This is some white-boy shit. A bunch of shirtless dudes crowd the Ottobar stage. One in coveralls bangs on a bass, another taps a whiskey bottle like a cowbell, and a big fella scrapes at a washboard hanging from a chain around his neck. Somebody in tighty-whities climbs into the crowd. A large, illuminated "Jesus Saves" sign sits next to the drums. Beer flies through the air.
Blame all this on Bobby E. Lee & the Sympathizers, a radical revisionist roots music band with a satirical bend and a hard-to-parse seriousness, celebrating the release of their sophomore album "The New Testament." If this is country music, it is far from CMT fare and not quite high falutin' enough for the "alt" strain. If it is psychobilly, then it's hopped up to such an extent that it transcends retro gimmickry and locates some working-out-some-real-shit-up-there pathos. If it's punk, it's the sort that stomps and chuckles when it's supposed to sneer and snarl.
Bobby E. Lee & the Sympathizers began in 2009, when Ian Finch (who plays bass and drums) found a banjo at his parent's house. "I have no idea where it came from," Finch explains, maybe tall tale-ing the story just a little, adding to the Bobby E. Lee mythos, "because no one in my family plays banjo at all." He brought the banjo to his friend Ian Donnelly (who sings and plays guitar, bass, banjo, and drums) and they decided to start a high-concept, lowbrow band.
"As soon as we had the banjo, we had the Bobby E. Lee persona," Donnelly says over beers with Finch on a hot-as-hell Sunday in late June in Charles Village. That persona? An amped-up cracker caricature that begins with the group's brilliantly stupid name, which cuts Confederate hero Robert E. Lee down to size, and extends to redneck-baiting aliases (Donnelly's Tom Foolery and Finch's Honkis Fleabottom) and declared allegiance to the made-up state of Franklin. Usually up front hooting and hollering is drummer and singer Bobby Tolbert (Bobby E. Lee). The other members are Thomas Kable (Uncle Thomas) who plays banjo and guitar, Brendan Hamilton (Jimmy Crow) on guitar, bass, and banjo, and Joe Koller (Bear) on vocals, harmonica and percussion, including washboard and cowbell.
"There's definitely satire involved," Finch says of the band’s unreconstructed redneck personae. "We try to make it funny because the best way I know to face something and accept something is to just laugh at it," Donnelly adds. In May, the Sympathizers released a video trailer for "The New Testament" that captures their vision more effectively than words. The minute-long video set to howling record opener 'Shotgun Wedding,' shows the six members goofing off (Tolbert humps a gas can and shoots sexy faces at the camera) and setting fire to a Confederate flag. "At least for me, a lot of [the band] has to do with being American and having to look back, like 'Shit, we didn't do good things a lot of the time,'" Donnelly says. Their shitfaced live show, then, becomes a kind of purge.
"The New Testament" is a confident move forward for a band that nobody's asking to move forward. If its debut, 2011's "Cause It Feels Good," seemed in quotes, full of explorations of country, folk, blues, and classic rock n' roll (Donnelly suggests the songs were all rooted in a genre-exploring conceit, "The Sympathizers do doo-wop," for example), then its latest finds the band figuring out a familiar though still-singular sound.
'Shot Gun Wedding' sounds like Dock Boggs covering the Minutemen, if that were somehow possible. 'C'mon Girls' slips from a soulful slow jam to a pentecostal rallying cry like it ain't no thing. Meanwhile, 'Catch'n Release' is an intentionally gross fuck-and-run song full of double entendres that could've only come from a night of no-girls-allowed drinking: "Send my bait to the heart of the lake with a cast of my fishing pole/ Gotta reel the line in fast, to catch the big ol' bass/ If she don't make a splash well then set her free."
And the Sympathizers even smack you upside the head with some empathy on 'Nothin,' a touching survey of work-a-day suffering and regular-guy perseverance: "It's a shame what nothin' can do to a man . . . 'Hey Joe, how'd you lose that toe?'/ 'It ain't nothin'/ 'Hey John, I heard your woman done gone'/ It ain't nothin'."