On a recent installment of Annex Theatre's monthly cabaret "Spin the Bottle," there was the expected amount of avant-garde silliness, including comedy sketches, a choreographed stage fight, and a craft section where audience members made sock puppets. Then four guys dressed in gray suits came onstage and set up their amps. Even before the hostess announced their names, the shouts and screams had begun. The guitar and bass player launched into a driving line, and the percussionist had begun whaling on a miniature drum kit he kept in a little wicker basket. Just as the song, "Yes/No," reached terminal velocity, they broke into a pseudo-polka and began singing, "That is the theme to Spin the Bottle, the Spin the Bottle theme." By the time their set was done, the audience had been transformed into a cheering, stomping, rabid collection of art-rock groupies. For the moment, the group lived up to its name: "Awesome," quotation marks included. Except this time they didn't actually need them.
"Awesome" belong to a long tradition of art school bands—less the kind that flourished in Britain from the '60s on (Neil Innes and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Syd Barret's original Pink Floyd), where art students picked up a guitar in one hand and their copy of Tristan Tzara in the other, than the model birthed by Talking Heads in the mid-'70s. Stressing minimalist music, striking visual ideas borrowed from avant-garde theater (think David Byrne's Big Suit), and oddball lyrics that specialize in detached amusement; their overeducated, humorous offspring, They Might Be Giants, have refused to ever take the musical game all that seriously. TMBG's quirkiness is almost resolutely militant: eclectic musical styles and lyrics that run an odd tightrope between nonsense and social commentary.
It's only appropriate that the members of "Awesome" are in some ways an offshoot of Open Circle's "Gigantic," a special They Might Be Giants fund-raiser organized last year. Guitarist/singer/songwriter John Osebold and Open Circle's resident musical genius John Ackerman had a chance to play with trumpeter and singer Evan Mosher, and the reception to the show was spectacular. Later, banjo player David Nixon and multi-instrumentalist Rob Witmer joined the troupe, as well as percussionist Kirk Anderson and jack-of-all-trades Basil Harris, two members of a quirky outfit calling itself the Maximum Performance Squad. All of the members are much better known for working with various theater companies (Open Circle, Annex) or sketch troupes (the Habit, Bald Face Lie, Carlotta's Late Night Wing Ding) than for their music.
So it's a little surprising that "Awesome"'s music is accomplished (tight choral vocalization, impressive musicianship) as well as varied and oddball. Every member of the troupe might haul out two or three instruments at any given time—Osebold's theremin, Ackerman's mandolin and ukulele, Witmer's accordion, keyboards, melodica, sax, glockenspiel, pennywhistle, and steel drum. "Awesome" "is different from other theatrical music projects in that it's a band first and foremost, with the creation and performance of music being at the core of the experience," says Mosher. "The theatrics and humor are added later, mostly because that comes naturally to all of us. But I've never worked myself harder as a musician than I have with this group."
The group's songs range from sprightly ukulele love ballads to folk rock about Jesus as a next-door neighbor to jazzy variations on the Barney Miller theme song. If Groucho Marx's mythical nation of Fredonia had folk music, this would be it; perhaps Marx's theme song would be one of "Awesome"'s favorite covers, a completely outrageous deconstruction of Europe's hair-synth-metal apotheosis, "The Final Countdown."
Part of the appeal of "Awesome" is their spot-on theatrical sense and carefully maintained formal seriousness, typified by those heavy gray suits. As Mosher says, "We take ourselves seriously so that you don't have to." ("It's a live performance event! Dress accordingly," adds Anderson.) Since they pretend to be in deadly earnest about whatever they're up to, they can hop adroitly from ridiculous pop-culture rhapsodies to soulful ballads in which a singer with a God complex asks his girlfriend to be his only disciple. At their last show with Nixon before he moved out of town, the group performed an original rock ballad, "Oh, David," tailored to the evening.
For now, the group is working from its fan base in the theater community— their upcoming shows at the intimate Rendezvous and Open Circle Theater will attract the in-the-know fringe crowd. Early next year, they're scheduled to open a new show at the Re-bar, the "Awesome" Cycle, directed by Matt Fontaine, a quasi-fictional story of the beginning and rise of their band. (You have to hand it to a group that has yet to release a CD but is already planning its stage autobiography.) "Awesome" seem refreshingly ambivalent as to whether or not they'll ever find a wider audience than their current rabid fans, but if they do, they all seem sure about one thing: That cover of "The Final Countdown" isn't going anywhere.
"Awesome" play the Rendezvous' Jewel Box Theater at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Wed., Oct. 20. $5. They play the Open Circle Theater, 429 Boren Ave. N., 206-382-4250, Fri., Oct. 22.