& Area Guide
Crescent City trio brings sound to town
By PHILIP BOOTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000
This just in from Royal Fingerbowl: Greyhound Afternoons, the second disc from the boozy New Orleans trio, will finally be released in August or thereabouts. The recording is the result of a frustratingly long, on-again, off-again process that began two years ago.
"It's a better record than it was a year ago," says singer-guitarist Alex McMurray, the songwriter and sole holdover from the group heard on 1997's unanimously admired Happy Birthday, Sabo! CD. "But I'm not into doing things in geologic time. The glacier is moving. You know that the North American continent and the European continent are now about a foot farther apart."
Like its predecessor, the new collection of music can't be easily categorized, says McMurray, a New Jersey native who moved to New Orleans to study at Tulane University.
"It's all over the map," he says of the disc, produced with drummer Carlo Nuccio and bassist Andy Wolf (since replaced by Matt Perrine). "There's a jazz tune, there's swing, there's country waltzes, straight-ahead rock, doo-wop, tangos, Salvation Army tunes, swamp stomps. Every tune's pretty distinctive. To me, it sounds like the Grateful Dead with Donald Fagen writing the lyrics."
Greyhound Afternoons, in that sense, promises to be a sequel of sorts to Happy Birthday, Sabo!, a set of tales of the drunk, dumb and plain out-of-luck wedded to an eclectic Crescent City soundscape.
The debut album, released on TVT, is a gritty missive from the seedy side of town, delivered with growls, whispers and hoots by a colorful singer variously reminiscent of Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong, Dr. John, Leon Redbone and Just a Gigolo-era David Lee Roth.
The twangy, loping Manahawkin offers the perspective of a kidnapper who tells his victim, abducted from New Jersey to Missouri, "You look so good sitting there / tied to my kitchen chair / I don't have the heart to let you go." The accordion-laced ballad Big Whiskey is told from the point of view of an alcoholic curious about the whereabouts of a dress he stole for his girl. The jazzy blues stroll Otis Goes Postal details the growing psychosis of a letter carrier, and the title character of the wobbling Carny Boy has fallen for the trapeze lady.
"They're not real people," McMurray says. "A lot of this stuff I find on a bar napkin in my wallet in the morning. It pretty much comes out of my head. There's a lot of characters down here, the sort of people that it's fun to write about."
McMurray's music career began in 1987, shortly after he arrived in New Orleans. He immediately fell in love with the vibe and the culture of a Southern city linked to Old World traditions.
"It's all very exotic to a dewy-eyed 18-year-old from New Jersey," he says. "There's a lot of action here. Your friends are all playing in bands. Where I live, brass bands march right down the street."
McMurray proceeded to embark on an informal internship with as many bands as he could fit into his schedule. He played Mustang Sally and Dock of the Bay in Bourbon Street dives. He played in reggae and funk groups simultaneously. He did private parties and restaurants.
"Down here you got to have all that stuff together or you won't get any work," he says. "You got to know (stuff), a smattering of jazz and blues and funk and reggae, just to get wedding gigs. You're playing with old men who, if you don't play the (stuff) right, they get mad at you."
Royal Fingerbowl was born in 1995, when McMurray got a job at the Dragon's Den, upstairs from a Thai restaurant, and tapped bassist Andy Wolf and drummer Kevin O'Day as the rhythm section.
The trio began playing a bunch of McMurray originals he says were partly inspired by Neil Young, as well as twisted covers like the Ramones' Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Madonna's Like a Virgin and Ozzy Osbourne's Crazy Train. Early on, they'd do oddball theme shows, taking on the entire scores from The Jungle Book and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Don't expect to hear any of those tunes this time out, though.
"I guess in the months to come we might do some Dixieland-type things, maybe some Jelly Roll Morton," he says. "With the new guy (Perrine), we're trying to lose a lot of those old cover tunes. They've outlived their usefulness."
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