During the summer of 2018 Tuba Skinny had the unique opportunity to perform as part of the Ashton Brothers circus in the Netherlands. We performed five nights a week for two and a half months, with an average audience of a thousand or more people filling the bleachers inside the big top for every performance. There were balancing and trapeze acts, pratfalls and dancing, juggling and magic, parades and aerial contortion, so many clowns and so much music.
Tuba Skinny performed for a majority of the acts and performed a short concert outside the bigtop afterwards. If an act was over five minutes we would string together a medley of tunes, or play a minute and a half musical excerpt from a song depending on what the act called for. We wouldn’t always play as the whole group either, and there were times we would not even play our regular instruments.
For one of the trapeze acts Erika sang an original country number on guitar and for two other acts Shaye played solo ragtime piano.
My favorite part of the circus was getting behind the drum set with Max on electric bass, Shaye on the Wurlitzer organ and Friso, one of the Ashton Brothers, on electric guitar. It was an improvised rock tune in which I got to play Ringo Star fills over the tom toms.
Before the main show began every night, Tuba Skinny would parade around the grounds of the circus. We often played Starowka Stomp, a march I wrote, and a no name original by Todd which sounded like a delirium of racing colors. We also played Bunk Johnson tunes and other classic jazz numbers from our regular repertoire.
The big top was located at the edge of a town called Zeist. It shared a small island with a castle and was surrounded by a moat. Arriving guests could pay extra to have a fancy dinner inside the castle or they could enjoy a variety of the many hot meals, drinks and snacks sold at stalls on the circus grounds. Small, unexpected performances took place among the mingling guests before the main show began. Two young magicians would set up in an empty shipping container and ask the audience to pull cards from a deck. One fellow juggled flaming pins each day beside the picnic tables as a few of us roamed singing the Tequila song but would shout Ashtonia instead.
The first act of the night was Olaf’s upside-down man routine in which he wore pants and a shirt reversed, walked barefoot and carried shoes like gloves on his hands. The illusion of him balancing on his hands was surprisingly strong. He performed extreme stretches and jumped on a trampoline doing splits in the air.
There was the spinning fire act which involved Yoost, another Ashton Brother, chanting and spinning in a large dress that was set on fire. This proved to be the most difficult music piece for me as it began with a fast bamboula rhythm on the floor tom while keeping pace with Yoost’s energy twirling on stage. I’m not sure if we ever quite got it right. Before the show began, backstage, Yoost would approach us all indivudually and with a hug and a whisper say, “Don’t fuck it up”. Before I understood this was a tradition of his I thought he meant it.
Yoost could wear a truly powerful deadpan expression if he wanted to. That’s why I loved his dummy ballerina act with Truus, an eighty year old dancer, fighting for the spotlight whilst dancing, and falling over each other on stage.
For the Petoman act, Tuba Skinny played the song, “Fingering With Your Fingers” by the Mississippi Sheiks. We no longer play this number as we can’t help but think of the act whenever we hear the melody. The Petoman act involved Timo, the sweet voiced clown, farting on top of a crate while being rolled around on stage by hunchback creatures speaking gibberish to each other. The act worked like musical chairs or the game “green light-red light”.
Tuba Skinny would begin playing the song in a normal manner before one of the little creatures would turn to us and screech, “Stoooooooop!” or “Sssshhhhhhhhh!”. Our friend Peter back stage would make a flatulent sound into a mic and… BOOM— Confetti would shoot out from between Timo’s legs, bursts of flame or a balloon that would rise quietly to the tent ceiling only to fall delicately on an unsuspecting audience member. After each passing of gas the band would continue playing the song from where we left off. All told, it was a healthy game of listening to each other’s cues on stage.
There were so many wonderful performances. Some of which I cannot do justice describing them here. I’ll mention there was Saphia’s two trapeze acts. One in which she shared the trapeze with Friso in a wheelchair swinging back and forth. I really enjoyed Tobias’s Rolla Bolla act in which he dressed like a strong man in bright leotard balancing on one hand on blocks of wood which in turn were balanced upon aluminum rolls, all the while being taunted by murderous looking clowns.
Pimm, the third Ashton Brother, had an act where he climbed out of a suitcase and singing an R&B song somehow created the illusion he was smaller than a midget. It was a very “Broadway” performance with glittery suit, top hat and all.
After the main show was over Tuba Skinny would perform a short set of music outside the tent. This was a nice opportunity for us as we got to relax and just do what we do best; experiment with old music for a crowd of drinking and dancing people. I would hustle our CD’s and Vinyl records walking among the crowd shouting, “CD’s, Viiiiiiiiinyl Records! If you like the music you’ll like the allllbuuuum! Hot Jazz, Hot Jazz!”
The band lived a twenty-five minute bike ride away from the big top at a vacation campground. There we stayed in cottages with shared open spaces between us. The camp ground was surrounded by a large forest and rural countryside. The Ashton Brothers loaned us bicycles, and on the weekends we would take them all the way to Utrecht along with our friends or partners when they came to visit. There, in the big and busy city, we would busk. I enjoyed bicycling through the Leersum countryside stopping to observe the fish in the canals that snaked between towns, all the while, taking in the green fields and summer air.
We often held family style dinners at our cottages in the campground. I remember making a pot of steamed mussels with scotch thrown into the buttery sauce and the nettle tea Todd had made from collecting the local flora. We would all take turns playing with Erika’s son, Sonny, passing a soccer ball between us while working up an appetite before dinner. Craig made collages out of nature, collecting rocks and plants and arranging them. My favorite artwork of his was a piece he made from cigarette butts.
Some nights after we were finished with a night’s work Barnabus, Jason and I would go home and listen to punk and metal from the time we were teenagers. This would always involve lots of beer and story telling.
All told it was a precious experience which we will never forget, and we had so much fun being a part of. However, when we were invited back for the following year we reluctantly turned them down. It would have been the same show with the same acts and same music. At first I couldn’t imagine why we would turn down such a great offer, but the more I thought about it, I realized how much sense it made. We’re jazz musicians and seek improvisation all the time. We can’t fix ourselves to the same set list of songs let alone the same acts and show routine for another season, all very untrue to the nature of our band. It was for the best because other friends from both Europe and the states took our place the following year.
If I had the chance to go back, band or not, I’d take it. I felt so at home working with so many diverse performers and multi-talented souls. But once there is a new show I am sure Tuba Skinny will jump on the occasion. We again discovered we have a lot more friends than we realized and that they perform in a circus in Holland.
I did my best to find every video out there from Tuba Skiny’s summer at the circus. You need to cut around a few of these to find Tubas Skinny but you’ll definitely wish you’d been there!
Inside Stuff and Circus Acts:
Pretty much the full circus show in five parts:
2 of 5 Erica’s Country Song (Different).
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