They've been called innovative, brilliant, dangerous, wanted by the law, and worse. But who are the ever expanding conspiracy known as Peaches and Crime? Where does their music come from? What do they mean? And where are the bodies? Difficult questions all. The answers take us down the haunted back roads of American music, to the places where razormen groove to bloody blues, where the ghosts of tortured slaves beat out hymns of revenge in 4/4 time. We need to understand why R.L. Burnside carried a gun, or what Devil Robert Johnson encountered at the Crossroads. Our journey will take us across the Mississippi Delta, where Charlie Patton gave voice to the daily brutality of life in the south; to the rusting heaps of northern cities where the desperation of wage work has given way to the bitter freedom of joblessness; to the wind-swept edges of Texas, amidst the landscape the nurtured Bonnie and Clyde before it betrayed them unto death. Yes, it was a man who made the call, who turned them in. But the end was with them from the beginning. That's the Blues.
Peaches and Crime understood it as early as the Etta James-esque “Mrs. Colt Revolver,” which appeared on their previous record, “The Great Display.” You can hear it on this album in tracks like “Burning Southside Down,” a tale of vengeance displaced in time and space as so many of their songs are, but at heart a Texas rockabilly swinger about overthrowing the social order in a blaze of Jacobean glory and southside Chicago word play. But to blame it on the land is to miss the people who made Peaches and Crime happen. And a stranger crew of miscreants have rarely been assembled, at least on stage.
At the heart of the enigma is Angie Diamond. With a voice that can, and has, bent strong men down the twisted path of hallucination and dementia, Angie brings an immediacy to songs like “You and Me” that comes only from experience. She focuses her talent on classic tales of revenge, wearing the role of a woman wronged like some people wear a favorite shirt. We cannot know for certain, but it seems likely that it was in the depths of those bleak landscapes that birthed the blues where she learned the art of disposing of bodies and burying ghosts with fire and songs.
If Angie is the soul of Peaches and Crime, Ross, Just Ross, is its beating heart. Which is just as well, given the persistent story concerning the number of hearts he's broken, and the few he keeps in jars in a closet in a house whose address is best left unnamed. He plays drums with an uncanny precision, arms
and legs keeping time with that slight hesitation that made Muddy Waters so damn real, while his head stays focused on landscapes only he can hear and his body goes rigid from the shock of living in two worlds. But he also brings an utter unwillingness to repeat himself, representing a radical departure from the blues and a nod to Earl Palmer, the drummer who brought tap dance and a bit of New Orleans hoodoo to everything from Little Richard to Tom Waits. Watching Ross play, it's clear that his soul remains in the secret places of the swamps and the delta. While HP Lovecraft imagined cults who worshiped blasphemies in the places sane people can't reach even today except by boat, Ross conjures them with a beat even they can clamor up from the lost cities on the ocean floors to dance to.
In his own way, Mickey Six-String is the luckiest or most cursed, of the lot. Although he plays his namesake instrument and the perpetual murder victim with equal seriousness, Mickey brings a bit of charm and rock-star styling to his guitar work. Where he came from is as much a mystery as the rest of the band, and his aura is only enhanced by rumors of his return from the dead, driven no doubt by the number of times he's been killed on stage in what must be nothing more than a stage show, no matter how realistic it seems. He has, at the last report, wandered off in the way he arrived; into parts unknown.
The rest of the band is a mixed gang, drawn from all walks of life, to use the term loosely. Of the remainder, the title of most mysterious belongs to either Abigail Pins, or Young Catherine. While Catherine appears to have no family name at all, it's likely that Pins took up hers as the sort of private joke that remains private to this day. The most common source suggests the name derives from a previous career as a seamstress, but that remains mere speculation. To hear Catherine, Pins and Diamond sing “Sugar Daddy” is to understand the connection between seduction, disappointment, and murder. If Hell hath no greater fury than a woman scorned, how much greater would that be in multiples of the magical number three? And when they're not fronting the band on vocals, Pins has a habit of inserting a more subtle commentary as in the edges of the gloriously bloody “Burning Southside Down,” while Catherine adds a more playful touch on the clarinet on several numbers.
This record is the last likely to feature “Squeezebox” Jones, who once had a life, a love, and perhaps even a given name. They say that he was once in love, and conflicting stories of how that ended circulate to this day. All that can be said with any certainty is that he loved and lost, and with that tragedy went his voice, and, if one is inclined to believe such things, his soul, although only Ross likely knows that last for certain. A skilled juggler and a master of comic timing, Jones developed a form of gesture that he incorporated into his act. Jones is also proof that happy endings can happen. Last anyone heard, he had left the band to pursue a second chance at love. Or to win back his soul. Or both.
On the bass guitar, Honest Steven Longfield has taken over the job of most unwilling to speak after the departure of Jones. A most basic search turned up a man of that name who spent some time at the infamous Parchman Farm, where he compounded the original murder that sent him there with two more. Unless, of course, its a different Steven Longfield altogether. Inquiries to this point have turned up little other than vague threats delivered in blank envelopes.
Organizing and giving voice to Peaches and Crime is Doctor Daniel Z. Black. He speaks with the accent of an educated eastern type, and the cadence of the snake oil salesmen whose dubious title to authority he might well share. Black has provided many of the lyrics for Diamond and company; when asked, he has been known to suggest that you can learn much about him by listening to the words. He has also been known to suggest that he is a teller of tales, and so cannot vouch for the truth of any of t hem. But be it joke or truth, music elevates our species out of the muck and mire, music expresses that which is best and worst in us. While a good joke or a bit of juggling can keep an audience for a few moments, its the music that's at the heart of the Peaches and Crime conspiracy.
Although the music comes from the soul of America, the nights where one “never felt so scared nor felt so alive,” on a Saturday night, they chose to begin this album with a tango, a form whose Latin roots lit up the ballrooms of New York City for many years. Truth you can dance to, the “Bastard Tango” is a reminder of things to come, of an album that will take you on a tour of those places where dancing is all some people have left. Like the tango, the rest of the tour mixes the class of an old Packard with the power of big block engine, while the music careens into the past, to find a world where nothing has changed from a measureless then to the darkest corners of the present. Love and jealousy still write their tales of blood across bedrooms, the daily grind of work and hopelessness still clashes with the aspirations of people who dreamed they were free. And were at least free enough to give voice, two or three minutes at a time, to a world where justice and love will have their day.
Of all of the subjects that music addresses, the sublime joy and deadly danger of love is perhaps the most popular. No wonder, than, that a tango is just that kind of music that reminds one how love and hate are both passions, blending one into the other in a seamless whole. For proof, we have “Taking Up the Knife,” ironically positioned near the beginning of the record we have a final lullaby in which Angie bids her lover the last goodnight. While “Hellmira” draws us
further back in time, to the horrors of a Civil War prison camp, and rattles the ghost of Julia Ward Howe, “Sugar Daddy” brings us right back to whatever time Peaches and Crime are operating from, highlighted by a three way harmony from Diamond, Pins and Catherine that defines harmony musically while denying the meaning of Harmony in every other way.
The tension is then broken by the first of several comedy skits that appear on the record, before we jump right back into a more jazzy set with “Done Me Wrong” and “Never Be a Good Girl.” The first is a jazz blues, nodding back to Bessie Smith with a tale of how love really works. “Never Be a Good Girl” is the story of the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911, a reminder that those who play by the rules often end up taking the fall, literally as well as figuratively.
“Burning Southside Down” keeps us in the old industrial north, turning an old Wang Dang Doodle style party into a movement that cooked up everything the prosecutors at Haymarket feared and setting it to a rockabilly beat that recalls that moment when Americans thought they knew what dancing in the streets really meant. They follow that with “You and Me,” a piece that starts out like a love ballad in the form of a mainstream jazz piece that Sinatra or Dorsey (or both) could have recorded; and then veers into a moment of truth about how much love really does burn. Diamond's voice is really the highlight of this piece, mixing love and despair in equal parts.
Emerging from the burning ruins, the album closes with two tales of escape, leaving the audience swinging in the right direction. “Saturday Man” blends a rythym right out of an urban jungle nightmare into the simple pleasures of date night, blues, booze and reefer, fast cars and fast times. This story of being alive, at least in the moment, pounds against a relentless beat that refuses to let go until one understands why blues can destroy and liberate at once. Finally, “Rum Runner” whisks us away to the Caribbean, where the long arm of the law, and all the forces that stand between most people and life as it would be lived, can only come as intruders, and even then, can only kill a man, not an idea. Which sums up quite well what this Peaches and Crime project is about. Music for dancing, certainly, true, but music wrapped in ideas as old as the broken promises that put a gun in Daniel Shay's hand. Music that drove slave rebels to lay down their lives from Haiti to New York and back to Louisiana. Currents that driven below the surface, emerged in the Blues, migrated north to become the mighty river of rock and roll, and then, seeing what that had become, sat down by the waters of the Susquehanna and wept. It wept, and then, taking form again as the blues always do, dried its eyes, and whispered terrifying, uplifting promises that those who heard called Peaches and Crime.
Professor Zachariah T. Converse
Somewhere near Clarksdale