THE BACKSTABBERS at the Cameron House (408 Queen West), Saturday (November 25). 10 pm. $5 (or $15 with CD). 703-0811.NNNNN
Through the front window, a vintage Bill Monroe bluegrass concert poster is visible on the living room wall, and stacks of dusty Merle Haggard and Don Messer vinyl lean beside a creaky old record player set on 78 rpm. Even before anyone answers my knock at the front door, there's no doubt that this must be the hangout of Toronto country string band the Backstabbers.
The heart of a Canadian mega-metropolis might seem like the last place you'd find five slouchy roustabouts picking Appalachian-style licks like it's 1899. But since forming the 'Stabbers three years back, the hell-raising hoedowns that mandolinist Tom "The Colonel" Parker, guitarist/autoharpist Bob Hannan, fiddler Tony Allen, upright bassist James Thomson and accordionist Oliver Bielefeld host at the Cameron every Sunday have steadily grown in notoriety.
This isn't some smartass Queen West hipsters' crack at country corn -- not a chance. These boys are deeply steeped in the pre-country sound of the southern states, the kind of music that J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers were calling "old timey" in the 30s.
There's a certain amount of dedication and perseverance required just to locate and listen to this stuff, let alone play it. Yet the 'Stabbers rip on shouted requests for gruesome murder ballads like Pretty Polly like they've lived 'em, which is impressive for dudes in their 30s who've never spent a day in jail.
It's not like anyone's getting rich singing Gathering Flowers For The Master's Bouquet. So what's the kick? Twanging together onstage at the Cameron, the 'Stabbers discovered a secret lost during the rock and roll revolution: when you play unplugged in close proximity, the shared charge is actually more powerful than electricity.
"There's something really fantastic that happens when you stand around a single microphone, playing acoustic instruments and singing together," enthuses Parker with near religious fervour. "It's an intimacy that you just don't get playing other kinds of music where electronics are involved.
"There are no monitors, it's purely our voices and the vibrations of our strings, and feeling that is the real beauty of this music."
"When we decided to make an album," continues Hannan, "we wanted to record it like we play onstage, standing close to each other. It wouldn't be the same if we were separated and isolated, because we really need to feel that resonance -- we're very tribal that way. So we set up a 1949 RCA microphone and cut the whole thing live from top to bottom."
While the 'Stabbers take what they do very seriously -- Parker and Hannan watch each other's lips move while they're harmonizing to keep themselves in sync -- they're not at all narrow-minded purists when it comes to repertoire choices.
Among their 150-song reserve -- consisting of bloody ballads, crooked fiddle breakdowns and forgotten spirituals from centuries past -- there's also a mess of country tunes from the 50s and 60s. So it's not uncommon to hear them back-date a Webb Pierce or Don Gibson classic to suit their needs.
They've even stuck a cover of Steve Earle's wistful Sometimes She Forgets on their swinging new Backstabbers Country String Band disc (out next week on their own Run Mountain label), and damn if it doesn't work beautifully as a string-band weeper.
"The lyrics are very clever and take the same sort of turns you hear in old country songs," explains Parker. "It fits right in with what we do. The melody is also very strong, which is important to us."
The 'Stabbers cross-genre dabbling probably doesn't seem all that revolutionary, but in the world of old-timey music, interpreting modern country songs verges on heresy.
By all accounts, they were warmly received on a recent swing through West Virginia, yet some of the older crowd didn't know what to make of their unusual mix 'n' match stylistic blends. More than once they were asked after a set, "Y'all from Scotland?"
From the wide-eyed look of astonishment on the face of musicologist Mike Seeger while jamming with the 'Stabbers after his Sunday show at the Tranzac Club, he was obviously intrigued by their unconventional approach.
The man who spent his life tracing the twisted evolutionary path of American traditional music excitedly peppered the members with so many questions about their idiosyncratic guitar strumming and offbeat fiddle bowing techniques, they could barely get a word in.
At one point during the hour-long pull, Seeger excused himself for a washroom break, but when he heard the 'Stabbers tear into Pretty Little Girl With The Red Dress On, he turned around, strapped on his banjo and sat right back down to rejoin the action.
"They remind me of the New Lost City Ramblers when we were starting out," he beamed about his latest discovery. "Only each of these boys is a unique stylist. They don't sound like their sources -- they're different, and that's the great thing about the Backstabbers.
Don't count on string band music to be the next big thing. But if by chance autoharps suddenly become fashionable, the 'Stabbers are primed to take over. For the moment, releasing their own CD is accomplishment enough.
"We weren't too interested in pursuing labels," admits Parker. "I think we can do well enough on our own selling CDs off the bandstand. As long as we don't get too generous giving copies to our friends, we won't lose our shirts.
"A couple of years ago, people might not have paid attention to the Backstabbers, but we've become a really tight unit, and I think the music we're making now can reach out to people and seize them. It might not happen right away, but we're not thinking about the short term. We plan to be playing this music for the rest of our lives." b>