It’s rare to see a band larger than five members in Los Angeles. So, it’s an extravagance to see a 19 member jazz troupe…BUT to call Vaud and The Villains simply a jazz group is to diminish their over-the-top grandeur. For when you’re in their presence, you are simply taken to new heights and eclectic worlds. At once you’re transported by their music and vaudeville act; thrust into a seedy and raucous good time.
When I heard they were playing at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, I hurried to buy tickets. Two years ago, I had seen them for the first time at an intimate nightclub, Soho B, in Santa Barbara California. Their musicians and dancers filled the small area, making it possible for them to rub shoulders with exhilarated fans and music lovers. It was an immersive experience where everyone danced, screamed and vivaciously sang their hearts aloud, in tandem with the spirited multi-talented musicians.
Last Friday night at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, fans were engaged, but there was a visible restraint. The audience sat instead of stood, an unusual practice for generally enthusiastic fans. The Broad Stage prides itself for its sophistication, tidiness and excellent musicianship. The venue has comfortable and beautiful seating, with a traditional large theatrical stage. While Vaud and The Villains are certainly remarkable rock, gospel, blues, jazz musicians, they live more on the edge and require the participation of a rowdy crowd and feed off their exuberant energies.
You might be asking- who are Vaud and The Villains? It’s hard to pinpoint or define their music exactly. On one end, they’re a flamboyant cabaret infused New Orleans-esque big band jazz ensemble with 19 members, including five singers and four dancers. On the other end, they instill a Grand Ol’ Opry evangelical blues and gospel vibe…yet with sin and mischief at their very core. To look at them, one might guess some of the musicians are in the Steam Punk movement, while others do strip tease chorus girl acts and shop in the eccentric glove department at Macys. The dancers and lead singers are bejeweled with multi-colored hair, wearing lace gloves, bowler hats, old timey street punk vests and shoes…all which add a circus flair. Their stage is equally as colorful with long drapes lit with red, purple and green hues, as if they’re performing in front of the Big Top.
Watching them is a festival of colors and personalities, but it is the music that stands out as the leading attraction. The emcee, as I like to call him, is Vaud Overstreet (also known as Andy Comeau). He’s an Evangelical Southerner who leads the set with irreverent anecdotes and presents “The Leggy Dames” like a proprietor, pastor or a grand marshal. The Leggy Dames are burlesque cabaret girls that tease you in their form-fitting corsets with provocative and cheeky dancing. At times, it’s overwhelming to hear AND see the spectacle before you. Watching Vaud and The Villains is a sensory explosion.
The Villains include a brass section- complete with tuba, trombone, trumpet and baritone saxophonist. The trombonist, Kid Overstreet, was extraordinary, as he belted out unholy yet happy sounds that vibrated in your belly. He equally charmed and surprised the audience with his silky Frankie Valli voice. However, it was his exceptional talent of whistling that blew everyone away. Never have I heard such a dynamic, consistent and melodic range in whistling form. He was a whistling sensation!
Many of The Villains are multi-hyphenates, in such that a singer becomes a clarinetist who then plays the steel guitar. I can only imagine what the audition process is to become a member of the Vaud and The Villains. Phenomenal musician. Check. Astonishing magnetism. Check. Superhuman talent in all musical disciplines? Oh boy.
I was particularly engaged with the upright bassist, Low Down Kate, as it’s a rarity to see a female acoustic bass player. She killed it. Equally impressive was the fiddler, Mad Paddy (Jesse Olema), who played as if the Devil himself entranced him. He played with grit and finesse, screeching harmoniously the riffs up and down the scale.
Vaud and The Villains’ music set is like a gumbo soup, filled with everything imaginable. With lyrics like “We Shall Save You,” and “Out of My Mind Into Your Arms”, their songs speak of salvation. “The Boy in the Boat” and “Sistah Got It Bad” exudes desire and love. “Was I Drunk” brings it back to partying and drunken bar ranting. A gypsy riff turns into blues; then into ragtime Americana; then gives away to soulful and funky undertones, yet returning to Gospel. Vaud and The Villains enjoy crooning about sin, regret, redemption, love, heartbreak and then lets themselves go into disorderly sailor swooning. One minute you’re listening to an Irish jig then experiencing a Doo-Wop Chuck Berry homage. Someone unaccustomed to this medley type of music might be put off by Vaud and The Villains’ strange impulse to change keys and tempo. However, they’ve become extremely popular and perform at bigger venues every year. Their music is showcased in Showtime’s House of Lies and their current album, Original Salvation, is highly regarded. In other words, their gumbo soup is fulfilling and satiates that hunger for variety. Their music fuels a good energy; a boot in the arse to dance.
While Vaud and The Villains played their hearts out at The Broad Stage, it wasn’t unnoticed that the audience was subdued. It wasn’t until after intermission that Easy Simoneaux, one of the singers, demanded everyone out of their seats and gave the audience permission to dance, hoot and holler. It was like he removed the handcuffs and everyone broke free. Blue-haired old men and women suddenly sprang to life. Ushers boogied in the tidy aisles. It was as if suppressed fans finally received the okay to go out beyond curfew. Performing at 7:30PM perhaps isn’t ideal for a band whose main demographics are night crawlers, but Vaud and The Villains beckoned the crowd to join them in their boogie, jumping off the stage and rousing up the crowd. They ultimately guided the audience in how to break the rules and generated the unkempt fun that is typically associated with their ensemble.
If you’re looking for a more finely tuned Gogol Bordello or Rebirth Brass Band, you’re going to want to check out Vaud and The Villains. They pack a lot of punch, sass and outright naughtiness in each of their sets. Musically, they’re gifted and soar in their ability to adapt and arrange songs and melodies that will have you singing in the car the day after. Vaud and The Villains are an unforgettable band…because they won’t let you forget them. Their captivating performers will grab you by the brass.