Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess
Calico Room • 107 S. Front Street
December 2nd, doors at 8 p.m.; show at 9 p.m. sharp
Tickets $8 at Edge of Urge and Calico Room; $10, day of.
“I’d lose my mind if I didn’t have this music,” Jessy Carolina says. Her dedication to a genre that has been long trampled upon and relentlessly forgotten by mainstream society is unique. Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess continue to preserve American music at the turn of the 20th century—rhythms derived from deep within the spirited tradition of folk and blues, vaudeville and ragtime jazz. They ride high on sounds of yesteryear most fitting for anyone whose chariot’s a jalopy and instrument of choice a washboard, something Ms. Carolina herself plays with unabashed pride.
“I picked up the washboard because it was an essential piece to the music we were playing,” she says. Carolina’s approach makes the music not just an erratic hodgepodge of timbres but an experience of itself admirable. “I use sewing thimbles to [play] it, and attach bells and such to get some other sounds. It’s an awesome instrument to have for rhythm.” She also plays kazoo and belts a vexing voice, chafe with heartache, demure coquetry and downright animation.
Originally a busker stuck in a world of guitar players in New York City, Carolina took an early notion to stand out amongst the sea of city players. “A lot of people play on the street or parks for money,” she explains. “And when I say a lot of people, I really mean that everyone and their mom plays guitar.” She wasn’t far from the music’s early roots as a street performer; after all, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Sophie Tucker were buskers, too. Carolina has played all over the states, including New Orleans, where passers-by inevitably flocked to her side for a taste of her bebop venom.
“One time I was busking on my own on Royal Street [in New Orleans], and on my first song, this couple stopped to listen,” she remembers. “When I was done they told me they were from Long Island and said that what I did was beautiful. They left me a $100 tip. I thought that was awesome.”
Her version of Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” moved another street walker in the Big Easy to take notice. “This idiot dude with a banging grenade plastic boozer cup stopped to listen and looked like his world had been shot to shit,” Carolina tells. “When I was done, I thought he was gonna be a typical Bourbon Street jerk. I was wrong. He walked up to me and said, ‘That was amazing, you did that better than Nirvana.’ I smiled, said thanks, and when he walked away, I had a laugh attack. I really liked that compliment.”
Playing Washington Park and Union Square back in New York led her to a reverie of old-time sound that would eventually become the Bill Murray Experience, featuring Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton (piano, banjo), Jordan Hyde (guitar), Jay Sanford (upright bass), Mario Maggio (clarinet) and Satoru Ohashi (trombone, trumpet). With a range of heritage between them, from Venezuela to Japan, South Carolina to New Orleans, the band fixate their energies toward late 1800’s to 1930’s American music—a time when making a song was more than being a pretty face, and talent was achieved with creativity and passion.
“There is a huge difference between back then and now,” Carolina says. “Before you had to be able to play your instrument, you had to sing, you had to be talented or you got a different job.” After listening to Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” and “Before the Blues” compilations, all of which derived from her mother’s love of Bob Dylan, Carolina naturally progressed into the role as front woman for a band whose talent can’t be compared to anyone other than the old-timers who gave roots to the music, including Billy Murray himself. Though the band’s namesake was a tip-off to their musical hero, the questions following in regards to the modern-day comedian/actor and the connection became one too many to answer.
“I was sick of people asking me about the name, and now I’m really tired about people asking me why I changed the name of the band,” Carolina admits. “The name had nothing to do with the actor, which was a major part of the problem. Check out Billy Murray from around 1901—that’s who we were talking about, but hardly anyone got it.”
After releasing two CDs, Bootlegs and Táin’t No Sin, they landed a new name, Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess. Though their recordings are done in true old-time tradition, without the use of a professional studio, there’s an element of nostalgia that comes from its lo-fi sound. “All of the stuff we’ve put out have been home recordings,” Carolina notes. “We recorded our latest CD was with a tape recorder and a little digital machine that can be found at any Radio Shack.”
As they trek across the pond in coming months. Carolina will release a 7-inch vinyl of her original songs in Copenhagen before moving on to Berlin, Paris and a few other European stops. “I’m also planning to kick ass in the Tour de France,” she jokes.
Before going viral in Europe—something sure to happen; don’t the Europeans always appreciate our musical traditions more than we do?—Jessy Carolina and the Hot Mess will be playing the Calico Room, downtown Wilmington, on Thursday the 2nd at 9 p.m.
Local music maestro Fred Champion hails the band without second thought. “They’re a little like Billie Holiday playing fun beer-drinking and sexy risque songs in a smoky speakeasy from the ‘30s,” he says. “I’m telling you these guys will be on ‘Conan’ by Christmastime next year.”
Dressed to the nines in old-school regalia and armed with instruments aplenty, their show will be an affair not to miss. Presented by Edge of Urge, folks who come dressed in ‘20s and ‘30s attire can snap a photo with the band, too. It’s a “saloon-style shimmy sham” unlike Wilmington’s ever seen!
“It’s not a shtick at all,” Carolina assures. “I can see how it might look like it, but I really can’t help dancing around and laughing when we’re performing because it’s fun. We’re all serious about the music we are playing, but it’s also nice to be able to mess around.”