The Lobster Quadrille is a seven-piece band steeped in faded-lace Southern gothic pathos, ethos, superstition, and doom. Sepia-toned songs of cotillions, consumption, damnation, elation, and salvation pour out like the sweat on frontman Solomon Blaylock's brow. The band's ragtag hobo instrumentality ---- clarinet, organ, tambourine, bucket, washboard, slide whistle, kazoo, pots 'n' pans, and odds 'n' ends, along with the more rudimentary guitar, bass, and drums --- gives The Lobster Quadrille the feel of a post-war carnival...if that carnival were to break out in the middle of a funeral.
On stage, band leader Blaylock's rabid preacher-with-a-hard-on stance induces vertigo. You could very easily write him off as mad until you hear his lyrics and his story. He's been rejected by one religion, embraced by another, and almost created a third on his own. His music tells the story, following a weathered timeline of indoctrination, belief, doubt, rejection, elation, and redemption. It's a journey where he's picked up a band --- followers, if you will --- along the way to spread the word. The bandstand is his pulpit.
In her novelWise Blood, Flannery O'Connor writes of a young man, Hazel Mote, whose faith has gone awry. He dons a preacher's garb and tone, surrounds himself with assorted villains, and founds The Church Without Christ. It's dark, moody, and viciously romantic. Just like The Lobster Quadrille.
But unlike Mote, Blaylock's religious redirection --- and the ensuing music --- do not consume him. He doesn't come across misguided or as one bent on leading others astray, even though it's possible, what with his charisma and the music's salacious appeal.
But Solomon Blaylock ain't a preacher. And he doesn't necessarily need an amen.
"I'm actually a practicing Buddhist," he says. "For a while I just didn't want to do with anything. But I think part of me is just hardwired as a religious maniac."
Blaylock has genuine Dixie pedigree. He grew up in rural Georgia and Alabama as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. But from early on there were ideological conflicts, especially for a kid who asked questions and liked rock 'n' roll.
"Listening to good music," he says, "obviously there were things that weren't Christian. There was always that line, and you'd catch shit for certain things."
As he grew, so did the conflict. Blaylock had moved to New York to do religious volunteer work. He was living in what was the Jehovahs' equivalent to a monastery. His questioning got louder.
"The fact that we believe there's only one thing," he says, "I don't believe that makes sense. To act like there's absolute truth, to me, is ridiculous."
After much deliberation and a sit-down with church elders, Blaylock left the church.
"Well, officially they kicked me out," he says. "They call it dis-fellowshipping. It's like a shunning."
Since the age of 12 he'd been playing music and writing songs. Now it would become paramount. Religion had always been in his music, but now it was gonna get tweaked and twisted with no small amount of rage.
"It's always been there," he says. "It's just never been as explicit. When I was a teenager everything was couched in metaphor. And it wasn't until I started The Lobster Quadrille stuff that things got more overtly religious and even over the top in ways."
It's very easy to see the anger and conflict in his face and hear it in his lyrical noir:
I'm weary with this singing bout mad Southern belles
I'm sick and tired of chronicling other people's hells
The thrill of decay is all gone, and I ain't fighting for it
The gossamer wing of hope lighted on me, but I tore it
Blaylock literally seethes and writhes on stage --- at first to the delight of the crowd, then to their alarm, and ultimately to a sort of acceptance and understanding. He's clearly exorcising demons. He's exercising 'em, too. You may not see them, but you can hear them...laughing.
"When I first broke with the church," he says. "That's when the dam broke and everything was very 'Jesus' and waving the Bible. I was really saying 'Fuck you' about it. I was really kind of spitting on it and laughing at it a bit. I was just angry because I felt betrayed."
Tell me why, lord. Tell me why
Why my passions are so fickle and so blind
It's plain to see that I'm
Sick to death of my own mind
Yet beneath this struggle and fury and bile lies the band's beautiful, beautiful music; music that sashays and swings like a lop-sided waltz. It's gentle and elegant with a dash of dread.
"I just always had this picture in my head of what old swampy Southern music would sound like," Blaylock says. "I'd heard things here and there that hinted at it."
Blaylock even named the band after an old Lewis Carroll poem "because it just sounded old Southern to me," he says.
But the music was more a vision than a sound in his head, which brings us back to Flannery O'Connor --- and artist/musician Dame Darcy.
"Their imagery, the things that she [O'Connor] wrote and the things that she [Darcy] painted, they made a very clear sound in my head. And I just started to work that out."
Two self-released CDs (and a third in the oven) later, he's still working it out.
Things started off alone on acoustic guitar.
"People would hear it and like the energy of it or like it because it was quirky," he says. "But it was always difficult finding people who really understood it, could get into it, and play it well; which is why I feel so lucky now."
The Lobster Quadrille gathers for practice in an old South Wedge carriage house. Amidst a congregation of beer bottles and pizza boxes the band members sprawl about the room. This line up has been together just under a year.
Though they all face Blaylock, for the most part their eyes are closed while they play. Perhaps they're just listening intently. Maybe they're trying to see what their leader sees.
The band is loosely strung together with an air of the unorthodox. But what could potentially descend into a clattering cacophony comes off gentle --- quirky, but gentle, and perhaps a little risky.
Keith Rosengren floats between bucket and organ as the song or mood dictates. The band boasts multiple arrangements for each song. Rosengren plays wingman in Blaylock's vision.
"I fill in what's not there," he says. "I'm a bit of FlavaFlav to his Chuck D. But more so like an organist in the church who's there to build the crowd up when the guy's goin' into his preachin'."
And in keeping with Blaylock's visual aspect, foley/percussionist Lauren Manitsas' hands spend a fair amount of time in the air waving joyfully when not beating a tambourine.
Amy MacDonald's clarinet is one of the few voices of sanity, as she weaves in and out of the clatter and glee.
And even though bassist Kevin Ferrel and drummer Mark Berends brandish more conventional artillery, they still play into the Quadrille's madness.
It's kind of a well-executed free-for-all.
"I always liked the idea that eventually this would just be like a hootenanny and people could jump up on stage and clang on things," Blaylock says. "Like playing in the kitchen."
Amber McAlister grew up in Georgia near Blaylock. She's known him since they were 12. She also flies the Flannery flag.
McAlister is Blaylock's girlfriend and The Lobster Quadrille's foley stage. Her haphazard shift from washboard to slide whistle to kazoo and beyond is what gives the band its tent revival tack. She gets it.
"It's not always the same every time," she says. "It definitely depends on the feel. For most of the songs there's a ramshackle feel."
Strumming a washboard with a spoon and tootin' on a kazoo with her eyes closed, McAlister comes off placid, as if she's somewhere spiritual.
"I have a strong sentimental feeling toward a lot of the songs," she says, "because of the connection to the South, to how I grew up, and definitely some of the things that I felt: the repression, the sadness that came along with the religion. So I suppose it's cathartic. I guess that's why everybody does music."
"Maybe it's an easy way to God for those of us who find music to be divine," Rosengren suggests.
The Quadrille has played mostly rock joints where audiences get the religious fervor right off. They just may not know quite how deep it runs, dismissing the band's sound and Blaylock's holy-roller antics and "biblical theatrics," as he likes to call them, as showbiz shtick. The band's black Sunday-go-to-meetin' garb may raise suspicion as well, or at least curiosity.
Others might actually find something to hold onto; for instance Blaylock's brutal lyricism with its comic tragedy and meter. His verses read like classic little Southern gothic novellas.
Great granddad MacDonald crept up behind the
Young man working out in the field
And at the final moment he thought better of it
Put down his knife and turned 'round on his heel
I'm content with whatever," he says. "I mean, if folks are just entertained by the show, then that's fine. But the majority of the feedback I get when people come up... they seem to... it does feel like a spiritual experience. It's just something you get swept up into --- which I think is what live music is anyway."
"I think people like a spectacle," McAlister says. "I think they enjoy seeing someone rant and rave... I always describe the band as the warm, wet washcloth of Southern religiosity being wrung out over the next generation. And it's kinda sweaty."
The Lobster Quadrille plays with guests Kelli Shay Hicks, Daryl Fleming, and Greg Carder's Miracle Friday, June 23, at Monty's Krown, 875 Monroe Avenue, 271-7050, at 10 p.m. $3. 21+