Vipers, Loons, and Backstabbers: The Curious Traveling Caravan of Marcel Petunia
“Petunia and the mother****ing Vipers. One of the best bands in the world today, of any kind.” Apologies for the language, but it is a quote from Phil Alvin. So it must be true. Marcel Petunia gave the quote to me on a mild winter night after his gig with renowned old time string player Nathan M. Godfrey at Duncairn Arts Centre -- an old deconsecrated church in Belfast city.
Petunia learnt “I’m Shakin” from Phil Alvin and The Blasters. Indeed, The Blasters' rockabilly and punk-tinged rock and roll would have been the perfect foil for Petunia and his Vipers. “Add a smidge of ragtime, some dixieland jazz, with a hint of bebop jazz, some Western swing and old fashioned cowboy music, some jug band and string band music," says Petunia, "...add a significant dose of Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams spice. Add to a lesser degree the Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson and a host of 'the Blinds' spices. We'd have the wet ingredients of a cake right there. Mix in hints and references to the dotted rhythms of Cuban, Mexican, Peruvian, Romanian and African folk music to flavour the dry ingredients of the cake. Now mix both dry and wet ingredients, and add punk rock, [add] Bowie -- who also spins off a host of influences of the UK music past, and alternative, part old-time, part new times, part no time at all, part all time.”
I’m smiling as I type. If you haven’t heard Petunia play, in any of his forms, then this could sound too too rich. So I suggest you listen to this version of "Mercy" just to get a taste.
As he told me where it all started, he had that Petunia gleam in his eye. The steely one. No detail was to be missed. The names, the year, the place, the replacements, the reasons, and the rhymes.
Petunia is restless; he’s a travelling soul. From Peru to the USA to Europe, he has journeyed and adventured and street performed. He has squatted in Amsterdam, written songs in Peru, and found a human hand at the side of the road in Ontario. In London, he busked under Blackfriars Bridge and lived on the stage of an upholstery shop. (The stage was used during upholstery warehouse parties.)
He lived on a stage -- that manages to encapsulate Petunia and his musical odyssey. He mastered his craft while busking in major cities and one-horse towns, learning to work the crowd and hone his voice to do what it does: yodeling, crooning, growling, rumbling, and drawling. I could go on with the adjectives, but you really just need to hear him.
He was asked by Ear Trumpet Labs, hand-makers of microphones, to employ one of their mics on tour. This is because his voice, like no other, would show off the microphone’s full capacity. “I used to sing cleaner country, but over time I’ve found angles that will suit a song”; and those have been any of the above. He also plays guitar, and kazoo attached to wire with pink tape. Rumour has it he plays piano and trumpet, but I’ve never seen him and I forgot to ask.
Petunia’s first band was The Backstabbers, based in Toronto, with whom he played a regular slot at a local bar. That all stopped because the bar owner wasn’t too keen on him. Then there was The Loons.
It took two years to get The Loons together. During those two years, they recorded the album Petunia & the Loons (named #1 Independent CD release of 2007 on college radio across Canada), and played every Saturday at the Lunar Rogue, which he assured me stocks about 100 different scotches.
It was getting late and our conversation was veering off topic. We had started discussing people talking through gigs. Petunia was philosophical about it: “If people are talking through a gig they don’t know the gravity of what they are doing. Try not to hate them. If they don’t have a grasp on the impact they are having by talking like that, then they don’t know how you are feeling”. I told him I don’t hate them so much as simply want to harm them physically. He closed his eyes sagely. “That’s what I mean. We need to understand where they are coming from first.”
This attitude didn’t come as a surprise. In his company over the past few years, I have noticed him quietly soaking up what is happening around him. While the likes of me have been busy struggling to bite our tongues at those who displease us, he has been trying to understand them. It’s not just the "be nice" angle that’s relevant here, though. His curiosity seems endless. It is probably one of the essential elements that keep him on the road; that give him the energy.
After The Loons, Petunia travelled for a year through Canada, where he “met a girl in Vancouver”. This history-making woman was able to organise a New Years Eve gig for Petunia to play with the late Ray Condo and The Ricochets. Through this, he got to know the band, and after the sad passing of Ray, the musicians “got together”. It seemed meant to be. Musically they were matched. The Ricochets needed to tour and Petunia was spending more time in the States and needed a band.
So, he started building Petunia &The Vipers from the constituent parts of The Ricochets. Sam Shoichet was Ray Condo’s other bass player at that New Years Eve gig, and was a natural fit. They played as a trio with guitarist Paul Rigby (who also plays with Neko Case, Calexico, and others) until Paul just got too busy. He was replaced by the much revered Paul Pigat. Then consummate electric guitarist Stephen Nikleva jumped on board, along with fellow ex- Ricochets veteran lapsteel guitarist Jimmy Roy.
They have been playing together now for four years and are known simply as The Vipers. They have made two studio albums. The critically acclaimed self titled Petunia & The Vipers from 2011, and the 2014 Inside Of You. A third album of covers Live at the Cafe Montmartre in Vancouver was released in 2009.
It has been said, “It would be easy to mistake and brand The Vipers as an old-country band or a 1920s music band, or a Western swing and rockabilly band, or a singery songwritery band. However, this is a new and modern band playing brand-new unadulterated, unclassified, unleashed sounds that rhyme with other older sounds of the past and are furiously driving the future wave of a new idiom."
To enter the exact zone where Petunia resides today I suggest you listen to the title track of their latest album Inside of You. Through this, you will hit the sweet spot; you will catch a fleeting glimpse of where he practices his alchemy. "Believe in yourselves, it's the hardest thing you'll ever have to do." However, I would do this soon. I'm not sure how long he's going to be there.
This review was originally published in Creative Voices NI