It’s kind of hard to say what it is,” says one of Vaud and the Villains’ musicians who goes by the name One String, when asked to describe the group in a video interview a few years old. “It’s vaudeville. It’s just this side of theater; it’s Americana.”
The 19-piece group comes to SOhO this Sunday for their first proper, late-night, Santa Barbara gig after having spent the last five years building notoriety in their native Los Angeles. The creation of married couple Andy Carneau and Dawn Lewis, Vaud and the Villains is a dream of a band that might have existed in the 1920s or 1930s, a mix of races and styles, of Dustbowl and traveling medicine show, all acoustic, but loud and raucous as hell, playing the American version of Joe Strummer’s “Three Chords and the Truth.” But a Vaud and the Villains performance is also a show, with a narrator (Mr. Carneau) and characters with fictional backstories, as well as dance routines. (Mr. Carneau is fond of quoting Oscar Wilde to explain the fictional group: “Every saint has a past while every sinner has a future.”)
Mr. Carneau hails from New Hampshire, while Ms. Lewis comes from Chicago, but the two met while at an audition in Hollywood, where they had both arrived following the acting bug. After they got engaged, they began thinking of a band for their wedding, both looking for something like the band on Bruce Springsteen’s Pete Seeger Sessions, which played rocking versions of American standards.
At first, they spent a lot of time trying to find such a band. And then one day the two realized they’d have to create the band themselves.
“As actors, we’re accustomed to waiting and waiting until someone lets us do our art,” Mr. Carneau says. “And we got tired of that.”
Mr. Carneau was occasionally gigging as a sax player, and one night after a show, they were talking to the club owner about the Pete Seeger Sessions and, maybe it was the drinks or not, they were offered five nights to perform a similar show.
“I ran back up the stage to the band, and asked if they wanted to do a Pete Seeger Sessions kind of thing,” Mr. Carneau says. “The drummer was a rockin’ kind of guy and the bass player was a straight-up, jazz dude.” The bass player didn’t know what Mr. Carneau was talking about, but “the drummer told him, ‘just say yes.'”
The band came together quickly, and the list of standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and “John Brown” meant people could get up to speed. According to Mr. Carneau and Ms. Lewis, they started playing once a week for a year, and really haven’t stopped since. They often play at Los Angeles’ Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, but also do well with corporate gigs.
“It’s been a magical thing since chord one,” he says. The year was 2008.
Members dropped in and out until a trip to New Orleans really cemented the band as an entity. The reason being that all 19 members lived together during that time in one big house and rehearsed on the porch. A house with two bathrooms.
“When we went away,” said Mr. Carneau, “it became more about this thing we create together and not the superiority of the musicianship. It’s about the good time we have on stage.”
“This is a marriage between 19 people,” Ms. Lewis says. “But there’s also something about this music that makes you feel like a kid again.”
Vaud and the Villains
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St.
Information: sohosb.com or 962-7776
Vaud and the Villains