Billing themselves as playing “original music with old-fashioned style,” Andy Bean and Fuller Condon formed The Two Man Gentlemen Band a few years back.
Since that time, they have racked up page after page of enthusiastic press that never fails to mention their catchy melodies, enchanting, witty lyrical sense, matching outfits, and —unsurprisingly enough— their penchant for polite and chivalrous behavior.
When not out on the road doing their best to teach audiences of today what wholesome family entertainment was like back in the days before salacious movies and television and lewd, crude subject matter filled the airwaves with the aural equivalent of a gutter puddle, Bean and Condon make the bulk of their living busking on (and underneath) the streets of New York City.
Playing for tips in Central Park and at crowded subway stops in the Big Apple may seem like a rather dismal life to many, but these two enterprising young men find it both invigorating and inspiring. To date, they have released two independent albums of gloriously retro string music (drawing on everything from Dixieland jazz, Vaudevillian swing, ragtime and rural hokum blues), and are slowly making their way around the country, spreading their anachronistic gospel of kindness, good humor and a sunny disposition everywhere they go.
Their latest album, Great Calamaties, is a wonderful collection of story-songs dealing with everything from “The Hindenberg Disaster” and “The War of Northern Aggression” to the simple joys of stuffing ballot boxes and making sandwiches.
This Saturday night, they’ll return to Savannah for an encore performance at The Sentient Bean, a funky coffeehouse and restaurant just off the Southern end of Forsyth Park that has become a regular stop for acoustic-oriented touring groups of all stripes. In anticipation of their visit, banjoist Bean spoke with us about the modus operandi behind the duo, and why he and his partner are very serious about not being too awfully serious with their music.
Connect Savannah: A lot of bands are mining old-time Americana for material, but you guys are just mining it for inspiration. How did this all begin?
Andy Bean: When we began, our goal was to make upbeat, fun music that would sound good played by only 2 people. Old-time country & swing rhythms just happened to work best for us. And we found we were pretty good at writing songs in that style. Our live show also features a good number of obscure covers, so we mine the American catalog, too. Our “old-fashioned” outfits aren’t different from our everyday clothes. Fuller’s all used to belong to his grandfather. I buy all my clothes in hopes of looking like my grandfather.
Connect Savannah: Besides NYC, where have you been received the best?
Andy Bean: We haven’t played much outside the Northeast. But nearly everywhere we go, we are met with smiles. There seems to be something about what we do that makes people happy. We don’t completely understand it, but it makes us happy, too. We’ve developed an act that’s meant to entertain. Some people get turned off by this and call it schtick or a gimmick. But most people we play for just think it’s fun. We take the art of entertaining people very seriously.
Connect Savannah: Tell me a bit about both members’ musical backgrounds.
Andy Bean: We met when we both auditioned for a lousy modern rock band in college. I was playing electric guitar, he was playing electric bass. After that we formed a power trio that did obscure R&B covers. After that, we played in a heavy-metal cabaret act. I dressed up like a Chippendale’s dancer with sport goggles. Fuller dressed as a woman. The lead singer played a former child star just out of rehab. It was a disaster. Very ungentlemanly. Then we formed The Two Man Gentlemen Band in 2004.
Connect Savannah: What’s it like to be a busker in the year 2006? Can one really make decent jack that way in Central Park?
Andy Bean: A gentleman never reveals the details of his income, of course, but we can say that during the warmer months, we make enough money busking to pay our rent, buy groceries, and not much else. For this we’re incredibly thankful. It can be a nerve-wracking business to depend on the whims of strangers for one’s living. So, we make sure to thank everyone who gives a donation personally, even if this means rushing a “Thank you, kind sir!” Into the middle of a lyric.
Connect Savannah: What sort of legal hoops does one have to go through to become a subway performer in NYC?
Andy Bean: It’s perfectly legal for anybody to play music in a New York City subway station as long as the music isn’t amplified and the musicians aren’t blocking commuter traffic. But, in order to reserve the most lucrative spots and to use amplification legally, one needs to be part of the city’s Music Under New York program. The program holds public auditions every year in Grand Central Station. We auditioned and were accepted in 2004. Musicians in the program call in every week and request specific locations and time-slots. We don’t play in the subways very often, though. We find it much more pleasant to play outside.
Connect Savannah: How old are the two of you? How long have you personally been listening to this sort of music with a passion?
Andy Bean: I’m 27. Fuller is 28. We’ve both always liked older music, but not specifically the type we play. I’ve been into old blues and the like since high school. In college, I hosted a radio show devoted to 1940s R&B and gospel. I think Fuller grew up listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and he played in his high school jazz band.
Connect Savannah: For someone who knows little about Dixieland swing or country jug-band music, what 5 artists or albums would you recommend as an introduction?
Andy Bean: We recommend: The Memphis Jug Band, 1920s Louis Armstrong, The Golden Gate Quartet, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, anything on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and our good pals, The Wiyos. Our music doesn’t sound very much like any of those, but we share a nice, good-time feel.
Connect Savannah: Etiquette is obviously an important concept for the Two Man Gentlemen Band. Is it really true that both on and off stage you two are “perfect gentlemen?”
Andy Bean: Any true gentleman will admit occasional imperfections in his own behavior. We are no different. We have been known, when filled with the drink, to utter a vulgar word or two. But, such occasions are rare. For the most part, we can be counted on to tip our hats to ladies, chew with our mouths closed, say please and thank you, and tuck in our shirts.
Connect Savannah: You pass out kazoos to the audience and encourage them to play along. Doesn’t that get expensive? Or do you collect the used kazoos, soak them in 409 and use them again at the next show?
Andy Bean: Yes! Complimentary kazoos are available at all of our performances! We think there is no finer sound than that of fifty cheap kazoos buzzing along with our humble two man band. It’s really quite magical. We buy our kazoos in bulk, so they only cost us about 10 cents each. It isn’t too expensive. But, we may have to reconsider our generosity if we ever start playing for crowds of 500. As for sanitation, all our kazoos come individually wrapped for your protection. We used to joke on stage that we personally tested every one for defects, but this made some people sick to their stomachs.
Connect Savannah: Have you ever traveled this far South before? If so, how did it go?
Andy Bean: Fuller, the bass player, grew up in South Florida. So, we’ve played down there a few times, mostly for drunken spring breakers on “the strip” in Ft. Lauderdale. We did a brief busking and badminton tour of the East Coast in 2004, and opened for The Wiyos at The Sentient Bean. We had one of the best days and nights of our lives playing in Savannah. We had a wonderful game of badminton in the park before the show, and a wonderful time hanging out afterwards. We’re very much looking forward to Saturday. And also looking for a place to stay.
Connect Savannah: What can folks expect from your upcoming performance?
Andy Bean: Folks can expect free kazoos, funny songs, sing-alongs, lots of two man harmony, some whistling, and free kazoos.
The Two Man Gentlemen Band plays The Sentient Bean Coffeehouse Saturday at 8 pm. Admission is a $5 suggested donation for ALL-AGES.