Headless Household. At Center Stage Theater, Monday, December
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’
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.