hobo singing a song about Jesus. On others, Julian added saw to music sung by a plastic snowman, and on a Louis Armstrong cover of “Zat You, Santa Claus” to close the set, he got some help from St. Nick himself.

Julian and Santa

The lack of press for this tour as compared to the chatter over previous ones isn’t much of a surprise given how little build-up there was, and after a few years of this caroling tour, I suspect the novelty of such a quirky format has worn off a bit for the Pitchforks and AV Clubs of the world. But if I had to guess, I would say only a small minority of the audience last night had ever heard a Music Tapes song before the show, and many had probably never even heard of the Music Tapes. There were people there who didn’t even know there would be a show going on. As long as I’m speculating, though, I’m going to guess that the Music Tapes made a few new fans last night.

At the beginning of the show, Julian remarked that he tours like this because he doesn’t like playing clubs, which are dark, cold places full of strangers’ silhouettes, and I sympathize with that. But I also think this method takes a lot of bravery, too. Performing in a club is predictable. There’s room for improvisation, sure, but you generally know how things will play out, and there’s not much margin for surprises. In someone’s house, a lot more can happen. There’s no security guard, no rider, no green room, no buffer between stage and crowd.

This afternoon, while reviewing invitations for the rest of the tour, Julian and Robbie found one from someone who seemed to think the Music Tapes were working in concert with extraterrestrials and had something to do with the forthcoming apocalypse. “I hope he doesn’t shoot us,” Julian said casually. Weird music draws weird people sometimes, and the Music Tapes make weird music. As safe as Julian’s music may sound, this is an edgy band, doing things few other brands have the courage to do.

For Julian, though, the payoff is much higher. His primary goal as an artist seems to be forging a bond with people, and this is much easier to do when you afford yourself the ability to learn everyone’s name, to share cookies with them, be close enough to touch them, to touch them. Last night’s show as a memorable performance, but more importantly, it forged a lasting connection.

Gingerbread Orchestra

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    December 9, 2011 9:06 PM

    Beautiful description, thoughtful analysis. My then-10-year-old found a Music Tapes house show last winter and asked me to take him. Little did I know we would be standing on the beach by Lake Michigan at 1 AM, jumping over a burning bowl. Julian is my son’s hero (he’s even gotten good at the singing saw). It did indeed form, as you say, a lasting connection.

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