The Roe Family Singers may have been stripped down to their long underwear, wearing only barrels to cover the more raunchy parts, but at least they’ll eat waffles for a year, made in the coveted prize waffle iron they won at the 28th Annual Battle of the Jug Bands. This year, 20 bands duked it out for the waffle iron at the Cabooze on Valentine’s Day. Regardless of the holiday (or because of it!) the Cabooze was, as always for this event, packed with fun-lovin’ good-timing jug band music enthusiasts and participants.
The “oldest jug band battle in the known universe” has been held on or near the West Bank since 1966. In the past few years, nearly double the allowed 20 bands have applied, instigating organizers to begin what will hopefully become a new tradition: the Saturday Night Pancake League. This is a new battle between the Jug Band rejects (those who didn’t make the lottery selection for the Sunday battle) for the new, soon-to-be-coveted Pancake Griddle Trophy! Nine bands, including the new naughtybilly bluegrass band Courtney McClean and the Dirty Curls, participated in this at the Corner Bar on Seven Corners. The first winners of that prize were Chicago’s Barehand Jug Band.
At the main event at the Cabooze, while snow fell outside, numerous jug band tunes old and new—revered but mostly irreverant—fell on our ears from 1 to 8 p.m. Each band had 15 minutes on stage. The band size ranged from 1 (!) to 20+, with most falling in the range of 8-10 performers, playing and singing their hearts out, getting the huge crowd to dance, cheer, and sing along. The Como Avenue Jug Band, last year’s winners, were this year’s judges (with 10 members, it was the most judges I’ve seen in the past dozen years I’ve attended).
The jug bands had the usual vast range of talent and kitschy humor that young and old enjoy. Most of them wore funny and/or authentic old-timey costumes, mostly remniscent of the ‘20s and ‘30s Depression era when jug bands first entertained, with the aim of taking people’s minds off their troubles. Bands hailing from as far away as Chicago gathered to have a good time playing homemade instruments. (Besides fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin, jug band instruments are mostly things you’d find in your kitchen or garage. Or even your garbage.)
Many jug bands change their names and a few members each year to try to shake things up (and win). The New Improved Jook Savages, led by an original Jug Band Battle creator, Dave Morton, is always the largest jug band, barely fitting on the huge stage. I missed Goat Hearts (last year’s Goat Riders), but lead Mike Rivard said, “We’ve never won. We’ll never win. We’re too rock ‘n’ roll for jug band.” But they persist against the odds. Highlights of the battle for me (and clearly the rest of the audience, gauging by the applause and ooohs and ahhhs over the costumes and homemade instruments) were Chicago’s Hump Night Thumpers, from the Old Town School of Music; and Boo Bradley, from Columbus, Wisconsin, who really had the jug band muttonchops. Mommy and the Bullocky Boys, who drove all the way from Iowa City, Iowa had everything going for them: they had great costumes, awesome songs, and talent galore amongst the 10 or so band members.
It looked like they might take the waffle iron, but then the Roe Family Singers came on stage wearing long johns and union suits. Kim Roe introduced her new fashion statement: yhe Bikini Barrel Suit. She carried her baby Elspeth in her red jammies on her back. (Babies on stage oft help guarantee a win—there’s the cuteness factor, and if they bang a spoon, better yet!). Quillan Roe opened by shamelessly asking over the mic if the judges got their bribe. “Can you read that? Do you like it?” and apologizing to the audience for their lack of clothing but noting the judges took everything, including their clothes. Kim and Quillan Roe and their gang then kicked into the most rousing rendition of “Crow Black Chicken” I’ve heard, getting the crowd to crow and sing. It just kept on got better: during the second song, Quillan plucked the first few notes of “Dueling Banjos,” looking defiantly over at Rob “Ol Spitty” Davis, who responded to the call on his jug with the next few notes, and then it was on, banjo vs. jug, for a new take on the old duel song. This killed the audience, and, the judges. They proceeded to perform a couple more excellent jug band tunes in high camp form.
After the judges went in the green room to compare notes, they came back, announcing the runners-up and the winners: the Roe Family Singers. Many other prizes were given such as “Jug Band Slut” (one who carries his or her instrument around and will play with anyone and everyone; I [ahem] wouldn’t know anything about that), best costumes, best bribe, best jug solo, that sort of thing. People left buzzed and happy, for Valentine’s festivities and grub, returning for more wild fun at the Cadillac vs. Cornbread afterparty at Palmer’s Bar. Packed like sardines, people still managed to dance, spilling beers and having a raucous time in the spirit of the day. Be sure to mark your calendars for the second Sunday of February so you don’t miss it next year!
DISCLOSURE: Cyn Collins has performed in numerous jugbands, and led a couple, including the notorious Whiskey Girls and Their Wild Turkeys (a first runner-up) and, a few years ago, the all-kazoo band Kazoo-i-okie, several years ago. She has won an unmentionable, above-mentioned prize. She hopes to win the waffle maker (or at least the pancake griddle) next year with her new, yet-to-be-formed, jug band.