music (2006-33)

Taking It from the Streets

New York’s Two Man Gentleman Band is old school, really old

by Kevin Crowe

"We went out to the park,” says Andy Bean of the humble origins of The Two Man Gentlemen Band. “That’s what we did. We made 30 dollars the first day, and thought that this was the coolest thing in the world.

“There was never really a plan,” he continues. “I had a banjo, he had an upright bass. We were pals. We went out and played.”

This quirky duet started about four years ago on a whim, just for fun, as a chance to kick back and pay homage to lost Americana by performing for tourists and other passersby in Central Park. Two years ago, it became a full-time job.

“I imagine Vaudevillers were pretty damn entertaining,” Bean says. “It wasn’t necessarily self-expression as much as it was entertaining. I wish I had been alive to see some of it. We think it’s important to be visually captivating as well as musically captivating.”

On the song “Stuff Your Ballot Box,” they sing, “When it comes to my baby’s loving, I’ve always been the incumbent / I’m gonna shove as many votes as I can inside of you / I’m gonna make multiple selections / I’m gonna rig your love election.”

Cue the kazoo solo .

The kazoos, which can be heard on most tracks on their newest CD, Great Calamities , can be both a blessing and a curse. As a gimmick, the nasally screeches are good for attracting crowds, sure, but one time, after two beautiful women were enchanted by the gentlemen’s olden musical prowess, the kazoos came out and the ladies disappeared. Sometimes gimmicks aren’t as useful as we’d like to believe. But it’s always great fun, even if the beautiful hiparazzi always agreeable.

When you’re a street performer by trade, the show must go on, and on. Bean, together with Fuller Condon on the upright bass, brings a bit of unimpeded passion to the performances, as he’s always prone to throw in plucky, risqué lyrics over their old-time sounds. “The music can be very derivative,” Bean admits. “It’s not a new thing to stick double-entendres into songs.”

Perhaps that derivativeness is what makes the music so fun, when the old, curmudgeonly backbeats are juxtaposed with intelligent narratives, spliced with some sophomoric lyrics, presented with a smile. It’s the Vaudevillian gentleman, a bygone sense of comic civility.

“I think what’s important is courtesy,” Bean explains. “By that I mean—all of one’s actions—you should be conscious of what you’re doing. Be sensible of the experiences of others around you. That’s what a gentleman is. Another person’s comfort is more important than yours.”

That’s what keeps drawing Bean and Condon out to the public spaces, what keeps them playing for strangers and reluctant audiences. When you’re performing in the street, endurance is key, to keep the music going as crowds come and go.

“[Street performing] draws a crowd,” Bean says, “maybe out of curiosity instead of love of music.”

Don’t be surprised if you see two anachronistic Vaudevillians jamming on Market Square this Wednesday afternoon, singing about the Memphis Flu, circa 1929, or Stonewall Jackson’s left arm, circa 1863, hit by friendly fire in Chancellorsville.

Bean and Condon first built a following by taking part in the Music Under New York Program, which auditions and positions the best of the best at strategic, high-traffic locations throughout New York City, encouraging more talented performers to take their acts to the streets. Maybe Knoxville can learn a thing or two from these two gentlemen. Maybe our resident Market Square fiddlers, saxophonists and cellists will show them up. Who knows?

One thing is ludicrously certain: To commemorate their first prolonged tour, The Two Man Gentlemen Band promises to play badminton in every city it visits. “We do make a formidable team, the two of us,” Bean brags.

They say Bill Monroe also enjoyed pitting his band against locals. Sometimes he’d keep a guy in the band, even if he wasn’t a great musician, so long as he could play baseball. So challenge them to a game, if you dare, before they get all Vaudevilled-up.

“We’re just on the same page all the time,” Bean goes on. “Rhythmically. Harmonically.” Badmintonally, too. As for the music, he says it’s simple: “You can’t really predict what’s gonna come out of you when you do it. We’re not trying to revive anything or make a tradition.” Sometimes, it’s just about the fun.

Who: Two Man Gentleman Band