By Scott McLellan, Globe Correspondent – December 06, 2012
At the moment, Chandler Travis is a member of the Catbirds, the Chandler Travis Three-O, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, and the Incredible Casuals.
“I’d be fine with one band,” Travis concedes in an interview from his Eastham home. “But it’d have to be a really restless band.”
Still a prolific songwriter, Travis creates songs that range from roaring garage rock to pretty chamber pop to mutant big-band compositions to Christmas songs. This year he released “Catbirds Say Yeah” with the Catbirds, “This Is What Bears Look Like Underwater” with the Three-O (a quartet, no less), and is gearing up for three stagings of his annual Christmas Cavalcade concerts, which will bring in the Philharmonic and many of Travis’s musical allies.
Travis calls himself a human monkey wrench in the sense that he is happy gumming up the system and defying expectations. He knows that can be counterintuitive from a business standpoint — releasing two very different albums so close together was probably not helpful to either project he says — but artistically, Travis is just following the lead of the people who inspired him.
“It’s like Dylan coming up with a whole new voice for a record,” Travis says. “Or Paul McCartney. You listen to ‘Lady Madonna’ and you go, where’d that guy come from?”
‘I love Christmasmusic. I’m just fascinated by a holiday not only with its own music, but one that is so aggressive about it.’
Travis first gained notice in the ’70s playing with Steve Shook in Travis, Shook and the Club Wow before forming the Incredible Casuals in 1980. The Casuals became a Cape Cod institution, performing every Sunday for 32 years at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet, where the band delivered a good-humored blend of primal rock ’n’ roll spiced with R&B. The Casuals no longer hit the Beachcomber every Sunday, but instead show up there about four times a season amid other gigs.
Travis says he piled up songs that didn’t fit well with the Casuals, and those paved the way to the Philharmonic’s configuration with horns, keys, and mandocello. Of course, the sprawl of the Philharmonic posed its own problems, especially in finding venues big enough for the nine-piece band. A few years ago, when offers came for some smaller gigs, the Three-O was born with Travis setting up a band with the Philharmonic’s bassist John Clark, multi-instrumentalist Berke Mc-Kelvey, and singer Fred Boak.
Around the time the Three-O came into shape, Travis also cooked up the Catbirds, a band that makes a glorious racket of jittery rock ’n’ roll of the sort teenagers make after hearing “My Generation” for the first time. Except in this case, these “teens” have a few decades of solid work under their belts, with Steve Wood playing unbridled electric guitar, Philharmonic cohort Dinty Child switching between guitar, mandocello, and accordion, Rikki Bates on drums, and Travis on bass.
“This is a band where I get to play like I did when I started playing,” says Bates, who first started working with Travis 35 years ago in Travis, Shook and the Club Wow and carried on into the Casuals, the Philharmonic, and now the Catbirds. “I like to hit the drums hard.” (No kidding; Bates busted a bass drum during a recent Catbirds show at Johnny D’s.)
Bates also likes the breadth of work Travis presents. With the Catbirds, Bates drums in the moment, maybe tossing in an extra half-beat that triggers a response from the guitar and so on; in the Philharmonic, it’s all about nailing the precision and nuance of the songs.
Boak, who went from diehard Casuals fan, to band’s merch guy (“I was at all of the shows anyway”) to Travis’s “valet” in the Philharmonic, to eventually becoming a full-fledged Three-O singer, echoed a point also made by Bates: Travis makes sure to tend to the details in his songs.
Chandler Travis leading the Catbirds in a recent set at Johnny D’s in Somerville.
“Chandler can do all of these interesting chord things and have a good hook,” Boak says. “He understands the concept of the hook.”
And Travis takes the hook wherever it needs to go.
“I love Christmas music,” he says, noting his four albums of holiday music and 26 years of annual compilations he’s made for friends. “I’m just fascinated by a holiday not only with its own music, but one that is so aggressive about it.”
And the Christmas Cavalcades are Travis’s showcase for all that is good about the seasonal songs, especially those that capture the opposing forces of joy and despair unleashed in December.
The 8th or 9th Annual Christmas Cavalcade to Benefit the Homeless happens Dec. 13 at Johnny D’s in Somerville and features the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, Livingston Taylor, Jenny Dee and the Deelinquents, Barrence Whitfield, Jennifer Kimball, Vance Gilbert, the Catbirds, Ray Mason, Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers, the Jessica Schroeder Dancer, Miriam, Shaun Wortis, Bird Mancini, Aaron Spade, Kami Lyle, the Darlings, the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, the Philharmonic Trombone Shout Band, and the Athol Thingerth. All proceeds from the show will go to the Somerville Homeless Coalition.
The Cavalcade then stops into the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Dec. 15 and presents the Three-O, Sarah Swain and the Swain Sisters, Christine Rathbun, Fred Magee, Robertchez, and the Trees.
The second Cape Cod Christmas Cavalcade happens Dec. 16 at the Jailhouse Tavern in Orleans and features the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, the Ticks, Siobhan Magnus, the Rip-It-Ups, Tripping Lily, Bruce Maclean, Kate & Tad from Sidewalk Driver, the Catbirds, Steve Shook, Christine Rathbun, Fred Fried, Carla Kihlstedt & Matthias Bossi, Jay Cournoyer, Sarah Burrill, Sarah Swain & the Swain Sisters, Kami Lyle, Lydia Parkington, Stephen Russell, Toast & Jam, and the Athol Thingerth. Both of the Cape shows benefit the Noah Shelter of Hyannis.
No matter which Cavalcade you hit, count on hearing nothing but Christmas tunes — some originals, some vintage, some out of left field (there’s usually a lot of dibs on Robert Earl Keene’s “Merry Christmas From the Family”).
Then after the holiday, Travis will likely get back to feeding his bands.
“I write whatever pops into my head. I may wake up with something and just write it down, not sure where it’s going to go,” he says. “I love the process. They just float into my head.”