There are a few excellent ultra-niche bands that stand out in my memory: Monkey Grinder, a Halloween carnival-themed band I saw on All Hallow’s Eve several years ago; the Conjugal Visitors, a 1910s period-piece bluegrass band from Seattle’s Folklife Festival, and Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, a New Orleans-based group that specializes in sea shanties. That’s right, sea shanties. Hits include numbers such as “All For Me Grog” and “Hangin’ Johnny.” (Lyrics: First I hanged me Sally, and then I hanged me family.”) Apparently 90% of sea shanties have the words “Johnny,” “Whiskey,” or both in the title.
I came across this latest band by listening to NOLA’s local jazz and blues radio station, where the DJ Black Dog was special guest Cap’n Alex McMurray. The Cap’n (not “Captain,” he insisted) had devised the idea for a sea shanty band while performing one summer for Tokyo DisneySea as Captain Sandy, “a pea-coated, knee-length booted, 19th-century quasi-military seafarer in the model of Captain Ahab and Cap’n Crunch.” All the act really needed, McMurray decided, was some famed New Orleans percussion. And thus the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus was born. (The name stems from the Chilean port town, a major thoroughfare for ships going round the Horn prior to the trenching of the Panama Canal.) Pretty much it’s a group of thirty or so rough-and-tumble would-be sailors singing call-back songs accompanied by an accordion, a trombone, a pennywhistle, and a washboard. According to their Facebook page, they are influenced by “Rum, Booty, High Seas, Glory, Adventure. Rum.” and sound like a “Caterwalling Chorus of Drunken Sailors.” I’d say that’s about right.
This may be the most random thing I’ve ever posted, but I was fascinated by this story. No joke. For anyone in New Orleans tomorrow night, they’re playing at the Saturn Bar “when the moon sinks below the bow.” Barring that, you can check them out online. Bon Voyage.