Decades ago on the Vineyard, before there was a distinction between “old” and “new” Ag Halls — back when the Agricultural Fair lasted only three days and was held at the West Tisbury Grange — each day culminated at sunset with the Fiddle Contest. That’s when Island fiddlers and old-time bands took their best tunes to the rough-carpentered stage, strumming and bowing, ducking moths and junebugs, so a generation of small children (old enough to have their own children by now) could dance themselves silly, barefoot under the stars. The Flying Elbows were part of that scene and, by gum, they’re still here. Even more miraculously, the old sound is intact and better than ever.
To unveil their new album, Pokedelic, the Flying Elbows will be returning to their old nesting-place, the Grange. There could be no better setting than this warm, 150-year-old building in the heart of a farm town to hear pungent fiddle tunes like “Fly Around My Blue-Eyed Gal” and a medley of “Greasy Coat/Glory in the Meetinghouse/Bill’s Reel.” The album also features original compositions by Elbows fiddler Nancy Jephcote and a birthday song by Michael Gorin dedicated to Tom Hodgson (Elbows guitarist and singer).
If you’re partial to mindless background music, this CD may be too engaging for you. The sound is bright and full, the performances exuberant. When the Elbows erupt into song, often in three-part harmony, it feels unavoidable, as if they are bursting the confines of mere strings. This is not diligent, dutiful playing; it’s pure, spontaneous joy whose good time has by pure luck been captured in that most unlikely place, a recording studio. The Elbows are not just flying; they are smiling and well-greased.
Contagious though “Pokedelic” may be, there’s nothing like the live experience of a Flying Elbows concert. The camaraderie is beyond merely musical; the Elbows are crack-ups in a song like “Ukulele Lady,” where there is not a straight face in the house. Multi-instrumentalist Paul Thurlow is rarely without a rattle strapped to his foot, bobbing and beaming like the new moon over a fresh-mown meadow, perilously close to becoming a one-man band.
“Sticklers for discipline, look elsewhere” warns the blurb on the CD, and it’s true — this is old-time string band music where anything goes. Bob Hammond, an original band member from the 1970’s, contributes rootsy clawhammer banjo and ﬁddle. Musical omnivore Brian Weiland, the newest band member, adds his own mandolin licks and (often simultaneously) seasons the mix with drums, washboard, triangle, and kitchen sink.
In today’s distraction-addled, playlist-shuffled, file-shared musical world, will this album find its audience? Absolutely. Here at home, it’ll be eaten up. This CD is like an heirloom tomato passed from friend to friend as a reminder that the old Vineyard lives on in our hearts and memories. It also can be handed to the newer generation with the confidence that we were indeed damn good: Top this if you can.
The Flying Elbows CD Release Concert, 7:30 pm, Sunday, August 8, Grange Hall, West Tisbury. $13 in advance at Alley’s and Island Entertainment, $15 at the door. Children admitted free.
“Pokedelic” is also for sale from band members and at Alley’s Store, Island Entertainment, Third World Trading Company, Healthy Additions, Aboveground Records, Morning Glory Farm, and at nancyjephcote.com. Digital downloads will be available soon from the usual places.