Great fun was had last night watching Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel, two prolific outputters and interpreters of…I dunno…folk-psych-country-rock, possibly? The New York based Lewis seems to have a soft spot for Cambridge as he was only here last nine months ago (maybe he’s twigged that there’s a ready-made vaguely bohemian audience that’s receptive to his lovely faux-artless flights of whimsy) – this time he’s accompanied by the faintly legendary Stampfel, who may be seventy-five years old but has the enthusiasm and exuberance of a toddler who’s just come off a sherbet and lucozade binge. Fifty years ago Stampfel made his name as a member of underground groups The Fugs and The Holy Modal Rounders but he’s hardly resting on his laurels now, as the fearsome rate that he’s been releasing albums and getting involved in musical collaborations is testament to. Lewis is half his age but the partnership feels like a good and natural fit, with the two men taking turns to present the songs and talk to the audience – there’s a nice relaxed vibe about the evening that makes it feel more like an impromptu bar session than a formal show. The frontman are backed by Isabel Martin on bass, Heather Wagner on drums and Franic, on loan from the Wave Pictures, on mandolin, which blends in nicely with Lewis’s acoustic guitar and Stampfel’s banjo and violin.
Material-wise, this is about as eclectic a mix of stuff as anything I can remember seeing. There are some quirky folksongs (including a nice singalong extolling the virtues of eating roadkill), a fair sampling of things from Lewis’s and Stampfel’s back catalogues and loads of covers, some from sources you might expect (Daniel Johnston), some completely out of left-field (Hawkwind? The Fall? Goldfinger?!) Every now and then Lewis encourages Stampfel to recreate an advertising jingle from his youth and these paeans to detergents and petroleum jelly are lovingly rendered in three part harmony. Stampfel seems genuinely delighted to be here and relishes his daffy old man persona, coming off as some mutant hybrid of Albert Einstein and John Otway, and while he might have trouble keeping his banjo strap attached and occasionally forget which microphone he’s supposed to be using his vocals and playing are right on the money. The show’s long, but it’s plenty varied – Lewis, who has an alternative career going as a talented comic book artist, at one point stands on a chair and narrates a funny and surreally seamy story about video rentals while flipping through a book of illustrations he’s done for it, like he’s the teacher and we’re a primary school class. And the set isn’t completely given over to throwaways and funnies: towards the end Lewis sings What Would Pussy Riot Do, an impassioned piece about freedom and censorship. A really entertaining and unpredictable gig, and it was also nice to see the musicians mixing freely with the audience both before and after the set.