Headless Household. At Center Stage Theater, Monday, December 4.
Reviewed by Charles Donelan
With little in the way of advance advertising and no discernible media hype, Joe Woodard’s Headless Household consistently fills Center Stage Theater for an annual Christmas concert that doesn’t include any Christmas music. This seeming paradox makes perfect sense when one sees the crowd that turns out — they have almost all known each other for the 20 or so years this venerable Santa Barbara tradition has been in existence. It is a tribute not only to the extended family of musicians involved, but also to the audience, proving the siren call of the Household’s wild amalgam of free jazz, honky-tonk, polka, waltz, and Americana retains its grip. The core members of Headless Household are Dick Dunlap, Tom Lackner, Chris Symer, and Joe Woodard, who writes most of the fascinating and eccentric charts, many of which fell to the floor promptly upon the musicians’ arrival onstage.
The first thing to understand about the Household’s music is that when they announce a genre — say, polka for example — that hardly means they will stick to anything much resembling a traditional polka, or even that one of their polkas will sound much like another. For example, the opener, “Pig in a Polka,” was very different in mood and tone than “Splinkety Polka” from later in the first set; “Bolka,” from the second set, was different again.
What unites these disparate approaches is a commitment to the sound and values of free improvisation. Tom Buckner is a gifted reed player who brings the gamut of post-bop techniques to his sly participation on tenor sax and bass clarinet. Sally Barr swings on the violin and sings like a dream on the Americana medley. Julie Christensen tackles the clever, knotty lyrics that accompany about half the numbers with great wit and style. Like almost everyone involved, she also looks like she is really having fun up there. Her performance on the madcap “Here’s to the Heimlich Maneuver” was a rousing highlight of the evening.
Joe Woodard’s compositions carry their myriad influences with easy grace. On the newest piece, his avant-gutbucket guitar blended with Tom Lackner’s funky percussion in a way that recalled the Latin Playboys’ project Los Lobos. Everything that gets thrown into this musical blender seems to belong there, from the rinky-dink electronic musical toys on Dick Dunlap’s song “Plaything” to Jim Connolly’s fabulous musical saw. Here’s to many more years of this unique Santa Barbara tradition.