Curtis Eller

Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson

You would imagine the task of describing a Curtis Eller gig to be relatively difficult; there’s a lot of strangely eccentric behaviour granted, but in reality, it’s pretty much like describing one of the oldest forms of entertainment, that of a pretty standard song and dance routine, albeit with a slight difference.  Tonight, the Detroit-born, now North Carolina-based showman began his set standing bolt upright on a high backed chair, banjo in hand with the usual silent movie-style attire, vest, waistcoat, baggy trousers and braces (suspenders to Stateside folk) and sneakers, all of which, I’ve had on good authority, is pretty much Eller’s daily costume.  With a healthy mixture of Vaudeville, Music Hall, old time folk, circus clowning and yodelling, as well as being imbued with a punk-acrobat sensibility, Eller grabs your attention from the start, not exclusively through his frenzied stage antics but also through his very distinctive songs.  Whether referencing historical figures from the American Civil War era such as Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis and William Tecumseh Sherman or Hollywood movie stars such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, or even the sporting legend Joe Louis, the songs are instantly recognisable as Curtis Eller’s.  Rather than following any coherent narrative though, these names are used more like paints on a palette with unusual juxtapositions.  However engaging the songs are to the audience, it’s the stage shenanigans that really draw the audiences in.  Eller’s unpredictable behaviour probably comes as much of a surprise to him as it does to the audience, whether it be simply leaving the stage to lean nonchalantly against the pub wall whilst the band continues to play, or maybe exiting through the fire escape and into the car park with the radio mic losing signal after a while, leaving the audience strangely bewildered.  Or perhaps it’s the over-enthusiastic spin on stage, which sees our hero ploughing into the drum kit, then ricocheting off into the double bassist.  Scary stuff, but absolutely part of the Eller experience.  Making several excursions into the audience tonight, either by crawling along the floor begging for a kazoo, or fearlessly negotiating the treacherous table tops, whilst at one point even resting his foot on the head of one unsuspecting young punter, whose decision to attend this gig was perhaps at this point in question, Eller seldom misses a beat on his backless banjo, delivering one song after another, songs about coal mining disasters, circus fires or having just three more minutes with Elvis.  During all this mayhem, we also experience one of the most cherished moments of any Curtis Eller gig, the part of the show where we are all invited to become pigeons for a moment.  “The Last Flight of the Pigeon Club” is not only hilarious in its concept, but strangely beautiful at the same time.  Joined by a British rhythm section, Matthew Rheeston on drums and Bradley Blackwell on upright bass, Eller revisited many of his best known songs such as “Sweatshop Fire”, “Sugar in My Coffin” and “Taking Up Serpents Again”, finishing with a song that the enthusiastic Greystones audience pretty much demanded to be played, the timeless “Buster Keaton”, which brought the evening to a more than satisfactory conclusion.  I wouldn’t like to think what might have happened had this beautiful homage to the silent era not been played.  Someone would’ve had to call the cops I guess, Keystone or otherwise.