Vaud & the Villains bring edgy theatrical flair—and straight-up rock ’n’ roll—to folk traditionals
In 2007, Andy Comeau and Dawn Lewis were planning their wedding. Bruce Springsteen’s album We Shall Overcome: the Seeger Sessions—a rambunctious, joyful tribute to American folk music with a dozen-plus collaborators—had just been released, and the couple wanted to find a group similar to Springsteen’s for their ceremony.
Not surprisingly, they weren’t able to find one. They realized if they wanted something like that, they would have to create it themselves—so they did. They took the names Vaud Overstreet and Peaches Mahoney, and went to work creating Vaud & the Villains, a lively, swinging-from-the-rafters musical adventure that blends American roots music, New Orleans soul, Moulin Rouge aesthetics, and 1930s gangster noir.
“We had had an a-ha moment and thought, ‘Why don’t we create something that’s our take on the Seeger Sessions,’” says Mahoney, whose grandmother was a dancer in Vaudeville. “We’re not Springsteen or Seeger, but we would take the concept of the old traditionals and spirituals and parlor music, and dress in costumes, and come up with names.”
Now an 18-piece Los Angeles-based ensemble that includes classically trained and self-taught musicians, cabaret dancers, and wild characters of all types, Vaud & the Villains is less like a band and more like an otherworldly gathering of souls. There’s a timelessness to the group’s performances that transports the audience from the 21st century into a universe of zoot suits, dance halls, traveling medicine shows and speakeasies.
The group plays folk standards such as “John Henry,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” and “St. James Infirmary” with the energy of a rock ’n’ roll show.
“In the beginning, we were doing old traditionals and spirituals,” says Overstreet. “Then we started to imagine, ‘What if you played an Aerosmith song in 1930? What would it have sounded like?’”
That question informed the direction of the group. With names like Lucky LaFontaine, Onestring King, Low Down Kate, Two Boots Overstreet, Babyface, and Big Daddy, the Villains toss out their modern lives in favor of something far more mysterious, underground and exciting.
All the players have stories that accompany their names. Overstreet is a charlatan, seducer and tenor saxophone player who led a medicine show; Mahoney is a pickpocket, canary, and leggy dancin’ dame; Big Daddy is a fence, loan shark, slumlord, warlord, liquor-makin’, bet-takin’, leg-breakin’ fiddle man; Babyface is a junker, wisecracker, longshorewoman-marryin’, banjo-strumming man.
“When we created this, we never wanted anyone to use their real name,” says Overstreet. “We want it to transport you. To help with that mirage, we wanted colorful names and costumes, and have little tidbits—little pieces that make people buy into the whole thing.”
As the name suggests, this is no squeaky-clean take on American history—this is gritty and edgy, and at times dark, but it’s also uplifting. Vaud & the Villains create a world where anyone, regardless of their story, can go to forget their troubles and join in the romp.
The group borrows their motto from an Oscar Wilde quote: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” And, in another nod to Springsteen, the Villains sing his version of the folk song “This Train.” Where countless other artists sing that the train doesn’t carry gamblers, liars, conmen and the like, Springsteen sings that his train carries the gamblers and the liars, and everybody else.
“Springsteen said, ‘Everyone get on the train, everyone is welcome on the train,’” says Overstreet. “That really connected with us. There are people you wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with, but they’re singing along with the songs and everyone’s feeling this uplifting thing together.”
Vaud & the Villains don’t try to appeal to any one group, and in that approach, they attract young people, old people, and everyone in-between, including those from different cultures, demographics and styles.
“It’s two hours of letting everything else go and just having fun,” says Mahoney, explaining that they end shows with the old gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine.”
“It’s such a great way to bring people together,” she adds. “It doesn’t matter what religion, age or ethnicity you are, everyone sings it. It’s this great, collaborative moment.”
Vaud & the Villains will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 15 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $13/adv, $17/door. 479-1854.