‘The luckiest ringmaster’
Sideshow EP joins the psychedelic fun of The Frontier Circus.
In the history of bizarre, pre-MTV videos, “Some Velvet Morning” stands out for its weirdness. The dreamy, psychedelically colored video for the druggy Top 40 pop tune recorded by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra is as peculiar as the track’s lyrics.
The video — part of a Sinatra TV special shown in prime time in 1967 — starts with a silhouette of Hazlewood atop a horse under a sepia sky. And then he’s riding on a Planet of the Apes beach, singing about Phaedra giving him life. Fade to a dreamlike setting featuring a white-clad Sinatra singing in 3/4 time of daffodils on a hill and picking said daffodils on a hill. Then cut back and forth between these two settings. That’s the video — seemingly a testament to the powerful hallucinogenics of the time.
There’s no video, unfortunately, for The Frontier Circus’ version of “Some Velvet Morning” found on the central Arkansas quartet’s new Sideshow EP. The narcotic haze of Hazlewood and Sinatra’s version is stripped on the band’s cover, with The Frontier Circus — Frontier Dan on vocals, guitar and theremin, Victor El Valiente on guitar, Daredevil Dave on drums and Lightnin’ Lou on bass — laying down a slab of distortion-heavy rock while storming through their version of the tune. The tune is less psychedelic, more beefy in the hands of the Circus, but the quartet slows it down to 3/4 time for Sinatra’s parts with Frontier Dan straining his voice, almost hitting the singer’s register. Almost.
“It’s quite a song,” Frontier Dan says. “There’s a lot to know about it. It’s probably unfathomable what it is really all about. The perfect song for us.
“On that song I’m really trying to get from the male to the female vocals and making that transition work. Do I do it? I’m not too bad off. I think what I was trying to do is build a big contrast between what Lee Hazlewood’s vocals were and Nancy’s. I kind of ham it up a bit on both of them. That song is more fun to do than you can imagine.”
Fun. Beyond The Frontier Circus’ mixing of psychedelic music with country music, and wailing away loudly on that blending with a garage rock attitude with sometimes odd results, there is this fun factor. Sure, these are serious musicians. Three guys and a girl who have played with such local bands as The Rockin’ Guys, the Bloodless Cooties, Ho-Hum and more. But the Circus is a merry bunch of musicians hidden behind their stage names as they run through their collection of cover tunes.
Frontier Dan formed the Circus about two and a half years ago (although the roots of the band stretch back to circa 2000). He had been in bands on and off over the years and missed the creativity of it. Plus, he had a number of toys — guitar pedals, effects — and musical instruments, including a theremin. And if you have a theremin, why not start a band?
“The theremin is something I’ve been interested in,” Frontier Dan says. “Let’s face it: I’m a guy in a band, and I pretend to play guitar, but what I really do is make a whole lot of noise. I know some chords and can play a little bit ... but I like making noises and the theremin is right up my aisle. For me it’s a noisemaker.”
Last November, the outfit released its debut album A Little Bit Psycho ... A Little Bit Western, an album capturing the band’s idiosyncratic sound. A little Jefferson Airplane one second; Merle Haggard the next. Featured heavily was the theremin, an instrument that Frontier Dan refers to as a “go-to instrument.” An instrument that Frontier Dan says allows for a “twangy pedal steel sliding sound” and just pure psychedelic weirdness. But keeping The Frontier Circus’ sound earthbound is the steadfast work of the three musicians behind Frontier Dan.
“The guys playing in this band — I’m really lucky,” Frontier Dan says. “They are great players. They make the band. I get up there and put on, and they get up there and get it on.
“I think it confuses people. When we are on and playing well, I think it gives us a unique sound as a result of all that ... well, there’s a lot of variety and a lot of madness. I’m the luckiest ringmaster in the world to have the band that I have.”
Sideshow was recorded earlier this year during a creative spurt. The recording session was spontaneous and quick, and most of Sideshow was recorded live. Much like the Circus’ live show, the EP is a collection of covers, featuring psychedelic tunes, country and western songs, and the occasional oddity. Besides “Some Velvet Morning,” there’s The Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Cher’s “Half-Breed” and Arkansas native Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
“These are four songs we all like,” Frontier Dan says. “‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ ... we wanted to do something in tribute to Glen. It’s a fairly sophisticated song. We were able to find a chording and a key that I could latch onto.”
Sometimes that’s it. A chord and a key. Some lyrics and an idea. There’s really no plan for The Frontier Circus and what tunes they might cover. Have fun and create great music that audiences enjoy. That’s about it.
“We’re just letting it go,” Frontier Dan says. “I don’t think we are worried about crashing and burning. I think we are really interested in seeing what is going to happen. We really don’t know what’s going to happen though. Heck, just see what happens. I think it’s a lot of fun.”
SEE THE SHOW
The Frontier Circus is holding a record release party for its EP Sideshow at White Water Tavern on Tuesday, Dec. 11. No word on a cover, but expect the music at 9:30 p.m. Copies of Sideshow — there were only 100 pressed in 12-inch vinyl — will also be available for purchase.