Petunia and the Vipers make great roots rock, sure.
Drawing on country swing, rockabilly, blues and old folk, they do Ray Condo’s legacy proud (and feature a varying number of former Ray Condo sidemen in their lineup—usually at the very least guitarists Jimmy Roy and Stephen Nikleva, both of whom are also in the Rocket Revellers).
But, though Petunia, especially in his solo incarnation, does have a stark, dark, moody side, the Vipers’ music tends to the upbeat and danceable. It makes them an intriguing, slightly unusual fit for openers at a Flesh Eaters show. So why were they hungry for the spot?
Part of it is down to Dave Alvin. While his music with the Flesh Eaters is a bit different from his solo work with the Guilty Ones, or his past with the Blasters—whose Bill Bateman will be drumming with the Flesh Eaters on Thursday (January 25)—he and Petunia have shared bills before, it turns out.
“We opened for Dave Alvin and the Guilty Ones in Eugene, Oregon,” Petunia tells the Straight during a call from the road. “That's where I was first introduced to Dave, whereupon he noted that, a) I had a nice hat (a Stetson), and b), that I should fix the hole in it (sage advice I thought)... Not long after that, I met Phil in LA and many good times were had by me getting to hang out, listen to music, play music together and become friends with such a stellar talent and gentleman of the first order.”
Since that time, Petunia has incorporated the Blasters classic “I’m Shakin’” into his own setlists.
“I first heard the song when Phil played it with the Blasters at a benefit concert (I think for Kid Ramos, but my memory is foggy) in LA. It really, really impressed me. We've since played that song together trading verses, and a host of other '30s, '40s and '50s numbers together backed by the Vipers. Playing with Phil is an absolute gas, I gotta say.”
If that’s not enough, there’s also a connection with X, whose bassist, John Doe, will be doing bass duties at the Flesh Eaters’ show, and whose percussionist, DJ Bonebrake, will be playing marimba among other things to compliment Bateman on drums.
“I did get to sing with Exene in LA backed again by the Vipers,” Petunia says (there is footage on Youtube).
“In fact, I think Phil and Exene were having enough fun playing with us that we ended up singing and playing a number of shows together, featuring Exene and Phil. Also a gas and a highlight. And really when it comes down to it, I'm just happy to know Phil and Exie—they're just so straight up and personable. There's no bullshit with those people. They made it easy for me to get to know them a little.”
As for DJ, the Vipers have also done shows in LA with the deft percussionist, along with John Bazz of the Blasters on bass. And the Vipers have opened for John Doe, too. “These guys are not only stellar musicians, but really swell folks, and super gracious.”
So will he be darkening (or “punkening,” if I may) his set for opening for the Flesh Eaters? Petunia gives a wry grin. “I'm never quite that sure what we'll do until the night of any show, and a solid plan can often get wrecked by the front man at the drop of a hat, when the mood takes them, so it's really hard to say what we'll do.”
There’s certainly no shortage of darker stuff in their back catalogue—including one stark classic resurrected for the band’s recent release, Lonesome, Heavy and Lonesome (copies of which are at High Life, will be on the merch table, and can be purchased through the band’s website.) That song is called "Ugliest Bitterest Coldest Dreary Place I've Ever Seen,” which you somehow just know is about his experiences living in Toronto.
“After busking for a few hours on the corner of Manning and College, I crossed the street for a pint of beer and wrote it on a napkin.”
And then there’s his newest collaboration with Al Mader, the Minimalist Jug Band, “I Don’t Have to Go to High School,” which, Petunia says, has “a super cool recording story for nerds into that sort of thing: during our recording session, in the studio, in the dead of winter in Alberta, we phoned Al Mader at his work in a bookstore in Vancouver. He answered the phone while customers were browsing around the store looking at books. (He told me so, and we could hear them shufffling around a bit occasionally). I said, ‘Okay Al, we're going to record your song and we want you to "sing" the intro over the phone while we record it on our end.’ He was taken aback and said 'What, you mean right now?’ I said ‘Yes.’ We played the track over the phone for him through speakers in the studio and we stuck the phone up to a microphone. Al then did his part over the phone. He phoned in his part from a bookstore in Vancouver to a studio in Alberta. Cool, eh?!”
There are also some classic blues tunes on the album—including a version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues” and “Blues in My Heart", which Petunia first heard from the Washboard Rhythm Kings. The songs for the album have been tested out at the WISE lounge for a regular gig every Monday night over the last few months. This was designed to give the band a “learning tool” to see what worked and where they wanted to take things. That has, “in some cases,” included writing songs, testing them, and revising them before committing them to tape. (Or whatever noun you commit things to in a music studio these days.)
Sadly, Stephen Nikleva has other commitments for the show, and won’t be able to be at the Rickshaw on Thursday.
“We searched far and wide for (and found) another Steve from another 'Viper' band to take his place. Steve Charles from Viper Central will play electric guitar, Jimmy Roy on lap steel, Joseph Lubinsky on upright bass and Paul Townsend on drums.”
As for the WISE Hall lounge residency, now that the album is out, will the practice of regular gigs there continue?
“Absolutely,” Petunia assures fans. “It’s too packed out every week and too much fun to quit!”
Petunia and the Vipers open for the Flesh Eaters at the Rickshaw, on Thursday (January 25)