Legend has it that bathtub gin was a byproduct of Prohibition. When high-quality liquor was hard to come by, poor-quality gin was mixed in large jugs with flavorings, topped off with water from the bathtub tap, then steeped for several days — just to make the drink palatable.
Despite the name, there's nothing disagreeable about The Bathtub Gin Serenaders, a local ensemble that plays what members call "hot jazz and dirty blues." The group's old-time music undoubtedly pays tribute to pre-World War II jazz, Prohibition-era jazz, Gypsy jazz, blues and ragtime. These genres have a place in their repertoire, along with an amalgamation of modern covers, era-specific covers and originals.
The band, now in its eighth year together, will play at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 30, at Brickroom Gathering House, 35 N. Main St., Ashland. Admission is $5.
Chari Weatherford on washboard, Eric von Radics on guitar and vocals, Stephany Smith Pearson on accordion, mandolin and vocals, Lawrence Newcomb on saxophone and clarinet, Nancy Martin on vocals, Melissa Orr on violin, ukulele and vocals, David Orr on guitar, Pete Wirts on drums, and Jesse Baldwin on stand-up bass are The Bathtub Gin Serenaders. The band formed in 2009 when Weatherford put out a Craigslist ad seeking interest.
In the early days, Pearson says the group rehearsed in a storage unit off Interstate 5 in Ashland, without heat or a bathroom. After humble beginnings, the group has since played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Green Show, the Siskiyou Folk and Bluegrass Festival, and opened for Steve Martin at Britt Festivals. It has released two albums: "Me and My Gin" (2011) and "Prohibition in Remission."
With several of the band's songs being covers, the sound is diverse. Some songs bring to mind Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli; others sound like the Devil Makes Three meets a Caravan Palace acoustic set.
The group's renditions of old standards such as "St. James Infirmary" show what a large band and a variety of instruments can do with a classic. The Serenaders' version punches up a sad tune and makes listeners want to stomp their feet rather than hang their heads. Throughout the band's ouevre, scatting, vocal harmonies, blazing clarinet solos, washboard percussion, standup bass and accordion blend together in an homage to hot jazz, Gypsy jazz and true blues.
Weatherford says the band has garnered a steady local following that appreciates its upbeat sound. Fans — including a group of swing dancers — often dress in Roaring Twenties garb for the occasion.
"You get a couple beats into the song, and all of a sudden, people are on the dance floor," Weatherford says.
Pearson's first encounter with Gypsy jazz was in high school. She was in the 10th grade when a friend put on a Reinhardt album. On first listen, she was hooked.
“I just love this music," Pearson says. "It’s so authentic. It’s raw, it’s gritty, it’s technically challenging, and it comes out of a deep American tradition. I greatly respect and honor the roots of this music, and I just hope we’re doing it justice.”
Peppy tempos and lightning-quick solos are hallmarks of hot jazz, Dixieland and Gypsy jazz, often regarded as precursors to big band music. As for blues, the band's lyrics center on themes of tragedy and loss, while upbeat music counters the somber words. The Bathtub Gin Serenaders credit musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Reinhardt among its influences. With folkgrass mainstays such as The Devil Makes Three and electroswing band Caravan Palace gaining musical acclaim, old genres are making a comeback. But The Serenaders has carved out its own little niche.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a really interesting resurgence, a return to deep acoustic roots,” Pearson says. “It feels very of-the-moment. This music is really resonant of what we’re going through right now. We all have tragedy in our life just like we all have triumphs, no matter what era you’re from.”
Though the demand for danceable old-time bands is on the rise, the group is by no means after the crown.
“We’re big, and we’re not playing a genre that a lot of other people are playing. It’s not a gimmick. It’s not a novelty act. We love this music,” Pearson says.
Playing music full-time would be a dream for the local nonet, but jobs, families and lives keep the band rooted in the Rogue Valley. And widespread popularity is not the members' reason for being. When all's said and done, the love of the music and the desire to share it with the community is reason enough.
"We wanna make people dance. We wanna make people move," Pearson says. "When people dance, it feeds our energy, and it becomes this wonderful feedback loop."
Looking to the future, The Serenaders show no signs of stopping. The band is recording its next album, which may be released as early as this year. Its new work will feature tight, three-part female vocal harmonies and new takes on old classics.
Catch The Bathtub Gin Serenaders next month at 6:45 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, at OSF's Green Show, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. The Green Show is free and open to all ages.
BGS' music can be heard online at www.reverbnation.com/thebathtubginserenaders and purchased at its shows and at Musichead, 350 S. Riverside Ave., Medford.