Using only two kazoos, a fat, dead president and four fingers on each hand, two men take over New York City. Resurrecting and rechanneling the sounds of hot jazz from the '30s and '40s through their own warped filter, guitarist/banjoist/lead kazooer Andy Bean and bassist/backup kazooer Fuller Condon first took to the streets of New York City as The Two Man Gentlemen Band in 2007. Their act was a hit from day one. "The first day we went out here we made a whole big pile of money," Bean says by phone from his home in NYC. "That's what kept us out there playing for five hours at a time for a couple of years in a row."
The experience honed their performing skills as well. "We learned to sing really loud," Bean says. It also helped the band learn how to deal with rejection. "As great an effort as we made, most people just walked by and ignored us, so it just thickened our skins a little."
For those who did hang around, the Gents offered up a mix of material that harkened back to Vaudeville, an amalgamation of variety acts lumped together on one bill that toured the country from the late 1800s through the '30s. "We use the term to indicate the spirit of the act," Bean says. "We're not just getting up there and singing songs. We try to put a whole show together."
A Two Gentlemen show is an interactive affair. The audience is encouraged to shout and stomp as the band rattles along at breakneck speed with Bean and Condon singing lustily on original songs about the joys of smoking ("Me, I Get High on Reefer") and drinking ("I Can Get Drunk and Sing Songs," "I've Been Drinking.")
The fat dead president song, "William Howard Taft," from their latest release, Live in New York, always gets the crowd energized as well. "Measured in clean at a quarter ton/Made the oval office just fit for one," Bean sings in tribute to our 27th president, the 300-pound Taft. "Got himself stuck in a bath/Took the secret service and the police/To pry him out with a tub of grease." Bean thinks the song is timeless. "Whether people know who he is or not, when we tell 'em we're singing about a big fat guy and you get to shout along with it, people have an easy time connecting with that."
Although Bean believes the duo would have fit in well with a Vaudeville troupe, burlesque shows, which have made a big comeback in the New York area, are where he says the band feels most at home. "We sort of share a common spirit, so they invite us to play with 'em very often," Bean says. "Which isn't a bad deal, play a coupla songs and go stand by the side of the stage and watch a girl take her clothes off."
When not busy observing strippers, the two are honing a sound that's somewhere between '30s novelty jazz singers Slim and Slam and brilliant comedic jazz-influenced country satirists Homer and Jethro, incorporating jazz-era licks with country style instrumentation. Like many jazz guitarists in the '20s and '30s, Bean favors four-stringed guitars for an authentic sound, and for stress relief. "I only got four fingers, so I don't need to choose which four strings to play," he says.
There aren't many folks on the circuit doing this kind of thing. The Asylum Street Spankers do it with more folks on board, and Bean has no problem being lumped in their company. "We're happy to be compared with any band that has more fans than we do," Bean says. "If you want to compare us to Céline Dion, that's just fine."
But while Céline Dion might have a problem drawing an audience at the Double Door, the Gents play different kinds of rooms on a nightly basis. Bean maintains that their target audience is "anybody who'll listen," in venues from punk clubs to smaller listening rooms like The Evening Muse to playing large outdoor venues opening up for big headliners. Last summer, the duo opened three shows for Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson. The audiences were very receptive to their act, but they didn't get much interaction with all of the stars. "Mr. Dylan values his privacy," Bean says, and although he missed their set because he was on the bus "doing what Willie does," they did get to meet and hang out for a friendly visit with Nelson.
Even though their sound was good enough to attract superstar encounters, Bean and Condon have decided to modify it somewhat in the future. Up until now, the band's body of work has been kazoo-friendly. But the instrument apparently has side effects not mentioned in the packaging. "It's been a good friend to us, but that's one dreadful instrument," Bean says. "We've done so much kazoo-playing in the last couple of years that I think we're starting to lose some of our hearing." He says that the duo's new record about to come out will probably be kazoo-free. "It's been good to us so far," he says of the offending instrument, "but our relationship is starting to sour, which I think is good for our music."
The Two Man Gentleman Band play the Double Door, 1218 Charlottetowne Avenue, Friday, April 2 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $8.