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Weird out with New London's ‘punk uke' tribe

By Peter Huoppi

Publication: The Day

Published May 04. 2012 4:00AM   Updated May 04. 2012 6:46AM
Peter Huoppi/The Day
The Weird Beards, from left, Tim Donnel, Brian Skidmore, Jay Silva, Pango and Jake Kaeser, play in a recent show at The Oasis Pub.

Shrouded in a blue-green haze, Brian Skidmore was strumming his ukulele and describing a phone call he received from the President of the United States.

"He just called to ask if I could stop playing the ukulele, so he could continue his war campaign freely," the 36-year-old Skidmore shouted to a packed Oasis Pub in New London.

He then launched into the chorus of "Patriot Act:" "No way man?I'm a robot, but not your robot," leading the band - and a good portion of the audience - with the boyish zeal of a punk rock Willie Wonka.

It's a safe bet that Skidmore never actually received a phone call from the White House, but with Skidmore and his band, the Weird Beards, it sometimes can be difficult to define the boundary between fantasy and reality. The Weird Beards are adept at blurring the lines - between musical genres, between individual songs and even between who is and isn't in the band.

Along with Skidmore, the core band includes bassist Jake Kaeser, acoustic guitarist Jay Silva, drummer Tim Donnel and trombonist Pango - but the actual membership roles vary significantly. Members range in age from 27 to 37 years old, with the exception of Kaeser, who isn't saying how many years he has on the rest of the group. Weekly rehearsals cultivate an all-are-welcome atmosphere that spills over into the live shows, where as many as 12 Beards might end up onstage.

"It's a tribe," says Donnel.

"It's not like there's a limit," says Silva.

Skidmore adds, "I just want to play music with my friends."

Yes. But it would not be surprising to find out that someone - though probably not the Commander-in-Chief - may have once asked Skidmore to stop playing. The Weird Beards' music is, well, weird. Kaeser, whose day job is building harpsichords and early pianos for baroque musicians, says of his schooled clients, "Some of them would be totally offended."

The Weird Beards take traditional folk instruments like the ukulele, acoustic guitar and upright bass, and play them with the speed and force of a punk show. Mix that with lyrical odysseys befitting a prog concept album, stir in harmonica, trombone and the occasional electric guitar, and you've got a sound with no easy comparison.

Even the musicians themselves have trouble describing the band's style. Their consensus is that it's "some sort of mix of alternative-anti-folk-tribal-punk," though they prefer some of their fans' and reviewers' classifications such as "Muppets on acid," "the anti-Peter Paul and Mary," and "punk uke."

The odd musical recipe isn't for everyone, which is funny because, as with their ebbing and flowing personnel, Skidmore wants to include as many musicians and audience members as possible in the Weird Beards experience.

"The audience is as much a part of the show as we are," Skidmore says.

Indeed, at the recent Oasis show, as the band celebrated its five-year anniversary and the release of "A.D.E.D," their self-released debut full-length album - it stands for "all day every day" - the invisible line that separates band from audience immediately broke down. Harmonica player Ian Thomas performed from the floor in front of the stage, rubbing elbows with one fan in a head-to-toe crustacean suit and another sporting a pair of wings. ("Lobster Boy" and "Butterfly" are both tracks on the new album.)

But it's not just audience members who feel inspired to dress up for shows. At a recent afternoon interview, several band members arrived in full stage regalia - including Skidmore's velvet Mad Hatter cap and pink-rimmed sunglasses and Thomas' Wild West gunslinger getup - illustrating the long conceptual journey it's been from the days when Skidmore took up ukulele to accompany his poetry readings.

As that experiment grew more musical, Skidmore approached Kaeser to ask if he could build a baritone uke. The request occurred just as Kaeser received the gift of an upright bass made for him by his son. Kaeser's own musical career started when he built a guitar using a plan from a library book and wood from his bedroom door, but he hadn't played in a band since the 1970s. He started jamming with Skidmore and discovered "his music made absolute sense."

Shortly thereafter, Silva started attending Weird Beards rehearsals. He'd encountered Skidmore on a New London sidewalk, strumming to no one in particular, and joined in immediately with his bongos. Silva remembers thinking, "This is great, I can just be crazy and it works, somehow."

As the music evolved and song structures came together, Skidmore supplied lyrics that drew on the poetry he has been writing since his high school years at Bacon Academy in Colchester, creating intricate fantasy worlds with recurring characters and themes.

He says, "A lot of my songs are very interconnected through a series of stories that, in matching all the songs in the right direction, actually complete a larger story that I'm working on."

Try to follow along, and you'll hear the Weird Beards sing about a world within a world populated by "all of these people with weird beards," tying the listener up in a fantastical Mobius strip of pirates, space invaders and robots, all of which get their own songs on "A.D.E.D."

Despite committing the songs to recorded form, all Weird Beards music remains a perpetual work in progress.

"The song?never stops changing," Skidmore says. "The way we play 'Willow Tree Express' today is totally different from the way we played it two years ago, and will be totally different when we play it two years from now."

For Skidmore, who considers poetry and music his full-time occupation, the album is like his only child.

"Our only child'" corrects Silva.

"I've never had my poetry published," Skidmore says, speaking earnestly despite the outlandish headwear and glasses. "The pride that's filling my heart?it gives you fuel to continue."

He pauses just a moment and smiles at the CD in his hands. Then he cradles it like a crying baby before passing it to Donnel to be burped.

Contact the band at weirdbeards@gmail.com for info on purchasing "A.D.E.D." (12 tracks, $10).

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