Nostalgia isn’t an easy pursuit. It requires you to remove yourself from the now, disengage from a cynical default and make emotional connections across the aeons of time. For our generation, it is something of an enigma. What is needed is a superlative storyteller, someone that can conjure up compelling images from the past, and pluck out the common threads of humanity like the strings on a freshly-strung banjo. Curtis Eller is that man…
A moustachioed, New York, yodelling banjo player, Eller sings for the unsung, rump-shakes for the ne’er remembered, and leg trembles for histories forgotten. He is a theatre of movement: a twitching, twirling time machine whose songs transport you back to the lost annals of history.
There are not many performers that can claim to have written a song about, “the filth and cruelty of the meat-packing industry in Chicago in the 1890s.” Or furnish their impressive back catalogue with figures as diverse as Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassin Jack Ruby, the father of American music Stephen Foster, and World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis.
Complex characters and epochs are resurrected with a lonely twang or a finger-picked flurry of banjo bolstered with a few evocative words and an expressive yodel here and there. But these are no rose-tinted revisionisms, these are cautionary tales, acerbic, political and wholly relevant. On the stomping Sweatshop Fire, Eller evokes the 18thU.S President, Ulysses S. Grant, and intones:
“I’m gonna burn like a sweatshop fire
I’m climbing up into the rafters
I’m gonna clip that angel’s wire
I’m gonna lock the factory doors and let ’em sweep the ashes away
If you is holding out for the Union to save you
Well I guess you just turned up on a bad day…”
Eller is as funny as he is knowledgeable. Not just his circus-trained physicality, but the sharp wit that emerges in his banter. He describes being inspired to write a gospel song for Atheists, (Old Time Religion) after realising that the gospel tunes he loved had “a really weird Christian slant to the lyrics.” And it is with considerable pleasure that he introduces a song with, “It’s about Elvis Presley’s relationship with Passover. It is in the key of D Minor, if you feel like dancing…”
After stopping to tie his laces for the umpteenth time, Eller explains it is not so much that they have become undone, more that he is, “on a quest for a perfect tension.” His high-top Converse may not have it, but tonight’s performance gets pretty close.
For much of the evening, Eller positions himself amongst the Bristol audience, walking along chair backs, strutting up the The Cube’s aisles, and at one point high-kicking his leg into the projection window. This backstreet cinema and bastion of culture is the perfect venue for Eller, happily contributing to the old-world atmospherics by serving hard liquor in jam jars and beers carefully-wrapped in brown paper bags. Surviving thanks to a wonderful team of volunteers, donations, and a whole lot of love, The Cube needs a future just as much as Eller needs the past.
Eller’s desire to connect with people, both living and dead, underpins his performance. He seems happiest lying on his back, upside down in the middle of the central aisle, plucking merrily as people look on affectionately. The crowd are his; yodelling enthusiastically on command, providing a symphony of pigeon coos in the charming Last Flight of the Pigeon Club, and whispering Save Me Joe Louis’s haunting refrain ever quieter until their lips barely quiver with each exhalation of words. This is not a show where you text and Tweet, instead you coo and yodel, happy to sever contact with the outside world and escape the now for as long as possible.
Words: Tom Spooner
Photography: Laura Morgans