Fourth of July, 1998. It was on this evening that I witnessed the Danielson Famile play to around five people at the now-defunct downtown venue, the Map Room. It must be said to those unaware of the collective's affiliation that I was knocked off of my feet by what was, in their unique and isolated way, a Christian-rock band. I did not abandon my secular ways, but the band's exuberance and lack of cynicism had a lasting impact. Every avid show-goer keeps a mental list of his or her all-time top five performances, and this one makes my list.
So that's the name that they started out with, "Danielson Famile," way back in 1995. The idea was that of Daniel Smith, who turned in the first proper Danielson Famile album, A Prayer For Every Hour, as his thesis when finishing up at Rutgers University. To help with the album and touring, Daniel assembled a group (the youngest was 12 at the time) from his hometown of Clarksboro, New Jersey. Acting as a sibling unit (it remains unclear who is actually blood-related), the band went on to record their second album, 1997's Tell Another Joke at the Ol' Choppin' Block, with noted producer and then-head of Shimmy Disc, Kramer -- a change that demonstrated the indie-level attention the band was beginning to attract.
Danielson Famile songs are short, shambling, acoustic-based, and marked by a jarring vocal approach. While the girls harmonize like a children's choir or a very strange '60s girl group, Smith's lead is characterized by his clipped, infantile falsetto, sounding like the absolute highest-pitch moments of the Pixies' Black Francis/Frank Black. Smith manages to make his unorthodox pipes endearing and incredibly catchy. Live, the band wears doctor and nurse outfits and deploys loosely choreographed dance moves. The band's Christian element, which is more a message of "good" than one simply of "God," is a vague, complex vision that is meant to offer a positive experience as opposed to preaching at an audience. Though they've done the circuit, achieving standing ovations at the Cornerstone Festival (the Christian Lollapalooza), they're far too weird for some Christian-rock audiences, especially Christian radio.
Unsurprisingly, the band has a nonreligious underground following. There are touches of Neutral Milk Hotel, Captain Beefheart, Dr. John's 1969 album Gris Gris, and outsider Christian artists. In 1998, Danielson released Tri-Danielson, a picture of things to come that was split into solo, "rock"-oriented songs and songs similar to previous recordings with the family. A sensible move from the Christian label Tooth and Nail to Secretly Canadian resulted in 2001's Fetch the Compass Kids, a more straightforward album recorded by Steve Albini.
Some of the group splintered, and Smith went on as more of a solo act (often wearing a massive tree suit of his own creation), releasing Brother Is to Son in 2004 under the Br. Danielson moniker. It was at some point prior to this that Smith discovered and mentored an unknown singer-songwriter named Sufjan Stevens, who made appearances on Danielson records from the early-'00s. As an effort to bring together all previous members of the family and like-minded musicians whom Smith admires or has collaborated with, this year's Ships is a success.
Released under the Danielson name, the album is as dense and varied as you'd expect from at least 20 guest musicians, not the least of whom is Stevens and practically every member of Deerhoof -- a band that was clearly a sonic influence on Ships. The documentary Danielson: A Family Movie -- four years in the making -- was released earlier this year and is currently making the indie circuit.
If the live pairing of Danielson and Neil Hamburger, the self-proclaimed "worst comedian on earth," makes little sense, at least take a look at the two things they have in common: Within their respective fields, both are anomalies, and both have released religious albums, though I'm not so sure Hamburger's Laugh Out Lord falls into sync with any release in the Danielson discography. Hamburger, the performing alias (and character) of Gregg Turkington, has progressed from being a parody of sad-sack borscht-belt comedians into a provocateur of Andy Kaufman proportions.
Armed with a bottomless well of "What did ... " and "What do you call ... " jokes, Hamburger assaults the audience with a topical, absurdist version of the voluminous Truly Tasteless Jokes books that some of us sneaked as children. Two of my personal favorites: "Why did God create Alan Alda? So he would have a way to get Golden Globe awards into hell." And "Why does Britney Spears sell so many millions of albums? Because the public is horny and depressed." His multiple appearances on The Jimmy Kimmel Show make for TV viewing that surpasses the discomfort and/or hilarity of any reality show. The best are available on the addictive YouTube.com and are worth seeking out for the less-than-amused look on Yoko Ono's face. Last year, Hamburger released Great Moments at Di Presa's Pizza House, and the concert film, That's Not Gold, It's Dung, is forthcoming. Does all of this make for an interesting, bizarre evening of entertainment, the kind that comes around, at the most, once a year? I don't know, you tell me.
Danielson and Neil Hamburger
Tuesday, July 11th
Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission $8