It is near midnight at El Rio in the Mission. I step outside onto the patio to sip my margarita. The glow of the heat lamps falling gently across the sharp contours of the palms, the smooth lime that I inhale with a shock of salt, the pounding of the beat reverberating against the frail walls of the concert room, all add to the ambiance of sensuous contrast. A wave of sound sweeps over me, and I feel privileged to have discovered a band as raucous and fiery as the Jaunting Martyrs.
The Jaunting Martyrs are natural storytellers, weaving magical prose around epic ballads. Although, in the tradition of the Beat Generation (think Jack Keroauc, for instance), they tend to meander on-when an earlier ending probably would be more organic.
The band is a 6-person ensemble that I originally mistook for a folk band before the on-stage acrobatics clued me in on the group’s true uniqueness. The Jaunting Martyrs are about as theatrical as it gets-they are a circus troupe. At least, they all met through their connections with the circus.
One of the original members of Jaunting Martyrs, Justine Lucas, describes the group: ”œThere’s a certain element of theatrical silliness among all of us on stage; our individual quirks are connected by our past circus-related experiences,” she writes in an e-mail, ”œThe circus taught me how to improvise”¦the structure of the music has to be flexible to be able to provide a soundtrack that syncs up with the drama of the circus act.”
The band members represent a wide array of circus troupes and organizations, including the Humboldt Circus, the Freelove Circus, the Marching Lumberjacks, Cirkus Pandemonium, and Flying Actors Studio.
It is a starless, brooding night outside the Grant and Green Saloon, and Grant Street is privy to fiery marquees silhouetted against a languid sky. A hop and a skip away is Café Trieste. A jump further is City Lights Bookstore, where the specters of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs still lurk.
Sitting at a cold, damp table, a stark contrast with the distant warm glow of Café Trieste, I wonder out loud about the band’s genre, given its clamorous sound. Across from me is the group: Carlos Nunoz (electric guitar); Justine Lucas (lead vocals, violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar); Brendan O’Loughlin (lead vocals, electric & acoustic guitar, banjo); Justin Boyle (electric & upright bass); Jimi Marks (drums/percussion); and Margarita Licon (trumpet, accordion).
Brendan answers, ”œI personally wanted to step away from the gypsy moniker and what it implies. We don’t exactly play gypsy jazz. That’s what we started as.”
To his right, Justin sits upright and attentive next to his fellow troubadours’ comfortable slouches. He chimes in, ”œOn my phone I have Brendan as ‘gypsy jazz surf rock dude’ that’s the flavor that I [perceive]. It’s more about flavors than genres.”
Laughter spreads among the band members, situated in chairs sprawled underneath the awning of the Café. I find myself caught up in the energy.
The band’s influences, as it turns out, vary widely and range from Brendan’s interest in surf rock to Justine’s childhood inspirations, including Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.
Justine adds, ”œMy parents were kind of punks in the 80s. When they had me they were like ‘Oh my god! The baby’s screaming! Lets shut her up with the Sex Pistols!’”
”œShe’s mellowed out with age,” Justin insists, ”œWe all have really different influences. The structures of the songs are written with folk and blues [in mind] and we kind of open it up for different solos and different melodies to come out.”
Oftentimes, these melodies are improvised.
”œIf you feel the beat, you feel the beat,” says Margarita, whose small size can only be an acrobatic advantage. Although she leaves the tumbling tricks for her moments with Justine offstage between acts, she does juggle on stage with alacrity.
Improvisation, acrobatics, tom foolery-these themes continued to emerge in my correspondence with Brendan after the Grant and Green Saloon interview. For Brendan, the connection between the circus and the band is the storytelling experience:
”œWe want a little madness in the room, a little switching up, maybe a little hard thinking and questioning, but mostly strangeness. The circus showed us all that. To be weird and tell a story and put on a show, and to know that there is seriously nothing better in this world than that.”
Brendan tells me that what drives him is ”œthe desire to celebrate those who are on the fringes of society.” I am tempted to question his candor. Yet his years of cultivating connection through music and showmanship, while cobbling retail jobs together to make ends meet, convinces me of his sincerity. He continues, ”œFor many of our friends out on the road out…and traveling people of all sorts…the circus arts have been a survival skill [for generations].”
In San Francisco, the Jaunting Martyrs draw on the tradition of traveling artists who have for years sought to gain a different perspective than that offered by our current ”œsystem.” In their responses to my queries during the interview and in my correspondence, I am reminded again of the Beat Generation that still haunts the air-especially in San Francisco. In particular, I think of the poem ”œHowl” by Allen Ginsberg. In the poem, Ginsburg describes his friends:
“”¦who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…”