Black Jake stands at the front of the stage, dressed like a ringmaster, his banjo adorned with Christmas lights. He stands resolute, barely moving amid the chaos that surrounds him, yet he cranks out lyrics like an auctioneer. Meanwhile, the members of his band, the Carnies, bop, dance, jump, mosh, and play the heck out of their instruments. The music is fast paced: a little bit punk, a little bit bluegrass, with some rock, ragtime, Americana, and blues mixed in. Welcome to Black Jake and the Carnies and their signature “Crabgrass” sound.
The band is the brainchild of Jake Zettelmaier, or Black Jake, as he’s known on stage. Zettelmaier writes the songs, handles most of the singing, plays banjo, and gives the Carnies free rein to have as much fun on stage as possible. The Carnies consist of “Jumpin'” Joe Cooter on bass, Billy “Kingpen” Lalonde on drums and washboard, J.C. Miller on accordion, Gus Wallace on fiddle, and recent addition Andy Benes on mandolin. Benes joined shortly after the breakup of his previous band, Back Forty, and he replaces longtime Carnie Zach Pollack, who moved out of state. Noticeably lacking from the Carnie arsenal is guitar. That’s an instrument Zettelmaier never planned on not having, but now he takes pride in it. There were guitar players in early incarnations of the Carnies, but they didn’t work out for various reasons, and Zettelmaier is happy to have the Carnies be that rare band without guitar.
A Black Jake and the Carnies show is certainly about the music, but not only the music. It’s also an event, and the band takes events seriously. Costumes are worn, usually matching outfits for the Carnies and something a tad more elaborate for the front man. Carnival games are played as well, with plenty of audience participation. In a version of ring toss, colored rings are dispersed into the crowd and fans try to toss them onto the heads of the Carnies, who wear special hats with ring-catching stakes atop them. There is also a game for which Cooter, wearing a Velcro suit, bangs out notes on his bass and crisscrosses the stage in his version of Chuck Berry’s duck walk, while the audience throws Velcro balls at him–the idea being to get as many as possible to stick to his suit.
“Crabgrass” is a fairly distinct sound, but perhaps the Pogues in their heyday are a close comparison. The instruments are for the most part the same, both mix traditional and punk elements, and the stage energy and live recklessness is equal. Black Jake and the Carnies have introduced “crabgrass” to Europe and have played at Muddy Roots, the premier outlaw country festival in the United States. The band takes its act to the Ark on December 21, with opening act Lac La Belle, for what promises to be an eventful night of music and fun.