It was late on a Friday when I first checked out the Cigar Box Serenaders’ new record, and I’d had a tough old week. Not in any exciting way—just the boring old nose-to-the-grindstone, can’t-catch-a-break kind of way. I desperately needed to hear something fun, something to lift my spirits while I mopped the kitchen floor and loaded the washing machine—and boy, did Spasm deliver.
I have to admit that the title had me stumped. A note in the record’s digital liner—which also features a photo of the band with some very novelty-looking instruments—led me down the fascinating internet rabbit hole of New Orleans spasm bands: nineteenth-century street-corner outfits made up of youths playing homemade instruments fashioned from jugs, buckets, washboards, cheese crates, and cigar boxes.
An informative article on old-new-orleans.com details the original Spasm Band, led by street urchin Emile “Stale Bread” Lacoume around 1895. Lacoume went on to play “proper” instruments in “proper” bands, but his old group is regarded by some—controversially, no doubt—as the world’s first jazz group. The Cigar Box Serenaders pay tribute to this outfit and similar ones by continuing the tradition of wielding musical gizmos made from garbage.
But while the tools may be junk (crafted into incredible instruments with great expertise and care, I’m sure), their output certainly ain’t. Some, like Hanna Mignano’s violin or Brett Gardner’s banjo, sound uncannily like their traditionally-made counterparts. After all, what are either of these things if not hollow boxes with strings attached? Others have a tone all of their own, as in the unusual warmth of Ben Fox’s dresser drawer bass. But it’s perhaps Barnaby Gold’s wine box drum kit, more than any other instrument, which gives this album its playfully distinctive timbre.
Founded in the mid-2010s, CBS have released just two albums to date. Their self-titled debut featured twelve tracks of trad, ragtime and blues—Spasm ups the ante with a further twelve. These include King Oliver’s “Weatherbird Rag,” Paul Whiteman’s “Wang Wang Blues” and “Alice Blue Gown,” a lullaby-like waltz performed by Edith Day in the 1919 musical Irene. My favorite was “Messin’ Around,” the raucous energy of which (combined with Sarah Paterson’s tremulous vocal) reminded me of the late Victoria Wood’s hilarious “Ballad of Barry and Freda” which, if you haven’t already seen it, you really must.
Even the bluesier numbers are a joy to hear. When I think “After You’ve Gone,” I tend to picture Jack Teagarden or Ella Fitzgerald. Both Tea’s version (with Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang’s All Star Orchestra) and Ella’s (with Bill Doggett, Count Basie, or otherwise) are popular on the dance circuit, famously starting slow and picking up speed later on. As such, I waited with bated breath for CBS to up the tempo from around the halfway mark. But the spasm band bucks this trend by keeping it steady all the way through, à la Bessie Smith. Combined with the scratch instruments and Peterson’s wailing vocal—which wavers around the high notes like a yowling alley cat—it presents a delightfully pathetic piece.
But the track which really got me moving was “Wine Box Improvisation #1.” On it, Gold alone hammers the (literal) pots and pans for over a minute and a half. The image of it made me grin remembering how, as a tot, I used to play drums on my aunt’s old kitchenware. Gold’s solo on “Stumbling” is equally delightful—and it really is a solo: the whole band stops dead at 1:43, giving the percussionist 16 whole bars to show us what he’s been up to behind the strings.
The premise of Cigar Box Serenaders sure is novelty, but their music is anything but. The fact that these very capable players have produced such a listenable record on little more than the contents of my recycling bin is a testament to how talented they are. I’m curious to hear what they could do with standard instruments—but that would take half the fun away. Support them on Bandcamp now, in hopes that they can get back in the studio soon.