The Skiffle Players are possibly the first skiffle supergroup in 60 years. A group of west coast alt.country notables, featuring Cass McCombs, Neal Casal, Dan Horne, Aaron Sperske, and “Farmer” Dave Scher. Names familiar to people who have listened to Beachwood Sparks, the Cardinals (ex backing band to Ryan Adams and Gin Wigmore), and various solo outings. This is their debut album recorded together – a mix of standards and new material grown out of live jam sessions.
Personally I was interested to hear this, because skiffle can have a different history depending on your side of the Atlantic. In the USA, it’s typically blues based, banged out of home-made instruments, such as washboards and cigar box guitars, coming out of the southern US. While in the UK we’re usually more familiar with the 1950s version that came out of bands like the Vipers, the Lonnie Donegan Group, and most famously was played by the Quarrymen. This was the point when European groups started to sell their more upbeat skiffle sound back to the US. So it’s possible that a US and a UK view of skiffle are going to differ.
These Skiffle Players have a mission statement of “Peace to the spirits of the musicians who came before us and taught us the secret esoteric ways of skiffle” and so you think it’s going to be the US, traditional, representation of old-time classics. True to form, the opener is a pretty straight up Doc Watson style cut of Coo Coo Bird. Then “A Star For You” kicks in, and you realise that one other band looms large over this enterprise; I’d suggest this is the perfect album for anyone with an interest in Workingman’s Dead era Grateful Dead. Not too surprising when you consider Casal and Horne were responsible for at least 5 hours of intermission mood music used at the recent Dead reunions. The blend works for me, and especially when it sounds like the band are having a good time – “Michael Weikel”, and “When The Title Was Wrote” being personal highlights.
“Railroadin’ Some” is what I would consider the most typical skiffle on the album – in that I think I can hear some washboard! It sounds like someone has asked the singer from Muleskinner Blues to be a railway station announcer. “Skiffle Strut” sounds a little more Skiffle Space Out, and is all the better for that. Another Doc Watson nod for a straight up version of “Omie Wise” fulfills the necessary murder ballad check.
“Always” is perhaps the least typical song, maybe closer to the Beachwood Sparks template? While “Skiffle Paperclip When Science Evolves” is way out there and could have wandered in from the soundtrack from Head, closes the album with the trippiest vibe of all.
Reverential for the past, bringing serious musical chops, with a west coast filter, it’s very easy to like this album. I bet they could jam for a long time live, and I for one hope they do so in the UK this summer.