Review by Michael Magoolaghan
(https://americanahighways.org/author/mack-hooligan/)Photos by Jimmy Faber Photography
What if I told you I’m in love with a band that was named after its mastermind’s pet snail? And that said band promoted itself for a time by representing its music as having been produced by a snail — and that its label (Yer Bird) was fine with that? And that the band’s website to this day features a page containing nothing but photos of snails?
What if I further told you that the same band decided, after finally agreeing to self- identify as humans, to obscure their identities by adopting the family moniker “Jones” and letting each band member preface his or her common surname (though none are related) with a jokey, old-timey Appalachian name?
Thus we have: Hezekiah Jones (aka, songwriting snail-lover Raphael “Raph” Cutrufello); Pocono Jones (Brad Hinton); Roy G. Biv Jones (Daniel Bower); Kiwi Jones (Kiley Ryan); Tones Jones (Andy Keenan); and Peter L.V. Jones (Alex Luquet).
Welcome to the surreal, humorous, sometimes dark, sometimes darkly humorous and always strangely magical world of Hezekiah Jones, the best and certainly most unique folk / Americana / sui generis band you probably haven’t yet heard of.
Orbiting around the fertile imagination and songwriting talents of Cutrufello, this collective of Philadelphia-area musicians — often featuring Phil D’Agostino in place of Luquet on bass and on this night featuring Keenan, recently returned to Philadelphia from Nashville, on pedal steel and banjo — has been quietly compiling a strong catalog of quirky, mundanely-yet-transcendentally beautiful and always hummable songs since the mid-2000s. A good number of those songs have the morbidly comedic feel of an Edward Gorey illustration; some seem to harken back to a vaguely Civil War-era America that history books could never capture, while others live in a weird, semi sci-fi time & space all their own.
In short, Cutrufello’s aim is off-kilter and intentionally headed off the beaten path — though his songs simultaneously seem hauntingly familiar, like misheard hymns or battle marches. As “Hundred Miles In,” from the band’s most recent, 2015 full-length album In Loving Memory of oosi Lockjaw (yes, you read that right) puts it: “I know you’re kinda strange / ‘cause you’re not really into the normal stuff / You know you’re kinda weird / when you’re not really into humans that much.” (He prefers snails, obviously.)
If you’re curious about this curious band, …oosi Lockjaw is a decent ledge from which to leap into their eccentric universe. Have You Seen Our New Fort? — a 2011 release that features 14 different players and incorporates such unusual instrumentation (especially for a “folk” album) as glockenspiel, waterboards, sleigh bells, trombones, baritone saxophone and clarinet — is another one.
Though you may not have heard of them, Hezekiah Jones has been a pretty big draw in Philadelphia for a while now, filling places like Johnny Brenda’s, the Ardmore Music Hall, and on this particular evening, the newish venue 118 North in Wayne (on the western side of Philly’s “Main Line”), where Cutrufello hosts a weekly Wednesday night open mic / jam that draws many of the area’s best musicians.
That same venue was packed to the gills with Hezekiah aficionados last Saturday. Darlyngton, the love-child band of Jack Shoudy and Emily MacDonald (who grew up in Wayne) — led off with a set dominated by danceable Grateful Dead jams and lesser known covers, including an interesting rendition of John Prine’s classic “Sam Stone.” A tall redhead with a strong voice and swirling freeform dance moves, MacDonald was the visual focal point, while the rest of the band played their parts more than competently, luring a good portion of the audience onto the dance floor by set’s end.
The Hezekiah Jones sextet then squished onto the smallish stage to play two long sets, performing 25 songs en toto, and re-peforming a snippet of one of those songs (their cover of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe”) at least eight times, by my count.
To be completely honest, after the third or fourth annoying repetition of that snippet, my reaction was WTF?!?
Cutrufello later reminded me that Februrary 2nd was Groundhog Day, and that that particular snippet — introduced heartily each time with the phrase “Okay campers, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties, ‘cause it’s COLD OUT THERE!” by drummer Roy G. Biv Hones / Daniel Bower (who also serves as the regular drummer for central Pennsylvania Americana veterans Frog Holler) — plays on the radio as Bill Murray wakes redundantly to his alarm clock in the 1993 comedy of that name.
Now I’m not just annoyed; I’m thoroughly amused.
Cutrufello, you see, is a charmingly wicked, wickedly charming fellow, in his mild- mannered, sweet-natured way. He’s the kind of guy who can annoy you by pulling your leg but then instantly disarm your distemper with a wink and a warm grin (or perhaps a shot of gin). His songs have a similar effect, reeling you in to what feels like a joke that may or may not be on you, but then unreeling them out so that they come to resonate, sometimes immediately, sometimes only in hindsight, like a Zen master’s firm knock on an initiate’s head.
In short, if you’ve never seen Hezekiah Jones live, you’re in for a treat when you do — especially if you like your folk and/or Americana mysterious and a bit offbeat (in a good way). To give you some hint of what you might see and hear, highlights from the Groundhog Day show included:
- Cutrufello’s warm vocals on “Spare the Whiskey,” complemented beautifully by violinist Kiley Ryan’s harmonies
- Similarly lovely harmonies and guitar accompaniment on “Agnes of the World,” the lead-off song from their debut album, Hezekiah Says You’re A-OK
- Keenan’s mournful pedal steel accompanying Cutrufello’s clever lyrics on “Cupcakes for the Army,” featuring such Zen koan-ish lines as “Who needs keys when you got logic? / Who needs logic when you’ve got doubt?” and “No one wins a war anymore with compromise and smiles / Real religion’s in the mind of a child”
- The second set’s consecutive sequencing of six of Cutrufello’s best songs, including the 2018 release “If You Harden on the Inside,” which led into a truly astonishing drum solo by Bower. That was followed by the short, cryptic and quickly accelerating “That Panel Where the Soap is at on the Machines” and the crowd-pleasing quartet of “Albert Hash,” “Yeshe and Horus,” the carnivalesque waltz/singalong “Cannonball (I’ve Got a Little Room)” and the Squirrel Nut Zipper- ish “Mind Malaise,” adorned by Hinton’s superb Telecaster solo
The band capped the second set with tasty renditions of a couple of cover tunes: Sparklehorse’s “Knives of Summertime,” on which the Joneses laid out for an extended jam, and the Palace Brothers’ / Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I Am a Cinematographer,” featuring tastefully effective fiddle and guitar solos by Ryan and Hinton respectively.
Though they’re not touring widely these days (“With kids and mortgages and such, sleeping on floors and making minimal money just don’t make the sense it used to make,” says Cutrufello), Hezekiah Jones does play fairly regularly around Philly, and Cutrufello and the other band members are mainstays at the Robin & Beth Fest each summer. If you’ve never seen them live and are in the area, you owe it to yourself to check them out.
More info on the band (plus snail pix!) is available at (http:/www.hezekiahjones.com).
The group’s songs are available on Bandcamp (https:// hezekiahjones.bandcamp.com), Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/artist/ 20lXQKFXIjJfHdgl7Um0XA), iTunes and most other digital distribution platforms.