When the members of Poor Man’s Whiskey get an idea in their heads, there’s no shaking it.
Learning the entire 10 minutes of “Freebird” to punish hecklers? Check. Learning “Bohemian Rhapsody” to close out an epic appearance at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco? Check. Mashing up Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” just because it seemed, well, crazy? Check.
And then there’s Dark Side of the Moonshine, released this week. It’s Poor Man’s Whiskey’s most ambitious idea yet. It’s borderline foolish, actually, taking the most beloved rock album of all time and reimagining classics like “Breathe” and “Time” into bluegrass hoedowns. Who—other than those who’ve swam the Dark Side waters before, like Easy Star All Stars, Dream Theater and Phish—would be so, well, crazy?
“Once we decided to record the album,” says PMW’s Jason Beard, cognizant of the slippery slope between tribute and novelty, “we didn’t want to make it a parody. We wanted to make sure it maintained the integrity, as opposed to using it as a gimmick. Hopefully that comes through. It came from a very pure spot.”
That pure spot, Beard tells me over pizza at a downtown brewpub, was first hearing Dark Side of the Moon in fourth grade. Years later, out in the garage, he started playing along to it on his mandolin. Something clicked. He started writing arrangements. He stayed up all night. He brought it to the band. They thought it was ridiculous.
Once rehearsals began, everything clicked. Band members clucked and woofed to replace the alarm clocks at the beginning of “Time.” “Money” became “Whiskey,” played in 7/8, 4/4 and 2/4 time. For their world premiere, the band hired lasers, a fog machine and a psychedelic light show. A second go-round in San Francisco had a Wizard of Oz theme, complete with flying monkeys, band members dressed as movie characters and a yellow brick road. Both shows sold out. The ridiculous idea had prevailed.
Beard is athletic, with short hair, in a Fila sweatshirt and jeans. He never played an instrument until college, when he joined a psychedelic rock trio in Isla Vista. “It was an incredible music scene down there,” Beard says, recalling house parties with Rage Against the Machine and Jack Johnson. “On weekend nights, in front yards, we’d have 10 bands playing in town, parties going on, people in the middle of the streets. People burning couches all the time.”
Beard and his band mates Eli Jebediah and Josh Brough switched to acoustic instruments and moved back up to Sonoma County, and the newly christened Poor Man’s Whiskey quickly gained a reputation for unabashed entertainment value. While most newgrass outfits and O Brother hangers-on presented a dry, “authentic” version of serious bluegrass music, Poor Man’s Whiskey kept aflame the most old-time idea of all: getting the townfolk together down in the holler and creating a great time. They starting hitting the festivals, recorded a couple self-released CDs, and honed their modern vaudeville with high concepts and hijinks. Word got around. Robert Earl Keen joined them onstage in Tahoe.
If Dark Side of the Moonshine can successfully elude the novelty realm of Luther Wright and the Wrongs’ Rebuild the Wall and Hayseed Dixie’s Hillbilly Tribute to AC/DC—and it should—then listeners will surely pop in the album’s second disc, a collection of original songs. “Easy Come” tells the story of stopping into a Bodega Bay bar and learning life lessons from a grizzled fisherman, while “Alley Tramp” wanders through dark Kurt Weill&–esque backstreets, complete with horns and haunted-house backup vocals.
The band, realizing the value in touring out of the area, is clearly on a roll, and this year is Poor Man’s Whiskey’s busiest yet. They’re hopping in their 40-foot tour bus (“It’s a monstrosity,” Beard laughs) to all the major West Coast Festivals: Strawberry, High Sierra, Hardly Strictly, Oysterfest, Kate Wolf. They’re taking Dark Side of the Moonshine on tour. They’re even hitting small towns, like Cloverdale, to create some old-time fun.
Beard thinks about the upcoming year. He shakes his head at it all, smiling. “I’m basically living the dream,” he says. “What more could I want?”
Poor Man’s Whiskey appears live in the studio on the KRSH 95.9-FM on Thursday, May 7, at 8pm. The band also performs at a CD release party, performing original songs, on Saturday, May 9, at the Mystic Theatre, 23 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 9pm. $15. 707.765.2121