firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Americana Dream
Denver duo Zebra Junction brings music, mayhem and burlesque dancers to the stage
by Erica Grossman
The May 14 CD-release show for Denver duo Zebra Junction started off like any other concert. I walked into a room of loud music and headed straight to the bar. While waiting for my beer, I listened to the band. They sounded even larger than their studio album, a welcomed surprise from a two-piece outfit. They were playing a track from their latest release, Pomme de Terre, an album that combines old-timey anecdotal lyrics and a rolling barrage of jugband instruments.
But as I rounded the corner, beverage in hand, I was caught off guard. The visual on stage wasn’t the down-home image I was expecting. Though the band, comprised of Micah Lundy and Shawn “Flitz Alan” Palmer, were playing feverishly with piles of instruments and gadgets at their feet, they weren’t alone. Actually, they weren’t even centered. At the front of the stage were two ladies known as The Junkettes. The Junkettes are a fishnet-laden pair of dancers, reminiscent of the Betty Page pin-up girls of the ’50s. Their role in the band is generally that of movers and shakers, and that night they danced in a burlesque manner and showcased their acrobatic skills on a giant ring hanging from the ceiling. The Junkettes were later joined by Lil Miss Firefly, a woman who touts herself as “The Midget of Mischief and Mayhem.” At 27-inches tall, she is a touring firebreather and glasswalker, and seems to fit in with The Junkettes like peaches and cream.
The music fed off of this circus-style atmosphere, warping traditional melodies with warbles and percussion. But the compositions were always concise. Several songs later, comedian Josh Blue of Last Comic Standing acclaim was invited on stage to help with the performance. He didn’t tell jokes, though. He simply played the toy piano and aided in the entertainment.
And this is how the evening went. It wasn’t the typical avant-garde experience, with hipsters tapping their feet in unison, breaking only for the occasional head bob or sing-a-long. Instead, I was an active audience participant in a vaudeville spectacle, some sort of bewildering showcase of pure entertainment.
I have been told that Zebra Junction is an Americana band, but, quite honestly, I’m not sure what that particular label means anymore. My confusion started last year while reading a Denver music survey that categorized local groups by genre. Under the Americana category were several bands whose music didn’t seem to relate at all. I knew some of the musicians pretty well and would never ever have described them as Americana. These were rock ’n’ roll bands or, at the very least, some sub-category of rock: indie, alt, punk, whatever. They featured electric guitars, loud distortion and confessional lyrics — aspects that, in my mind, defined them as modern rock ’n’ roll outfits.
Since that time, I’ve seen many bands adopt that label, and even more music journalists use it as a descriptor. Even the Canadian-born Neil Young gets described as Americana. But what does it actually mean?
Zebra Junction isn’t exactly comfortable with the category, either. “Americana is a really good general term,” said Lundy during a later interview. “But the thing is that it’s like an umbrella term. There are a lot of traditionalists, and people and bands and venues that cater to that. So there are certain people that are holding onto it.”
But not Zebra Junction. Lundy explained that they are jazz with ukuleles, ragtime with technology, vaudeville with washboards. He even pointed out that they sometimes describe themselves as “hokodelic.” But it’s never as easy as plain old Americana. Altogether, Zebra Junction is more interested in the grand spectacle than they are with specific genres.
“We want people to remember the show,” said Lundy. “People are less interested in watching one band do the same type of song over and over for a full set or a full night of music. And I think it’s been like that from the beginning.”
Unlike mainstream bands who spend all their time perfecting their music in the studio, Zebra Junction thrives on the adventure of live performance.
“We’re definitely inspired by the vaudeville type of production, where you’re mixing theatrics with music, and we try and keep that in our recordings as well,” Lundy said. “We like our recordings to be very visual, where people can visualize things going on and a lot of times, when we’re able to, we bring that to the stage.”
And what could be more Americana than that?
Vaudeville has been an American pop culture mainstay since its inception in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been
embraced by the lower and middle classes and beheld by men and women alike. Vaudeville is an opportunity for the outcast to feel slightly normalized, and for the conventional to have their world turned on its head. Abnormalities are celebrated and looked upon with awe. And all of this in the name of entertainment. It’s a glimpse of American history, a cultural curiosity that reflects the hopes and fears of the masses.
And being a member of the masses is something that has helped Zebra Junction build and sustain a loyal fan base.
“There are times when I just wanna hear the music,” said Lundy. “But, for the most part, I want to be entertained. I want to be wowed by an amazing performer and see something I’ve never seen before, or see it incorporated in a way I’ve never seen before.”
But tapping into that spirit of entertainment takes some real musical and theatrical talent. For Zebra Junction, it also means following the whims of their third band member, Zeb, an omnipresent, invisible companion. In the true vaudevillian style of the fantastic, Zeb is the muse of Zebra Junction, an integral part of the music and the act.
Lundy said that Zeb helps them channel the spirit of the band.
“Zeb is a guy that inspires us,” said Lundy. “He’s very worldly… he’s a hobo and a vagabond who travels around, kind of like Charlie Chaplin. Everything that he does you love and you want to learn from it. So, in a lot of ways, he’s our inspiration and is connected to everything we do, including performances and travel and recording and songwriting.”
And so the summation of all of these facets unearths something: There is Americana in burlesque dancers and firebreathers, talented musicians and unconventional instruments, and even in an imaginary figure who whispers stories and jokes into Micah Lundy’s ear while he sleeps… or something like that.
Regardless of the confinements of labeling, or even where the band might end up on a music poll, I feel like I gained some leverage in my search for a definition of Americana. Zebra Junction’s eclectic tunes and sideshow stage presence pointed me to at least one conclusion. Namely, that the strange and bizarre is as American as apple pie.
On the Bill
Zebra Junction will perform at the Summer Solstice Music Festival, Clear Creek History Park, 822 12th St., Golden, 303-278-3557. To purchase their new album, Pomme de Terre, or to find future Zebra Junction gigs, go to www.zebrajunction.com
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