Al Frisby throws an anniversary/CD release party June 28 at Don Quixote's. (POSTPONED) (Chip Scheuer)
There were no instruments in sight when I met the musician and comedian Al Frisby at a local cafe last week, but there might as well have been 14. The steamed milk vortex that threatened to drown out our voices quickly faded to a distant murmur as the curly-haired artist, wearing green lizard-skin boots, dragged me (and the person pretending to do work at the table next to us) on a wild ride through the Deep South where he grew up, beginning in the swamps of Louisiana.
“I could catch an alligator any size—all I need is two ropes and a pole,” Frisby informs me in the southern drawl of this boyhood. He takes a sip of his café au lait. “I was catchin’ eight footers by the time I was seven.”
It was at this point that I decided to put down my pen and forget the questions I had carefully planned for Frisby about his one-man band and the birdfeeders he crafts out of found relics and just enjoy the ride, for which we were departing at full gallop.
“People say, ‘Well, you’ve been out of Louisiana for a long time.’ But it’s a culture that is so beautiful and so tragic that you just cant help but to look at life through it,” Frisby says. “It also helps to have a lot of indelible nightmares of your youth, like being handcuffed to a tree in the swamp and beat by the police; havin’ your best friend’s head blown off in a duck hunt; watchin’ your sister drown; livin’ through’ hurricanes.”
“Don’t let go of the potato” is the direct translation of Frisby’s latest album Lache Pas a Patate, which blends his well-loved novelty songs with the Americana music that formed the soundtrack to his upbringing in the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
It’s an old Cajun saying with the loose meaning “hold on to what you have,” and a direct embrace of his Cajun roots, which go all the way back to the mid-1700’s, when the French were kicked out of Canada during the French and Indian War and set adrift in supply boats that ended up in Louisiana many months later.
“They gave ‘em some sacks of old rotten potatoes to eat, and the boats were very old, and to save on wood the floors weren’t solid—they had spaces in ‘em,” Frisby says. And if you dropped your potato it would fall to the bottom of the boat and you couldn’t get it. A lot of people died.”
Luckily for us, Frisby’s ancestors didn’t, and Frisby was born around Juneteenth, 1959. This Thursday at Don Quixote’s he celebrates his 20th year as a musical performer and the release of a new CD. (EDITOR'S NOTE: The June 28 show has been postponed due to a medical emergency. Stay tuned to www.santacruz.com for info on rescheduled show.)
The Good Life
“In Creole and Cajun culture, we have a philosophy of a kind of hedonism, in a way,” Frisby says. “But it’s not really hedonism—we just have a very, very high standard of quality of life.
“Where I’m from, we don’t give a shit if it’s a Tuesday,” he says. “We’re like, ‘I’m gonna go get me a duck. I’m gonna cook that baby up. I’m gonna make some jambalaya, turn the lights down, light some candles, put out some fresh flowers, put on some good music. And roast some duck, shuck some oysters, you know what I mean? Tuesday night. People walk into my house and they’re like ‘What’s the occasion?’ Fuckin’ Tuesday!”
Where Frisby comes from, Tuesday also means young boys catch alligators and their mamas make the obscene yet delicious Sauce Piquant from the less-desireable dark muscle meat of the tail.
“If you can get it in your mouth without throwin’ up, it’s one of the most wonderful things on earth,” Frisby recalls “It smells like snakes, it smells like a reptile. But once it hits your palate, it really blossoms.”
Add chef to this list: musician, comedian, swamp boy, motorcyclist, wildflower photographer, sculptor, bird lover.
For a man with so many pans in the fire, it’s natural that Frisby also plays a mess of musical instruments, from the Hawaiian slide guitar to the dobro to the musical saw.
While the stack of newspaper clippings he’s received for his musical comedy performances over the past 20 years would break your foot, Frisby recently decided to let his comedy take a back seat and start lighting fires onstage with his musical dexterity instead.
“It’s almost like that Frank Zappa album Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. The fans literally said ‘play more.’ So I decided the idea of a one-man-band would be cool.”
In his one-man band, Frisby has been known to mount a melodica near his face and play it with his nose while strumming a ukelele or banjo and keeping rhythm with his five-toned drum kit.
His repertoire includes the songs from Deep South legends, including Blind Willie McTell, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, Frankie Ford, Professor Longhair, the Meters and Irma Thomas. It’s an homage to the musical heritage of America, he says, including a dose of southern gospel.
Frisby says that in the heroin-using days of his youth, he and his friends would duck into gospel tents after shooting up on Highway 61 to get out of the sun and away from the police.
“And so I got brainwashed with a lot of it—screamin’ and shakin’ just to the good ecstasy of the music,” says Frisby, whose voice complemented that of Tammi Brown on their Gospel Project tour last year.
But taking the comedy out of Al Frisby would be like trying to take that reptile smell out of a Sauce Piquant. It simply ain’t gonna happen.
In New Orleans, musicians with radio hits can be found pounding dents out of cars by day and drinking with tourists in laundromat bars by evening. Frisby is no different: The man gets his hands dirty.
He also makes birdfeeders. He uses old copper plates, vases, lamp shades and “out-dated, whimsical impulse items” found at flea markets, rummage sales and dumped on his front porch without a note.
“The birds make me feel calm,” Frisby says. And he has been honoring his favorite critters with salvaged feeders since 1993—his feeders and wall sconces can be found at Dig in Santa Cruz. His avocation turned into every artist’s dream when a buyer from Urban Outfitters saw his Etsy account, “Junco Bird Feeders,” and called him several months ago to ask for a shipment.
“I love it ‘cause it’s recycled, and a lot of these things weren’t pretty in their original form,” Frisby says, whose feeders are often adorned with worn out old forks and knives clinking in the breeze.
When he’s not sculpting, playing music or eating jambalaya, Frisby can be found blazing down back roads on his 1996 Yamaha V Max motorcyle in search of wildflowers (which he pronounces more like “wall flowers”).
“These are things that make life tolerable, just seeing the beauty in nature,” he says. “What I like to do is find something that is somewhat virgin or undisturbed, and those little pockets, those are the things that really charge my battery. And I have seen so much beauty.”
Last summer, Frisby was photographing a rare type of monkey flower near the Mono Basin when he came to the top of a ridge and saw, from four miles away, an entire mountain covered in the purple flower. “It was like a cheesy, young girl’s lipstick color—it was like the most unnatural thing you’ve ever seen... like an obscene call from mother nature,” Frisby says. And in a sneering voice he is suddenly pretending to be mother nature: “Hey Al, whatchu up to? You want a hamburger? Your feet hurt? You worried about the bills?!”
AL FRISBY CD RELEASE AND 20TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY
Thursday, June 28, 7:30pm
$12 adv/$15 door