Fans of cabaret-inspired bands are plain spoiled rotten. Constant stimulation and fanfare is the name of the game for a certain breed of band that counts Humanwine, the Dresden Dolls, and the Ditty Bops among its ilk, the latter of which played Spiegeltent at South Street Seaport on August 30.
A combination of sassy saloon jazz, plucky folk and vaudeville showmanship, the Ditty Bops were a perfect fit for the antique dramatics of the Spiegeltent setting. The “tent of mirrors” is more than eighty years old, one of fewer than a dozen traveling-cabaret performance houses left in the world. Fanned out on the north edge of the Seaport’s famous boardwalk amid strings of festive carnival lights, the self-sufficient structure brought an air of welcome festivity to Manhattan’s edge, shrouding a clan of impossibly eager fans in slim rectangles of stained color and aged wooden support beams showcasing endless panels of reflective glass. The Bops’ starlet duo, Amanda Barrett and Abby DeWald, who bicycled for nine hours straight in the pouring rain to make the New York tour date (they have cycled to every show on this summer’s tour — 4,502.75 miles, thus far), were no doubt grateful for the magnificence of their temporary shelter.
The girls wasted no time pulling out the tricks, sending their Master of Ceremonies in on stilts for introductions. Barrett, on mandolin, sported a cop uniform, complete with signature hat; DeWald, on guitar, donned the jailbird ensemble. The duo breezed through numbers from Moon Over the Freeway, released in May by Warner Bros., with an upright bass, piano, accordion, and host of Barrett-operated (literal) bells and whistles supplementing the angelic harmonies and invigorated strums. The set list included, among the new gems, two covers by the Bops-endorsed group called the Boswell Sisters. Old favorite “Sister Kate” inspired an audience member to hop on stage, inciting jealousy in all those who weren’t wearing gold fringe to better “shake it like a bowl of jelly on a plate.”
Audience participation, which often serves up snooze- or cringe-worthy moments at live shows, provided many of the night’s highlights. The three volunteers called upon to sing “Wishful Thinking” to the Ditty Bops’ accompaniment grabbed hold of the cheerful tune, even nailing some of the unpracticed harmonies. When asked to tell a story during the interlude of “a song about an obsessive love,” a balding, self-proclaimed Dungeons & Dragons geek in a priest collar (yes, that’s right) riffed about following two girls who rode their bikes across the country: “I’m not an athlete,” he delivered rhythmically. “I rode hard. It was at the 9th power, if you know D&D.”
The band was as playful as the fans, intermittently pulling from a trunk of props for visual and dramatic aids. Eye patches and skull-adorned hats came out for pirate-inspired chanteys. Juggling pins and playing cards were exchanged in soundtracked duels. Balloons were popped, used to create static electricity, and even inhaled for their helium, to hilarious effect, before harmonies.
Toward the close of the set, the emcee crept on stage to hastily apply black and white makeup to the girl’s faces before they stripped down to skeleton-screened T-shirts and shorts to play one of the band’s more ominous numbers. Now dressed in Halloween garb and harboring surprises still, the Bops followed with a song featuring a guest musician from New York, recruited through the band’s Web site to play the saw. (In case you’re wondering, the saw is played with a bow, and it sounds a lot like the sounds of ghosts in a cheesy haunted house.)
The band closed the night with an encore set of two of its more traditional Ditty Bop numbers, the first featuring spectacularly racy lyrics like, “I ain’t the electrician, I ain’t the electrician’s son, but I will wire your box until the real electrician comes,” and raunchy variations on this formula (think “I ain’t the carpenter, I ain’t the garbage man”).
The last number, a simple, darling, hip-shaker, turned the fans’ attention back to the catchy simplicity of the recordings that brought them to Spiegeltent in the first place: The Ditty Bops write and sing great tunes. The rest is just icing on the big top.