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It was a frigid Wednesday night in January, and the Chandler Travis Three-O was crowded onto the tiny stage at Toad in Cambridge. Actually, it was an augmented Three-O: In addition to the trio onstage, a keyboardist and clarinet player spilled onto the floor in front, while backup singers clustered behind microphones by the bar. The feeling in the room was warm and woozy. Travis, in a drapey gold tunic, bantered genially with the crowd. "Let’s keep the dancing going with this one," he deadpanned, to laughter from the mostly seated audience, before the band launched into a funky, New Orleans-inspired number.
The beefed up Three-O lineup that night featured several members of the sprawling Chandler Travis Philharmonic, a splendidly costumed, Dixieland-infused outfit that Travis founded in 1996. They were preparing to celebrate the release of the Philharmonic’s new album, “Waving Kissyhead, Vol. 2 & 1,” at Once in Somerville on Thursday, Feb. 2.
Travis is something of a local institution — he got started in Boston in the ‘60s and plays regularly in New England and near his home on the Cape. So it’s a little embarrassing that I only discovered him in 2013, when he started sending me emails. His notes, which were funny and surreal, felt like letters from an old friend.
In fact, the emails were press releases, usually advertising one or another of Travis’ many local engagements. One of them, for a concert in October of 2015, concluded: "Please come, or least say you are; and if you already told me you're plugging it, please pardon this latest invasion, or, better yet, throw your computer through a window in a rage."
When I finally did make it to one of Travis’ shows, it was in September of last year for the JP Music Fest, where he was performing with yet another project, The Catbirds. The four-song “Waving Kissyhead Vol. 1” had just come out, an appetizer for the 13-track “Vol. 2.” “Vol. 1” begins with the menacing thrum of the simply-titled “E,” Travis rumbling in a Tom Waits octave as the band vamps. “Here’s that chord you wanted,” he howls. “Here’s that chord called ‘E.’ ” The song tells of music’s evolution from a single chord into its modern incarnation, with all its attendant evils: “Desperation, shininess, exercise, skiing.”
The song is quintessentially Travis, a wry parody that doesn’t come across as “funny” so much as gently unhinged. But he says it’s a departure. Despite getting his start on the comedy circuit back in the ‘70s, he has resisted being labeled a comedy musician.
"That EP is the closest I've gotten to releasing something that is really jokey in the last 20 or 30 years,” Travis told me that day in September, the first of two conversations we had between the release of “Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2.” (“Waving Kissyhead, Vol. 2 & 1” comes out Feb. 10, and for an additional $2 includes a tube of Waving Kissyhead Nosebalm, which is actually just regular chapstick, but funnier.)
"I always get compared to Frank Zappa because he's one of the only other guys that does comedy a little bit,” Travis adds. “And I never appreciated that because — I think he's an interesting musician, but I don't find a lot of soul in what he does, really."
Travis grew up in Connecticut and moved to Boston in the late ‘60s to attend Boston University. Originally he thought he would become an activist. "Soon as I hit college, I started playing gigs and dealing dope. And it was like, all bets were off. It was very exhilarating — it was all that hippie stuff," he says.
"We were just dealing little bags of pot. And we would make people listen to songs. They would come up to our dorm room and we'd say, ‘OK, you can have the pot but you gotta listen to this.' "
Travis achieved early success as one half of a musical comedy duo with guitarist Stephen Shook called Travis, Shook and The Club Wow. The group got one of its first breaks as a last-minute fill-in for George Carlin’s opening act, which led to a regular gig the comedian's opener for the next decade. "It was a great piece of luck and he was a wonderful guy," Travis says of Carlin. "Another record collector and pot smoker." The comedian even helped the band land "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
It was opening for Carlin that helped Travis evolve his eccentric sensibility. No one goes to a comedy show for the opener. For 10 years, warming up Carlin’s audience became something of a game, where silliness and improvisation won the day.
Even as the era of late night shows and sold out comedy clubs waned, Travis never let up. By his own count he has put out 51 albums over the course of his career, from major label releases with the Travis Shook offshoot The Incredible Casuals, to the 15 homemade albums that resulted from of a year-long, self-imposed music-making challenge in 2000 called the RadioBall series.
"It's ridiculous, I suppose," Travis says of his output. But at the same time, "if people were paying attention, I'd just be one of those guys who puts out a new album’s worth of stuff every year, and that's not that strange. It's just weird for a local guy to persevere this way. You know what I mean — to just keep putting s--- out even though no one's giving a s---."
“Waving Kissyface, Vol. 2 & 1” may be Travis’ most overtly, as he says, “zany” album in a long time, but his favorite songs from the project are of the more wistful variety. He points to “When the Moon Shines,” a sweetly tipsy number, and to the yearning pop ballad “Sure Gonna Miss You.”
The album features several songs co-written with Travis’ longtime musical partner-in-crime David Greenberger. For Travis, the experience of collaboration can be as thrilling as writing the songs. "I like writing the songs, and then when you write them, you can't wait to have the musicians that you love, to see what they do to it," he says. "Just the whole process is so great. And I always feel way better if I've just written something."
As practiced as he is at performing, Travis admits that getting up on stage still contains an element of mystery. "I know no more about what I'm doing than I did 40 years ago. I mean, I just don't have a clue, what's going to be right for a given audience on a given night. It's always a complete f---ing shot in the dark," he says.
"One table can screw up one night. Or, make the whole night great. So it's such a fragile little thing."
At one point during the Three-O’s set at Toad, sax player Berke McKelvey strolled out into the middle of the bar. He tipped back his horn, and for a moment the small room seemed to expand, buoyed by the exuberant spill of notes. Travis smiled from the stage. That night, the crowd was with him.