By Chasity Hale
The reality is, on Saturday night my mind was muddled. My thoughts, like city lights reflecting off rainy streets, were distorted and melded together. A multiplicity of things needed my attention: a paper due on Tuesday, a few unread emails that required responses, a massive load of laundry that had been piling up for several weeks. But when I sat down in Bing Concert Hall Studio to watch the Bumper Jacksons perform, I forgot about all of that.
Bing Studio is an intimate, underground space with a corner stage and cabaret-style seating. A pattern of quadrilaterals, varying in size and orientation to one another, were projected on the walls in a dim, raspberry color. Hanging lights that looked like exploded hand-drawn stars dripped from the center of the ceiling, electric blue lights framed the prompt box and a warm, yellow spotlight shined on center stage.
It was 10:07 p.m., and time for the Bumper Jackson’s second show of the night (the first had been at 8:00 p.m.). I had only arrived a few minutes late, but I got the sense that I had already missed a lot when Alex Lacquement, the upright bassist, thanked the audience for being with him when — moments earlier — he met a family member of his for the first time. It seemed to me that every second at a Bumper Jacksons concert is highly valued, so I paid close attention for the next hour and half, trying hard not to miss anything else. When they started the first number — a fast-paced, upbeat tune — all of the people seated in the front row jumped out of their seats, and began swing dancing. The couple seated next to me appeared to be experts, rock stepping, kicking and spinning each other with ease. It felt like I was in a movie.
The Bumper Jacksons draw from several of the classic American genres, describing their music as, “roots jazz, country swing and street blues.” Their multi-genre style was exemplified through the band members. The lead vocalist, Jess Eliot Myhre, had incredible vocal range and control. She has experience singing in many contexts, ranging from churches to concert halls, which allows her sound to transcend musical boundaries. She is also a songwriter, clarinetist and washboard player. Chris Ousley, another vocalist and songwriter, had a timeless, folksy sound. In addition to singing, Ousley played the guitar and the banjo. The other band members — Joseph Brotherton (trumpet), Brian Priebe (trombone), Dave “Duckpin” Hadley (pedal steel), Dan Samuels (primarily, drums) and Alex Lacquement (upright bass) — doubled as instrumentalists and harmony vocals.
Lacquement explained how he studied classical music in college, never expecting to be in a band. Life is unpredictable, so “enjoy it while it’s good,” he said in between songs. This advice wasn’t just the singular thought of one band member; it was, what seemed to me, the very essence of the Bumper Jacksons.
This positivity and hopefulness is demonstrated through their music and art. For example, in the music video for “Old Birds,” children overcome the oppressive institutions in their lives by smashing piñatas of words like sexism, racism and transphobia. Silvery tinsel, multi-colored feathers and glitter spill from the piñatas as the children and band members celebrate their victories. Myhre told a story about the making of the music video, telling the audience how wonderful (and bizarre) it was to hear the young kids struggle over who got to smash the literal patriarchy piñata. Another example of what I perceived to be the band’s message is in their song, “Technicolor Waltz.” It was inspired by the “Bread and Roses” strike, a movement by immigrant women in Lawrence, Massachusetts in the early 1910s rallying for better working conditions in the textile industry. A line in the song’s chorus, “Yes, I want bread and roses, and life that composes its own musical score” is a nod to the movement’s popular protest chant, “Give us bread, but give us roses, [too]!”
The Bumper Jacksons provide healing through music. They address life’s obstacles with optimism, echoing and expanding the desires of the Lawrence textile strikers for a life that isn’t just filling, but that is beautiful, too. They build a new world in the basements of concert halls — one where people swing dance wildly, where the corners of band members’ mouths are always upturned in unwavering smiles, and where writers can forget to remember all of their responsibilities, even if just for a moment.
Contact Chasity Hale at cah70352 ‘at’ stanford.edu.