Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Dodge Brothers

Nobody does Beggars of Life like The Dodge Brothers. The UK-based group plays an exuberant hybrid of old-time American music - country blues, jug band, rock-a-billy and swing. And they do so accompanying silent films, notably the 1928 Louise Brooks vehicle, Beggars of Life.

The Dodge Brothers play what might be termed "roots music." Described as "wonderful stuff" on British radio, the band has gained a large reputation across the UK for putting on a show.

Twice within the coming week, The Dodge Brothers will accompany Beggars of Life. On Saturday, April 21, the band performed at a free outdoor screening of the film at the 18th Bradford International Film Festival in Bradford, England. And on April 29, Beggars of Life (1928) will screen at Barbican as part of its silent film & live music series. This screening will feature live musical accompaniment by The Dodge Brothers, with guest musician Neil Brand on the piano.

To date, The Dodge Brothers have released two albums. The group is made up of  Mike Hammond (lead guitar, lead vocals), Mark Kermode (bass, harmonica, vocals) - who also works as a film critic and broadcaster, Aly Hirji (rhythm guitar, mandolin, vocals), and Alex Hammond (washboard, snare drum, percussion). Brand, well known in the UK as a silent film accompanist, has sat in with the group on a number of occasions.

Mike Hammond - the group's singer (and silent film expert) answered a few questions a while back about their music, Louise Brooks, and silent film. 

Thomas Gladysz:   The Dodge Brothers will accompanied the Louise Brooks' film, Beggars of Life, twice in the coming weeks. For those not familiar with the Dodge Brothers, what can you tell us about the group? 

Dodge Brothers: Well here is the short version. The Dodge Brothers are a four-piece band modeled on the skiffle and jug bands of the 20s and 30s. Each of us plays more than one instrument, Aly plays acoustic guitar and mandolin, Alex plays washboard, snare and wine bottle, I play guitar, banjo, piano and tap dance while Mark plays double bass, harmonicas, accordion and is soon to unveil his prowess on the bag pipes. 
We started from a love of the music that leads up to Elvis, which ranges widely from railroad songs, murder ballads to ragged street blues. We got going learning ten songs (‘Frankie and Johnny’ and ‘Stagger Lee’ among others) and over the years we have amassed about 150 songs. A couple of years ago we started to write our own songs that resulted in our album Louisa and the Devil. Mark started this by bringing in Church House Blues and saying it was by an old jug band. We still do that; if it fools the rest of us into believing its authentic then we play it. (Did I say short version?)

Thomas Gladysz: With that said, what can one expect  - musically speaking, when you accompany Beggars of Life?

Dodge Brothers:  The score for the film will draw from those old songs from the period. I am a silent film scholar and I know that Paramount had the most film theatres in the rural areas so it was not uncommon for them to release different versions of films, one for the big cities and one for the rural towns. I have kept this in mind when thinking about the score. 

The lovely Troubadors version of Beggars of Life was meant as a theme for the film and we will be incorporating a version of that but combining it with motifs which call up railroad songs that were popular during the period, particularly those by Jimmie Rogers. Lots of those songs are really about hobos riding the rails and they have a wonderful wistfulness about them, a mixture of loneliness and humor that both fits the film and the way we play.

Thomas Gladysz:   Beggars of Life is unlike any of Brooks' earlier American films. Had you seen it before? And what were your impressions?

Dodge Brothers:  You’re so right about it being an exceptional Brooks film. Most people associate her with the Jazz Age flapper-type but in this film she plays a girl on the run, dressed as a boy! None of us had seen the film before and it was our fifth member, the fabulous pianist and silent film composer Neil Brand, who drew it to our attention. Brooks really ‘pops’ out of the screen and holds her own with Wallace Beery, which is no mean feat. The tension that is generated by her masquerade as a boy amongst a lot of rough hobos is tight as a drum. There is a real sense of menace and danger from the beginning where ‘The Girl’ (Louise) takes matters into her own hands with a firearm. She reminds me of Louisa in our song The Ballad of Frank Harris. Maybe that’s what I really like about this film, she is self-sufficient and an equal partner with Arlen. And she can shoot a gun! 

Thomas Gladysz: Are you a fan of Louise Brooks?

Dodge Brothers: Oh yes and not only because of the fact that she is the most compelling of screen stars. She is intuitive as an actress and gives the sense that she is being rather than acting. I do think Pabst understood that best. However, I am as big a fan of her writing. She is incisive and brutal in her analysis of Hollywood and, perhaps most touching, of herself. 

Thomas Gladysz:  When did you first come across the actress?

Dodge Brothers: I can’t speak for the rest of the guys. I first saw her in an undergraduate film class in the 80s. It was Pandora’s Box. I remember thinking; of course these guys are giving away everything for her, who wouldn’t?

Thomas Gladysz:   Louise Brooks has been getting the musical treatment. Rufus Wainwright released a musical tribute to Louise Brooks titled All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu. And of course, it was preceded by earlier rock and pop musical tributes by the likes of Orchestral Manuevers in the Dark (OMD), Marillion, Australian Jen Anderson, Soul Coughing, and others - even the cartoonist Robert Crumb. Where might your score fit into this history?

Dodge Brothers: Well all of these tributes are really great and it’s nice to be in their company. I haven’t heard Rufus Wainwright’s but I guess in this history we will probably be closer to R. Crumb’s. We are trying to bring a flavour of the kind of music that might have been played in the rural areas of the US to this film. 

Remember that the orchestras in most of those theatres at the time would have been as small as a quartet. They also played to their audience who would have known the railroad songs as well as the popular tunes of the day so they would mix them up. We’ll be doing something similar and hopefully support the wide-ranging emotions in this film, from lonesome and sad, to tender, to fast action and gunplay. Louise does it all here and, come to think of it, that’s a good description of The Dodge Brothers’ music too.

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