I was fully prepared to hate all over this record. I remember listening to it about a year ago and thinking it was among the tritest acts around, full of corny jokes and general sense of irreverence.
But, then I saw Bus and Travis on an episode of the Ozzie and Harriet show (sometimes my job is fun) – they played a fairly "traditional" version of “La Bamba.” I was genuinely blown away by their guitar playing, and their Spanish pronunciation wasn’t half bad either. In an era full of poor approximations and silly ethnic characterizations – (one magazine writer compared the Kingston Trio’s Spanish to a Looney Tunes cartoon) – Bud and Travis looked like they’d done their homework. Who the heck were these guys?
The emcee introduced as “may be the most exciting act in America today” and “entertainers.” It’s always an interesting marker to me who is intro-ed as a “folk” act and who is not. Clearly the boys are doing a folk adjacent act, but nowhere is the word spoken, nor even written on the album jacket. They’re a folk act that never claims the term. It’s odd for an act like in 1960 not to simply throw around the “folk” word. Perhaps this is too early in the boom for that to have the same cache as it would just one year later.
They start with a Latin number, a kind of a sped-up calypso, that highlights where these fellows excel. They are, rather specifically, excellent Spanish guitarists. The front photo shows both of them with classical style guitars. Bud in particular wears the guitar quite high, in the classical player style. And their precision shows on the record. The instrumentation is far more complex than their contemporaries and their arrangements blend the two guitars brilliantly. Credit also has to go to their percussionist Alberto Calderon and bassist Charles Gonzalez. Their rhythms support and accentuate the guitars and give them (dare I say) added authenticity. If this was just a record of Latin (or say, Latin adjacent) songs, I think I’d simply rave over this underappreciated gem.
But then there’s the patter between the songs. My guess is, the patter blinded me to what was happening musically the first time I listened. Maybe that happened to contemporary audiences too, and maybe that’s why the act didn’t take off.
The back and forth is a bit like the Smothers Brothers – but not nearly as funny. I’ll give them credit that their jokes seem to be resonating with the audience. But, for me here in the future, they are a bit too juvenile or even surreal at times. It just feels like nonsense, killing time between numbers.
The terrible jokes grate even more acutely in contrast with the sincerity of their earnest approach.
But, they just can’t stop the patter and it goes on way too long.
Moreover, when they step out of the Spanish idiom– with “They call the wind Mariah” for example, the cracks begin to show. They’re simply not good enough singers to pull off that kind of soaring ballad.
On the other hand, “Malagueña Salerosa” which was a Southern Mexican song, makes me want to cry. They really nail the guitar work and it’s by far their best singing on the record. It must just be that it’s mostly sung in falsetto, which they can better manage. Their chest voices always sound a little flat – not tonally exactly, but emotionally. But their upper register on this song in particular just rings out. On most of the other songs they seem to struggle to hold out notes, or to approach them with nay kind of dynamics (maybe that’s what I mean by flat), but on "Salerosa" they take the long plaintive high notes and subtlety decrescendo. It's the heart’s cry of a longing lover. Their vocals float above the driving guitar rhythm. The plaintive cry allows them to play with the rhythm of the vocal line, weaving it in and out of the steady guitar rhythm.
What should we do with a record like this, that’s such a strange mixed bag? If you’re looking for old examples of Mexican guitar work, there are other better records out there. If you want a duo of white guys bickering about playing folk music, the Smother’s Brothers are far superior. But when the boys are cooking, they're cooking. Should you buy a double album for three tracks? No, but yes of course.
Title: In Concert
Artist: Bud and Travis
Design [Cover Design] – Pate / Francis & Associates*
Engineer – Ted Keep
Performer – Bud Dashiell, Travis Edmonson, Alberto Calderon and Charles Gonzalez
Photography By [Black & White] – Robert O'Neil
Photography [Cover] – Garrett-Howard, Inc.
Producer – Joe Allison
Recorded live at Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica, CA, March 24, 1960.