The Concert Sutra Loving Snake Oil Medicine Show & Ras Alan
by terri sapp
Photographs by Leah Yetter
© Concert Sutra, All Rights Reserved
Just after the turning over of the new year, I heard a rumor that a really cool bluegrasstafarian group, Snake Oil Medicine Show, would be opening a show at the Georgia Theatre. I had heard mention of SOMS from close friends before. Having to work on Fridays, and not living in Athens usually prevents me from making the Georgia Theatre before the second act comes on. However, having heard of the good time that is a Medicine Show, and also finding out that there would be a bonafide reggae master in the house, Ras Alan, I knew immediately that I would do whatever it took to make it for the WHOLE show from the first second!!!
From the beginning, there was reggae music playing over-head, which was the perfect vibe to get the crowd ready for what was to come. Having never heard one note from either the Snake Oil Medicine Show or Ras Alan, I did not know what I was in for. Before the show started, I went over to check out the merchandise table and check out what they were all about, and much to my surprise, there were band members AND Mr. Alan setting up and waiting to go on stage. I couldn’t help but be drawn to want to say hello to who I found out to be Ras Alan, basically, just because of the positive vibration that exudes from him and the dreadlocks that have, over many years, grown all the way down his back!
By the time the Snake Oil Medicine Show took the stage, I was so ready to taste this reggae-billy flavor for the first time! Caroline Pond (fiddle and vocals), Gorge Pond (Electric Bass, vocals), Andy Pond (electric Banjo, vocals), Billy Seawell (drums), Jay Sanders (acoustic guitar), and Sean Foley (keyboard, accordion, and organ) came out and and laid it down, Caroline-style in one of her new songs called “Dancing Instead.” I am so pleased that this was the first Snake Oil song I ever heard. “Hangin out at home in bed, when I should be out dancing instead. My favorite band is in my hometown. I gotta get up and start dancing around…” The two-steppin’ melody of the fiddle, the playful lyrics about going out dancing, and the multi-octave vocals bounced off of every wall and smiling face in the Georgia Theatre! What a way to start this art party!
Next on the agenda was a brand new song by Sean Foley called, “Steering Wheel Hands,” which had a tangoish transylvanian-reggae beat. I just love instrumentals when there is a fiddle and banjo involved. Billy Seawell on the drums in this song was also right on target. Andy Pond, WOW! This guy was evidently born with a banjo on his knee, because he was rockin my world by the second song. And, I will just go ahead and get it out of the way that I am overly enamored with the violin/fiddle, and Caroline Pond is a genius on this instrument. I would be willing to bet she started playing at a very early age, because this complex and beautiful music just seems to flow out of her like it’s nothing.
“Road to Tahoe” is a fun song. Caroline’s vocals in this one really made me think of Betty Boop. She is singing in a very high pitch and her voice hits a vibrato that can only come from a highly trained voice. All along, George Pond harmonized with her perfectly. These are the “quick and dirty” songs. “Quick and dirty,” is one possible motto for the Snake Oil Medicine Show for 2004. In the “Freak Side of Free” from the “Hi-Speed Highway Parade” album, George gets the chance to show off his unique vocals as well. He has the most pure male voice, somewhere between baritone and tenor.
“Tiny talk” is one by Jay Sanders, with additions from Caroline and George. I really liked this one. It was really a mix of bluegrass and early nineties ska. And it WAS quick and dirty. This one is another brand “spankin” new one for all the people in love. Caroline’s vocals in this song remind me of Gwen Stefani. Very much a Madness meets Fishbone meets No Doubt meets Snake Oil Medicine Show! Caroline’s fresh new modern-style love tragedy touched me, because I, too, know what it is like not to hear from your lover for weeks and months and years!!! “No letters in the box, not a message from a bird…” I Love this song! And just like that, another brand new love song by Ms. Caroline (because that is what the Snake Oil Medicine Show is all about…love)…a reggaebilly scat.
And then there was Ras…Mr. Appalachian Reggae himself. Ras Alan is a beautiful rastaman with the best wife and the most gorgeous children, one of whom’s namesake is a man, who I feel was and is a prophet of love and unity (Nesta). Ras has performed with some of the most esteemed reggae artists of my time, at least…the Legendary Wailers, the I-Three, Burning Spear, and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers…and now, Snake Oil Medicine Show! When George brings Mr. Alan out, they broke into an old Ras Alan and the Lions tune, “Nice up Natty” from the 1992 “Native” album. In an instance, the whole place was transformed and transported straight to Jamaica, where the reggae flows free and funky. Mr. Alan even broke into a couple of Sublimesque free-flows that took me over to Long Beach, California for a moment! This is my kind of party!!!
“Bluegrasstafari” is what I understand is to be the Snake Oil Medicine Show’s next album. The title song by Andy Pond is an upbeat bluegrass number with a plain old ho-down “Hee-Haw” fiddle pickin,’ banjo bumpin,’ piano poundin,’ percussionist playin’ good time, if you can keep up! The best is the reggae twist at the end, right back into the foot stompin,’ hand clappin,’ do-si-do Appalachian reggae. Another Andy Pond song from the up and coming “Bluegrasstafari,” “Burying Ground” is a different feel from the rest of the night. It flips between a playful fiddle, piano and banjo, then into darker vocals, lyrics, and even the key of the chords were more on the minor side. I believe that Andy was singing here, which was very nice. Like the other singers in this band, he has a sound all his own. I even swear I heard a bit of harmonica in there, too, which I can’t ever get enough of, but don’t quote me on that.
One person that deserves mentioning is the live artist who joined the Snake Oil Medicine Show in 1997, Phil Cheney. He painted on one of his acrylic on canvas works in progress called (something to the effect of) “Dolphins from the Island in the Sea.” I took a look at the prints that he had available at the show, and his work is definitely bright, colorful, and right up my artistic alley! You can check out what I mean at http://www.dynamicartgallerie.com/ (especially my favorites, “Koba Verde,” “Butterfly Shiny Sky Sea,” and the ever-controversial “The Villa-Shag Waltz (ing ethereally) Thru”).
For the next treat, “The Way Their Behavior Wavers” from the “Hi-Speed Highway Parade” was performed with the guest vocals of the lead singer of the headliner band that night, and with Ras Alan still on guitar. The song gets all funkadelic in the middle, which I felt was the perfect opportunity for a little free styling from some great singer/songwriters on the scene. Sean Foley on the organ and keyboards really showed us all what he is made of on this one. This guy really knows what he is doing with his fingers!!! Tickle that organ, man! I also LOVED when everyone on the stage broke down and danced all at once, PHAT…very entertaining. As I thought it couldn’t get any better, there was a “battle” between the fiddle and the singer. Man, Caroline was spitting out some funky crazy beats, with the singer right there with her, scatting along.
Ras Alan back on vocals for “Days Gone By,” which is a Ras Alan song also expected to be on the Medicine Show’s upcoming album. Thick reggae beat with a kinky banjo. It is hard to imagine the banjo fitting in so well with a reggae song, WHO KNEW? George and Caroline also add a great deal to this song with their backup vocals and George’s occasional shoutings of, “rastaman” and “one love.” I really love Andy Pond’s songs, and especially when Jay and George contribute as well! “Is it true” is a great collaboration and evidence of how great this group of musicians work together. I think Andy was singing on this one, too, for some time. At the time when everyone is singing together, “Is it true what they say, is it true what I see?,” the four part harmonies are beyond belief. The voices all mesh so well together! And with a reggae beat, I couldn’t ask for more. If there is a reggae song on the speakers, I can NOT stand still…
Toward the end of the show, George brings up his sister, Jonica Pond, to sing and play accordion on a song written by Jonica and Andy Pond, “Love Tea Party.” I believe the family that this band encompasses and exudes explains a lot of the love that comes along with seeing and being around this group of musicians and artists. Don’t get the wrong idea, though, Caroline’s not his sister…I haven’t heard George not be able to harmonize with anyone yet. I am so impressed with his, Caroline, and Andy’s vocal skills. They are all extremely talented and unique. Reggaebilly love songs are definitely their passion, I think.
The last song of Snake Oil Medicine Show’s set, “Lotus Queen,” is evidently a crowd favorite that has been requested from them for some time. And not to be redundant or make too much of a comparison (because they are VERY different bands, with a few similarities), but this particular song was even reminiscent of a late eighties No Doubt feel, when Eric Stefani, not Gwen, was writing most of the music (something about Caroline’s wide range rich vibrato voice mixed with the bouncy ska beat). I especially like when George and Caroline sing together. A vocal duo like these two is extremely rare. They are lucky to have found each other (for more than just those reasons, I hear).
Later in the night, after the headliners played for a while, Caroline Pond, Andy Pond, and Sean Foley joined them on one of their very new songs. The additional vocals added even more depth to the harmonies. The fiddle, banjo (Oh my god, the banjo!), and Sean on piano also brought this new song to a higher level. The headlining drums and keyboards came back next, Sean left, but George graced the stage for a more outer space upbeat type jam on the crowd favorite Dr. Octagon cover, “Earth People.” I LOVE this song, especially the rapping. It always makes me shake my ass, for real! I never thought this song could please me more, but with Caroline’s fiddle, Andy’s banjo, and George and Andy’s free-styling additions, I found it impossible not to lose control. At one point when George was bustin’ a rhyme, I thought I was at a “Two Skinnee J’s” concert, or somewhere beyond the great blue yonder. To wrap it all up, Caroline played a solo on her violin that stood up next to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. “Earth People” was the best song for Snake Oil Medicine Show to team up with on a jam. What a way to end the night!
For more information on the Snake Oil Medicine Show, check out http://www.snakeoilmedicineshow.net/ where the site is even red, green and gold!!! Keep a lookout for the new album, Bluegrasstafari” coming soon. They will be at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia on February 12, 2004; The Pour House in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 13, 2004; Sylvia Theatre in York, South Carolina on February 14, 2004; The Handlebar in Greenville, South Carolina on February 26, 2004; Jake’s Toadhouse in Decatur, Georgia on February 27, 2004; In Decatur and Greenville in March for their “Bluegrasstafari” CD release parties; and April through June at many festivals from Savannah, Georgia to New York to Oregon. Keep your eyes peeled for this group. For more information on Ras Alan, jump over to http://appalachianreggae.com/ and check out the newest tour dates and awesome pictures from Jamaica! Also, take a listen to his 2002 album, “Letter From Appalachia.”
***Special thanks to Ellen Barnes for so gracefully taping the shows, to Chad Cole for making sure I had a copy; to Mark “fishbarrel” for the Snake Oil discs, and the Snake Oil and Ras Alan schooling you gave me that made me want to see this show in the first place; to “Festus” for the Ras Alan info; and “Patty_O_Furniture” for the set list and helpful SOMS info.