Progressive Country: Petunia and the Vipers are a Staggering Leap Forward
Once the playground of the Merle Haggards and Bill Monroes of the world, mainstream country has become a twangy, annoying imitation of pop. However, within the independent scene, there is a movement that seeks embellish rather than obscure the early Americana roots by fusing early country stylings with gypsy jazz, rockabilly, and surf. At the helm of this movement are Canadian firebrands Petunia and the Vipers, who can be seen Wed., June 1, at Johnny B’s in Medford.
Petunia, the mysterious, mononymous, trilingual from Quebec has been working for twenty years to perfect his arresting, yodelriffic, vocal style. For seven of these years, he made his living solely as a street performer. The result is a dynamic whoop and holler that can drop from a boisterous crescendo to mousy whisper at a moment’s notice.
“When I was singing on the street and then translated to live shows I didn’t think I was going to have to learn about how to sing quietly,” Petunia says. “I thought I was set. And then when I learned how to sing quietly it opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities between quiet, loud, raspy and so on. It’s all an exploration of sound.”
Petunia’s outlandish vocal stylings have been backed by all manner of exceptional Canadian musicians including guitarists such as Paul Rigby (who played with Neko Case), Paul Pigat, and currently Stephen Nikleva. This lineup allows for the patent genre fluidity expected of a Petunia and the Vipers set. Petunia’s sound continues to become more eclectic as he builds a relationship with an ever growing catalog of influences.
“Bill Monroe, he was a great musician, and he’s known as the father of bluegrass music,” Petunia says. “He said, ‘you only really have to listen to a style of music once, just one little snippet of it to understand it.’ This doesn’t mean you will know it intimately but you get a toe hold. On many occasions, that’s sort of where I’m at with the music I make. By playing the music, you get closer acquainted with the roots of the music.”
Petunia’s latest album, Dead Bird on a Highway, features songs in English, French and even Swahili. Though this mixture could easily seem alien, the comfort with which Petunia traverses linguistic barrier makes such transitions easy on the ear.
“I have a specialty with languages and I suspect it’s partly because I am a musician,” he says. “I also attribute some of my ease with language to having listened and learned a lot of country music. In particular having studied a lot of phrasing and melody lines from Lefty Frizzell.”
To call Petunia an eccentric would be a gross understatement. However, the strange charisma he commands both on and off of the stage is sure to rally more to his cause and bring country once again to its former glory.
Petunia and the Vipers
9 pm, Wedn., June 1
Johnny B’s, 120 E. Sixth St., Medford