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Petunia and the Vipers

The close up and personal Selby Town Hall provided the ideal setting for tonight's intimate performance by Canada's Petunia and the Vipers, who rolled into town like tumbleweed across the Prairie. The five-piece Vancouver-based outfit led by the charismatic Petunia on acoustic guitar and occasional trumpet kazoo, provided a liberal mix of styles that so often are difficult to explain but quite easy to understand; broadly speaking, these range from western swing and rockabilly to lounge jazz and gothic country, with the occasional bluegrass number thrown in for good measure, but then, there's so much more besides. Heavy on the music and light on the chit-chat – there could've been no more than twenty words spoken during the entire concert – the band's highly dramatic arrangements made up for the lack of anecdotes, song introductions or indeed any band/audience banter. You got the sense that it was all pretty much said in the music itself. 

Joined by Stephen Nikleva on electric guitar and mandolin, Jimmy Roy on lap steel, Marc L'Esperance on drums and Patrick Metzger on upright bass, Petunia cast a convincing front-man persona, almost like a rockabilly version of David Byrne, with the inaccessibility of, let's say, Harry Dean Stanton on a break from shooting a scene in Paris Texas. If the twangy guitars, slapped bass and heavy on the snare elements signify the tenets of rockabilly, then the frequent use of the kazoo recalls the heyday of the jug band era, especially on such numbers as the Memphis Jug Band's catchy Jug Band Music, for which Petunia, Patrick and Stephen gathered around a single microphone to deliver, much in the way these bands once did in the twenties and thirties. 

Throughout the evening the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams seemed to hover above the balcony as the band's retro roots music bounced off the walls beckoning the audience up on the dance floor, had there been a dance floor to get up on to that is. Midway through the first set, a broken string forced Petunia off stage temporarily, the space being filled instantly with a jazz-inflected instrumental by The Vipers, the singer returning to the stage just in time for the next song. To conclude the first set, the band launched into their most infectious song, the yodel-fuelled Cricket Song, which effortlessly held the audience transfixed. It has to be noted, this is probably not the sort of music a normal Saturday night in Selby is used to. 

The second set featured a handful of songs performed around the single microphone Grand Ole Opry-style, which one suspects is the band's comfort zone, together with probably the set highlight, Petunia's unique and singular interpretation of the old Hoagy Carmichael standard Stardust, complete with a stunning lap steel solo courtesy of Jimmy Roy, which received the greatest applause of the evening. It's probably true that few of us left the Town Hall in Selby this evening with any further knowledge of who exactly Petunia and the Vipers are, but the music they played has definitely left an indelible mark.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky
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