Life on the streets. Scrounging for food, scraping by, begging for change, trying to stay warm. It’s a tough, hard way to live.
Unless you’re the Two Man Gentlemen Band. Then you’re on the streets because you want to be — and people happily give you money. Up until five years ago, the New York-based Gents were street performers, playing their brand of swingin’ neo-vaudeville for passersby in Central Park.
Now they are touring musicians who have done everything from opening for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson to playing theaters and bars across the country — including the Next Generation Theatre in Brewer tonight.
The Gents, known in real life as banjo player and vocalist Andy Bean and upright bass player Fuller Condon, still miss their busking roots, but like their new life as touring musicians just as much.
“For the longest time, we were really content to just play on the street. It was a pretty wonderful two years of playing in Central Park and around the city,” said Bean. “I still miss being able to go out and play for five hours and surprise people with music. But we knew we wanted to try playing real shows and touring as well.”
Bean and Fuller have been playing together for the better part of a decade. They got bitten by the early jazz bug after experimenting with a number of genres.
The music of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton and other vaudeville stars was appealing be-cause of its timelessness and humor — and it became a lifelong passion for both of them.
“I wish we’d discovered this music earlier. We’d certainly be much better musicians. I know some absolutely unbelievable jazz musicians who have been doing this for years,” said Bean. “I think, for us, we were just around so many people who liked so much music that we slowly got infected by this kind of stuff, the music of the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. We’ve committed our lives to it.”
While the pair certainly adopt the musical style and look of the ’20s and ’30s, their songs aren’t meant to be a throwback — like their spiritual brothers and sister, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, they make old time jazz music for the future. They sing about love, politics and having fun. Lots of fun.
“We don’t want to be a nostalgia trip. We just love this music, and it’s what we play,” said Bean. “I think we’d always want to play fun dance music, even if it wasn’t jazz. It just suits us. It suits our personalities.”
Their roots in street performing helped the pair learn what to do, and what not to do, to keep a crowd entertained.
“It really helped us become pretty good at what we play, and make it so people really had to listen to us,” said Bean. “We can sing really loudly. We picked up the kazoo. It’s hard not to notice us.”
It also allowed them to hone their considerable comedic talents. The Two Man Gentlemen Band is as much an excuse to laugh as it is to boogie.
“We take our craft very seriously, but we definitely like to have fun,” said Bean. “Our onstage personalities are only a very mild exaggeration of who we are. I talk a lot, and Fuller doesn’t. He’s the older brother, I’m the pestering younger brother.”
The Gents made their Maine debut last year, playing in Portland during a torrential downpour, in a show that nevertheless brought 100 people out to see them.
Their show in Brewer Friday is bound to be a good time. The Gents encourage audience participation, and, if possible, there’s a loosely enforced two-drink minimum at all shows. This is a band inspired by the 1920s, after all. Having a cocktail or two is always encouraged.
“Our song ‘Fancy Beer’ always gets people going,” said Bean. “Drinking songs are always a good call. They make people happy.”