The Cannibal Ramblers prove interesting and entertaining at Salem’s Mercy Tavern

photo credit: Staci Antonelli

The Cannibal Ramblers are not your typical blues band. With only a guitarist and a drummer, Boston and Providence-based Cannibal Ramblers whipped up some tasty, old fashioned dye in the wool blues with their own special compositions at Mercy Tavern in Salem, Massachusetts last night. There’s never a dull moment when these two guys are in a room, and last night’s grand opening of the Mercy Tavern on Derby Street was no exception.

Guitarist-vocalist Mark Milloff and drummer-support vocalist Kyle Anderson performed numbers that were as much narrated story as they were songs, with Milloff, at certain moments, hollering his words like a circus barker. Aside from his louder moments, Milloff’s whisky soaked vocals carried his tunes with an earthy, organic authenticity. He’s not imitating a style. He’s immersed in it.

Milloff also plays a homemade guitar that is sort of like a cigar box guitar but a bit bigger. He made greasy, sliding, blues notes move around the meter like bits of bacon in a frying pan. Meanwhile, drummer Kyle Anderson would inject a lot of bulbous beats and peppy fills, upping the dramatic ante each time. Just when a listener felt the music couldn’t get any crazier, it did.

Make no mistake, though. These two are actually very serious musicians, singers, and songwriters. They know how to spin a good yarn. They can also spin a very suggestive yarn, but that’s another matter. Song topics range from going insane from drinking gin to a canine narrative about a very “Bad Dog.” It suddenly erupted into a manic drum solo before returning to a smooth, thin blues lead guitar driven melody line with Milloff’s story teller approach full of authentic carriage.

photo credit: Staci Antonelli

At another point in the show, Milloff played a thicker, crunchier guitar line that worked cleverly with a huge amount of drum fills to keep the sound wide and expansive. Eventually, Milloff pressed some higher notes into service to conjure a sweet, juicy lead line. From there, a progressively speedier drum pattern turned into the Cannibal Ramblers’ rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” The song certainly went marching on with a drum pattern that was wildly good.

All of the Cannibal Rambler shows are organic. Milloff announced that they never practice so they also never play anything twice the same way. “You’ll never hear it that way again,” he said,” unless it’s recorded. Then, when they play it for us, we say ‘Who’s that?’”

A tune called “Last Night I Drank Too Much” was a fun, toe-tapping number. Guitar lines and drum fills crisscrossed each other to create a sloppily good serving of music. A brush drum solo showed more of this duo’s musical dexterity, going subtle amidst a cavalcade of what was going on before and after those graceful touches.

Aside from not practicing, the duo do not rely on a set list. Much of their show finds one song, one guitar line, one drum thing bleeding into another. This often created, during last night’s show, an entertaining montage of colorful, humorous, and dynamic blues drenched music and hysterical lyrical images . Milloff was singing about being a feature writer at one moment before coming to a line about ending up in the belly of a whale. (“Ishmael’s Song”)

Before one could digest that, he’s shouting “I Want Barbed Wire Rung Around My Arse.” Wild guitar and manic drum and often shouted-sung lyrics completed these visual images with dark, mournful, or happy, boisterous joy.

“Going Home” was a two step groove kind of work with husky, whiskey soaked vocals over it. Milloff here narrated a story about walking around old Salem in which Satan sprung up and gave him the finger. The narrative was punctuated by sudden bursts of speedy drum fills that filled the room while punctuating the hollered-growled lyrics. The duo’s shifting tempos, dynamics, and lyrical imagery might have reminded some of old fashioned Beat poetry readings in which a small jazz combo on stage with the poet augmented the drama and vibe of the poem with improvised pizzazz.

photo credit: Staci Antonelli

“Dirty Hooch” featured more of Milloff’s booming vocal, a voice that announced as much as sang his lyrics. Slide guitar and pushy drum smacks pushed the story toward its inevitable climax.

The Cannibal Ramblers, clearly, are a unique act on the New England music scene. We don’t see too many electric guitar and drum duos. We also don’t see too many live acts playing a homemade electric guitar. Lyrically, vocally, The Cannibal Ramblers are in a class all by themselves. They are taking a guitar-drum set tradition from long gone blues duos and they’re reinventing it for a more permissive society. They went into Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm” in a steady manner, showing their influence in a respectful manner.

Last night’s show was a testament to how successful they are. While one couple standing on the other side of my table said “this band sucks” and left the room with their attitudes intact, the rest of the crowd followed The Cannibal Ramblers with great interest. Many attendees showed up through out the evening to catch this act and celebrated with great emotion. One free spirited woman danced in front of the band and planted a long, firm kiss on Milloff’s lips at the end of the show.

photo credit: Staci Antonelli

It was also a special occasion for the venue. Mercy Tavern, located in the same spot as Salem’s old legendary restaurant and music venue In A Pig’s Eye, were celebrating their grand opening last night. Based on the quality of their food, service, atmosphere, and band, Mercy Tavern will likely become known for being as special a place as the restaurant and music venue that preceded it.