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‘They’re like the first punk band ever’

ANNA BLOOM Of the Record staff
The Holy Modal Rounders founding fathers, Peter Stampfel, left, and Steve Weber, right, in 2002. Photo: courtesy Sam Douglas.
4Holy-Modal

"It was the first time the word, ‘psychedelic’ was used in an album, and it was important to me at the time to have this happen back then, because like a bunch of other people I believed that if Kennedy and Kruschev only took some LSD together, we would have world peace forever." –Peter Stampfel By the end of the Slamdance Film Festival documentary "The Holy Modal Rounders&Bound to Lose," it becomes unclear whether drugs inspired or impaired the success of The Holy Modal Rounders founding band members fiddler Peter Stampfel and guitarist Steve Weber. At no point do the underground folk heroes demure in front of the camera: they embraced the psychedelic movement early and were late to let it go. When they first met in May of 1963, Stampfel recalls a three-day-long amphetamine-induced jam session followed by a performance at a New York nightclub. "Meeting Weber was seriously like meeting my long lost brother&My reaction was love at first sight and when we started playing it sounded like we’d been playing together all our lives," he remembers. "The third day, there was a mirror off stage while we were playing at one of the clubs on Baker Street and I looked up and saw the two of us playing together and thought: that is absolutely one of the weirdest and most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my entire life." The two became a fixture in Greenwich Village, creating a sound that combined their appreciation for "old timey" pre-bluegrass American folk music from the 1920s and 1930s and their affinity for irreverent rock ‘n roll rebellion. They formed a band, recorded tracks, and rocked alongside Ike and Tina Turner, Pink Floyd, and The Velvet Underground. But they remained on the fringe of the mainstream counterculture revolution during the 1960s and 1970s, endlessly seeming to break up and reunite, in part, Stampfel concedes, because "drugs made our career ambition a little less diligent than it should have been." Weber and Stampfel titled their 1999 album, produced two decades after their last breakup, "Too Much Fun." It is a phrase that seems to both poke fun and honor what many fans would call "legendary" antics. As fellow musician Dave Van Ronk notes in the film, "they were stoned out of their birds all the time. Everybody knew it. They made no bones about it and they were having fun." The documentary follows the oft-bickering duo and their many folky jam band cohorts from their East coast digs to their 40th anniversary concert in Oregon. The filmmakers, a team of New York University graduates, describe the result of their investigation into the counterculture lives of the Rounders as the documentary version of the folk culture mockumentary, "A Mighty Wind." "I do and say a lot of stupid and embarrassing things on it, but I do and say a number of embarrassing and stupid things in my everyday life as well, so I suppose it may be true to life," Stampfel admits. Between the scenes that make the sober Stampfel blush is footage of high-energy performances by the band, accompanied by interviews with actor Dennis Hopper, who chose the Rounders’ song, "If You Want To Be A Bird," for the "Easy Rider" soundtrack; former band member and playwright, Sam Shepard; as well as commentary from music critics and historians hip to the Greenwich Villiage folk scene during the 1960s. In the film, "The Village Voice" Music Editor Robert Christgau asserts that next to Bob Dylan, Stampfel was one of the few musical talents to come out of the New York folk scene he considers to be a genius. Christgau notes Stampfel eventually made a more normal life for himself, with a family and a job and a home in New York City. "Peter’s done a remarkable thing. Late in life, he figured out a way to have something approaching a normal life&He looks back on his drug-saturated life and he has a great attitude about it. He doesn’t reject it, yet he hasn’t straightened out at all, because that isn’t who he is," he observes. The wild, long, white-bearded Weber who Christgau describes as possessing a "supernatural charm," may have kicked his drug habit a few years ago, but by no means joined the yuppie club. The film captures him lounging in his dilapidated Pennsylvania farmhouse with his mother. On a sunny day outside a local bar, Weber shares his philosophy with the camera crew. "Just another day in the life of a musician&You seize the day and sometimes drink before noon and if you play your cards right, that’ll happen. Bring on the broads!" he shouts. "Bound to Lose" co-directors and producers Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace approached Stampfel about being a part of the film after seeing him play with Yo La Tengo in New York, five and a half years ago. Later on, they met Weber. "We met Steve [Weber] a couple of weeks after we started shooting the initial shoots," Douglas says. "We had heard a lot of stories, but when you meet him in the flesh and experience it firsthand, you’re a little blown away at how this guy just does what he wants to do and that’s the way he’s done it forever and that’s the way he’s going to keep doing it." "It’s interesting," he continued. "Whether you’re filmmakers or songwriters, it just seems that we’re really conditioned to get in line and get our cubical space and do things the way society and our education system have plotted it out for us. I find it liberating to see some people that just ran with what they wanted to do and for better or worse, they’re fairly happy doing what they enjoy." The flipside of attempting to tame Weber’s free-spirit long enough to shoot film, however, was that before the film’s conclusion at the 40th anniversary concert, he missed his westbound flight, and was subsequently no where to be found. Even Stampfel says he still doesn’t know where Weber is. He says he’s heard Weber might be living somewhere in Brooklyn, but for reasons unknown to Stampfel, Weber refuses to talk. Stampfel continues to play gigs in New York, listening to young artists like Fiona Apple, The Shins and The Decemberists, as well as the old. Recently he reunited with Shepard, and he reports they are in the beginning stages of forming an eight-man all-banjo band. Like the Rounders, the filmmakers relied on recognizing their own potential, working around jobs that pay the bills to finish the film. The documentary was shot on cameras Douglas and Lovelace begged and borrowed from various friends and production companies. The two manage to fund the project themselves and with the help of a few generous friends, editing on weekends and evenings, between post-production reality television shifts for The Discovery Channel and The Food Network, according to Douglas. The filmmakers have received a good response from several audiences already, he reports. In the past year, the film has been featured at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, England’s Raindance Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia. They also gave a sneak peek to a film class at New York University. "This one girl from the class who was really into punk rock said, ‘you know, I’ve never been into folk music and that kind of stuff, but these guys? I could really get into them, because they’re like the first punk rock band ever,’" Douglas recalls. "People really find [the film] amusing they’re really entertained&But they find it really sad and heartbreaking, too."

The first screening at the Slamdance Film Festival of "Holy Modal Rounders&Bound To Lose" on Monday, Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. in the Living Room Theater at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main Street. For more information, log onto http://www.slamdance.com.


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