Vaud and the Villains
18-piece ensemble digs into Americana and unearths something both gritty and polished
By EMILY REILY
Special to the Union Leader | April 19. 2017 1:17PM
Vaud and the Villains is an orchestra and cabaret show rooted in 1930s New Orleans. The Music Hall, which hosts the group Friday night in Portsmouth, describes it this way: “With echoes of Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Band, the ensemble mines the rich soil of the American songbook, with a mix of roots, traditional jazz, revival music, parlor music, gospel, zydeco and folk. It is at once seedy and inspiring, gritty and sublime.”
“We just wanted to do, like, an Aerosmith song, as if it was being done in 1910 in a brothel,” Comeau said.
But whether they play Aerosmith or “We Shall Overcome,” the Vaud and the Villains orchestra and cabaret show, coming to the Music Hall in Portsmouth on Friday night, covers the emotional spectrum.
“There’s definitely a feel-good element to some of the songs. But then there’s some heartbreaking songs, too,” Comeau said. “ I’m probably more drawn to writing the sad, heartbreaking songs that don’t really fit in Vaud and the Villains.”
All those influences find a home in road shows.
“I think they’re really a slice of life, but they’re (also) echoes of our whole timeline,” said Dawn Lewis, a singer and dance choreographer in the band as well as Comeau’s wife. “Every saint has a past, every saint has a future. It’s about humanity and experiences.”
Comeau, who also plays tenor sax and hurdy gurdy (a string instrument with a wheel rotated by a hand crank), said the band originally was fueled by Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” which covered American folk songs popularized by activist and musician Pete Seeger. Comeau, a New Hampshire native, and Lewis found a common thread in Springsteen’s album.
“My wife and I grew up in rather different circumstances,” Comeau said. “She was outside Chicago and I was in Boston and New Hampshire, but both somewhat rural. And I think we both responded to this ‘I’ve heard this before’ feeling in music, because there are all these old folk songs. You either heard them in school or you sung ‘Erie Canal’ in first grade. We have this commonality to this music. It just felt like home to us. There’s something very sweet about it and comforting and wild and raucous all at once.”
Though many of these songs are more than a hundred years old, Comeau still can relate to them.
“It reminded me of a different era. The music, there’s something real pure about it,” he said.
Lewis feels the same.
“(The Springsteen album) was just so simple, and it seemed to be that no matter who we talked to, everyone sort of loved it, and it just reminded me of being a kid somehow. People love listening to it with us. It’s like playing on your porch,” Lewis said.
The band adds a modern element to songs like “Eyes On the Prize,” which has roots in the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and the upbeat “John Henry,” about the legendary folk hero and steel-driver who battled a steam-powered hammer and won.
“I think we were definitely influenced by The Seeger Sessions’ approach to the older songs. If you listen to our version of ‘Eyes On the Prize’ ... and “John Henry’ and the Bruce Springsteen versions, his are definitely more folk-based songs.”
Vaud and the Villains wanted to approach those songs “as a rock ‘n’ roll band, but with acoustic instruments,” Comeau said.
“And what if the singers had no mics and it was all unplugged, but you wanted it to sound as rockin’ as possible,” he added.
While the band still plays songs from that record, their repertoires includes more of their own tunes.
“There are elements of folk, Americana, old soul, New Orleans jazz,” he said. “The new tunes reflect all of that. Some of the tunes are on our album “Original Salvation,” but many have yet to be recorded — a new murder ballad, a Grace Potter cover tune, a gospel-sounding tune, some old jazz.”
Vaud and the Villains also draws inspiration from big band, swing and gospel, revival, traditional jazz and parlour music.
It’s hard to describe.
“We have a lot of people come to the show, and then the next time they’ll come back with two cars full of people,” Comeau said. “And I’ll say, ‘What did you tell them? How did you describe it?’ (They say) ‘We didn’t tell them anything, we just said you gotta come see this.’ And that seems to be where people fall when they try to articulate it to new people.”
In an electronic age, those broad strokes are what make the band special.
“We have hash tags for everything. It’s so easy to explain things away,” Lewis said. “(But) I really, really like that (Vaud and the Villains are) such an experience that it’s hard to find the words. We’ve had agents who say that ‘you have to figure out how to define it,’ but I think that defines it for us, that it’s an experience.”
Comeau says part of their success lies in the visuals. With 18 members on tour, including double bass players, a brass section and a trio of burlesque-style dancers, they need a lot of room.
“It really lives in a big stage ... something that has atmosphere. That’s where it presents really, really well,” Comeau said.
Lewis, a singer, dancer and choreographer for the band, has formal dance experience in tap and ballet. She referenced the movie “Cabaret” as an influence in her own choreography.
“There’s something so great about that showmanship that really drew me to it,” she said.
“So it’s very, very visual and colorful in addition to that great big beautiful band,” she said. “Each dance has its own vibe. There’s always someone or something to look at.”
Comeau says the musicians complement the grand, Moulin-Rouge style of the cabaret dancers.
“Because I’m a horn player we have more of that influence throughout the night in that we carve out special things for the horns to do, make it more showy,” he said.
Above all else though, Vaud and the Villains want you to go home happy. They close every show with the same song.
“We all get up and sing ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ The whole crowd, all of us, and it’s so much fun,” Lewis said. “It’s the simplest song you could sing.”