"You left me feeling so alone, and all my money's gone ... but that's alright 'cause I can get drunk and I can sing songs." —From the song "I Can Get Drunk and I Can Sing Songs" by Two Man Gentlemen Band
Whether harmonizing about the bad economy, plucking the big strings while whoopin' about obscure U.S. presidents, or shouting melodically about staying lonely and getting boozed-up, the Manhattan-based acoustic string duo the Two Man Gentlemen Band offer an amusingly raucous take on early 20th century string band swing.
Singer/banjoist/guitarist Andy Bean and singer/bassist Fuller Condon started kickin' out a variety of vaudevillian tunes four years ago. Some were dusty standards. Some were feisty original compositions. Many featured the kazoo. They all debuted on the New York City streets as the acoustic duo busked for tips.
Bean and Condon met while attending Columbia University. Both were playing in local rock bands. Neither expected to make a musical career out of such old-time material.
"When you're playing five hours a day, five days a week, you start to develop something," says Bean, speaking from New York City last week after a three-week tour across the Midwest. "Then we took it on the road, and the show developed. It's fun now to have a reason to write songs. We know we get to perform them for people in any way we like."
Two Man Gentlemen Band have played more often on the road over the last two years than on the Manhattan street corners, touring up and down the East Coast behind such platters as Drip Dryin' with the Two Man Gentlemen Band and Heavy Petting. This summer, they venture out in support of a boisterous live album titled Live in New York.
"We got a little hopped up on some moonshine someone gave to us before the show," Bean says of the 13-song live collection. They recorded it in front of a small, noisy crowd at the Serious Business Music venue. "It was such a high-energy show, and we were really cooking right out of the gate, going really, really fast. Toward the end, it sounds like we either ran out of steam or started to sober up. The songs sounded slower than the originals."
Bean and Condon assume the fashion sense and personality of the old-time performers as well. They're glad to play the role.
With numerous songs about getting dumped, getting drunk, getting high, and misbehavior in general, there's clearly a running theme of naughtiness in the live set. They may appear gentlemanly, but they behave like tipsy rascals.
"When you go out and have a few too many, and the band gets rowdy, and things get a little crazy — sometimes, those are the most fun nights out," says Bean. "On this live album, we erred on the side of rowdiness."
Despite the stylized approach, most of the Two Man material is flexible enough to transcend the novelty aspect. It's not just a series of joke tunes or amusing ditties. Lyrically, melodically, and structurally, any act could easily adjust the tempo and rhythmic patterns of the songs and translate them into blues-rock numbers, piano ballads, or country strummer singalongs.
"That's our hope," agrees Bean. "We try to flush them out and make sure they're all decent songs. With just two guys playing, we only have so many options as to how they'll be played. But we like to think there's something to them.
"We take our craft seriously, but we feel no compulsion to address the pressing issues of the day," Bean adds. "It is a struggle to sell the band to folks who may not think it's a serious show. The idea that music has to sound serious isn't really our thing."
Detectable in their rapid-fire songs are elements of jazz, vintage blues, and ragtime.
"We've become decidedly jazzy in the year since we recorded the live album last year," says Bean. "These days, we like to call what we do vaudevillian swing, because it's got that swing stuff, plus we like to put on a sort of old fashioned medicine show along with it."
Bean includes Louie Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and the Tin Pan Alley composers as his big influences. He lists the Mills Brothers and dance bands and vocal groups of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, too.
"The lyrical content back then was either sentimental or it was just a free-spirited novelty tune," he says. "When we write our stuff, we try to do it like any other act, trying to come up with something melodic that sounds good. When it comes to lyrics, we don't try to be funny necessarily, but we do try to be fun. After doing research, I sometimes fear that the end result might be me stealing licks from a player who died years ago. But then I also think that's perfectly allowed."
Heck, that's just the American tradition for any gentleman musician.