Sunday, June 28, 2009

Music feature: Delray trio Viva le Vox wants to be voice -- and guitar, bass and drums -- of the people

Rock trio Viva le Vox.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Marya Summers

Musical voodoo from the urban swamp that is South Florida, Viva Le Vox is a full-body, religious experience.

The band moves its congregants to the sort of ecstasy you’d find if you crossed a charismatic church with a smoky blues club. At Vox shows, everyone is visibly possessed by the spirit, and it manifests with a healthy dose of debauch.

That’s because Vox creates a sensory orgy. And the sartorial panache and plentiful tattoos are just the beginning. The singer/guitar player rasps and growls (sometimes evoking Tom Waits, other times Howlin’ Wolf) as he sings bluesy songs about desperation, drugs, death and the supernatural into a 1950s-style microphone. The bass player, often shirtless in the heat of musical passion, straddles his upright acoustic and spanks its strings as he undulates so that his body becomes the snake in the garden, his spine slithering from his coccyx to skull.

And the drummer thrashes his minimal equipment – a snare, a tom, a cymbal, and two cowbells – like a percussive Tasmanian devil with the preternatural ability to pepper in rhythmic flourishes at high speed. Together, the band doesn’t just have talent and stage presence: they’ve got a seductive allure that is entirely addictive.

Inspired by the campy theatrics of the glam punk band The Cramps and by the skillful songwriting of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the band defies pigeonholing, though they list themselves on MySpace as “punk/rockabilly/blues.” It is an accurate, though generalized, description; it doesn’t really express the originality or nuances of the music.

When it comes to their influences, the band’s site says “You figure it out.”

But I’ll help you – they play covers by Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon, Billy Bragg, and The Animals when they need to supplement their 16 originals during longer gigs. Additionally, the songwriter, Bones, told me that Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Sex Pistols and Dwayne Peters inspired him.

Like The Cramps and their frontman Lux Interior – an old-school hero for Vox – the band has taken on stage names. Singer and guitarist Tony Arnao III, 24, is “Bones,” apt since, like a skeleton, he provides the structure as the band’s songwriter. Bassist James Pellegrini, 29, goes by “Scarecrow,” obviously a reference to the straw cowboy hat he frequently wears. And drummer Anthony X (he wouldn’t provide a last name), 20, has taken on the moniker “Manimal” for his ferocious percussive attacks. [Editor's note: A 12-song set by Viva le Vox filmed at Brogue's in Lake Worth can be seen in a series of videos on YouTube. Here's one of them.]

The band name, however, is a tribute.

“Long live the voice of all the dirty rockers that came before us!” Bones exclaimed, by way of explanation.

After an outdoor show at The Little Owl in Lake Worth, I was so inspired by Viva Le Vox that I whipped out a pen and declared my journalistic hiatus officially over (which is when I sought out ArtsPaper). “Hillbilly leisure porn,” I wrote in my little notebook as I tried to summarize what I was experiencing, focused, I must admit, more on the spectacle of the shirtless bass player – his straw hat, white loafers and libidinous performance – than on the music.

Mea culpa. Scarecrow is the focal point for most of the female audience.

But my phrase didn’t quite capture why the band resonated long after the show was over. Dark by virtue of minor chords and impassioned by driving, upbeat rhythms, the trio’s music evokes spit, sweat, swamp and sex – those things we’re made of and come from. When you listen, you’re likely to believe in creationism and evolution simultaneously.

So when my editor suggested I might want to talk to Chris Martin for a story about Coldplay's May 15 appearance at the Cruzan, I had to decline.

“They’ve got no balls,” was how I put it.

Opportunity schmopportunity. I needed my Vox fix, and the Delray band would be playing that same Friday night. The Viva La Vida tour had nothing on Viva Le Vox. The smaller show would be more powerful, I knew, than the massive, impersonal performance. The scale of the Vox shows engages the audience so that they are more than spectators – they become part of the Vox experience – the part that makes the band the vox populi, the voice of the people.

In late April at Propaganda nightclub, for instance, Vox played the after-party for Showtel, the annual art installation at Hotel Biba. As usual, the band whipped the crowd into a joyous frenzy. The chaos of bodies undulated, shimmied, shook, and swung. The pheromones were thicker than the cigarette smoke as the dancers borrowed moves from the twist, the jitterbug, the Charleston and faith healings for their own wild improvisations. And there was definitely the laying-on of hands.

Though I’m usually too self-conscious to dance, I couldn’t help myself. I kicked up my heels and joined the fray, using fistfuls of my skirt’s crinolines to punctuate my wagging hips. Just a few songs later, I’d joined a dirty dancing collective with my friend Kristina as the lot of us slid up and down each other’s bodies, and Bones demanded in an impassioned rasp, “Baby, I want some more!” – the refrain to Down at the Laundromat.

Viva Le Vox, Kristina said, “made me want to grope everyone – old-school, sweaty, pulsating musical orgy style.”

Scarecrow, who tattooed “Vida Boca” on the back of his fingers and a bass clef on his right hand to attest to his roots (he grew up in Boca), attributes the audience’s wanton response to the band’s own uninhibited expression: “When I play, I black out, and it’s not because of any substances. I’m not aware of anything but the music.”

Anthony X, Tony Arnao and James Pellegrini,
the members of Viva le Vox.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

“Passionate,” said Steve Rullman, who is responsible for the cohesiveness of Palm Beach County’s indie music scene through, booked Vox at Propaganda. Rullman is a notorious music snob, resented by many because he won’t book their bands. Vox, however, he called not only “passionate” but more importantly “the real deal.”

“Nothing phony about ‘em,” Rullman said, some of his highest praise.

The band’s approach may be imaginative and theatric (the corncob pipe the drummer “smokes” is all affectation), but their songs are not disingenuous. The songs are based on real-life struggles, most of which songwriter Bones prefers to keep off the record.

Other songs like Down at the Laundromat document the band’s life, rather than just evoking down-and-out living. This song was inspired by weekly informal gigs at the Tropical Wash in Delray while Bones multi-tasked domestic chores and artistic endeavors. For the other patrons, Vox was a welcome relief from the boredom of watching the clothes spin, and even on-duty cops would stop by on those Friday nights to watch the trio play, the band said.

“The best part about the Laundromat is you get to know people,” Bones, who moved down from Philadelphia three years ago, said. “No one has to pay money. I like being accessible.”

This same accessibility was offered when the band played another impromptu, acoustic gig under the Atlantic Avenue Intracoastal Waterway bridge. Several dozen people showed up and danced in the salty breeze on the dusty shards of white shell rock as the band played an acoustic set against the back drop of Delray’s biggest art project, an illuminated installation.

The rhythmic light display and accompanying landscaping were made to deter the homeless from sleeping there, but it enticed the musical troupe of tattooed twentysomethings to use the high-tech backdrop for a no-tech show while their fans danced.

While they “sure don’t do it for the dough” (a lyric from Laundromat), the band figures they can market themselves without selling out, which is why they’ve accepted gigs at places like Hot Topic in Fort Lauderdale’s Galleria Mall in addition to artsy after-parties, co-opted public spaces, tattoo and record shops, and the old mainstay music venues.

Their first album Desperation Alley, recorded at Elegbaland Studios, is slated for release this summer. It has already earning the respect of industry folks such as Black Finger’s singer-songwriter Greg Lovell, who was the sound engineer on the album.

“Their songs are just really well crafted,” Lovell said, noting that they also had “the best drummer around.”

In April 2008, the band began as a quintet that included a banjo, a washboard, and ukulele, but when the guys discovered that Scarecrow – who also plays electric bass with the punk band Dooms de Pop – had a 3-string upright bass, they took him off the ukulele.

“The songs always had that rockabilly twist to them so the [upright] bass made sense,” Bones explained.

“I never thought to play that bass because it was just so strange,” Scarecrow said, explaining that he’d acquired the Mexican instrument when a neighbor moved and didn’t have room for it. “They forced me to learn it. I really didn’t want to do it. It made my fingers hurt, and it was really heavy.”

Scarecrow has since switched to a standard upright bass.

The band has been in its current format as a trio since July 2008. The other members lacked the commitment that the remaining three members demand.

“They always thought it was a hobby and not a career choice,” Manimal, who relocated from New Jersey and now works at Backbone Records in Delray Beach, explained. “I don’t have much else going for me.”

“Me, either,” admitted Bones, for whom sign installation is his current bread and butter.

“Me, either,” the otherwise unemployed Scarecrow chimed in. “It’s the only thing I can do.”

Marya Summers is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

Viva le Vox appears tonight in St. Petersburg at The Garage as part of Swamp Stomp IV, on Friday, July 3, at DaDa in Delray Beach, and on Saturday, July 11, at Propaganda in Lake Worth.

1 comment:

steven said...

Viva Le Vox perform with WARM recordings artist Don Chambers (Athens) at PROPAGANDA on July 11.

"Some performances are just too damn good to ignore. I..m talking about Don Chambers and GOAT as - once again - they go for broke, burning up the night like a petrol-soaked bonfire of dry mesquite and hickory scrub. Chambers always looks like he..s been dragged through a bush backwards after a blinding night on bad moonshine; regardless of this sweaty and gruff exterior, he never fails to holler and play his banjo like a man trading blows with the devil. While Chambers is, and should be, the show, I really, really can..t say enough about the addictive medicinal powers of GOAT.." - Flagpole Magazine