For eight years running, the Maness Brothers have taken time out from making wooly, bruising, bluesy garage rock to plan and throw the Whiskey War Festival. This year's event was like years past — more than twenty bands played throughout the day at the Broadway Athletic Club, and showgoers could get a guided tour of some of St. Louis' finest acts in one day.
But when local bizarro-folk quintet Opera Bell Band took the stage, a life-sized still-life scene loomed in front of them. Paints and brushes sat nearby. Calling it a "Living Coloring Book," the band encouraged the audience to add some color to the all-white scene.
"Essentially, we painted a bunch of objects white and created a living-room scene that we set up in front of the stage," explains singer, guitarist and band mastermind Shane Devine. "We had an actor friend of ours dress as a cowboy character — he was in a robe and cowboy boots."
That interactive quality would, seemingly, be enough of a marvel, but the Opera Bell Band likes to inject equal parts whiz-bang silliness and running-gag callbacks in its set. So as the show went on and the all-white set became mottled with color, the cowboy's storyline evolved: His driftless langour turned into born-again enthusiasm as he received a call from an old comrade. Soon enough, the out-of-work cowboy was back in the saddle — and in vibrant color.
Devine explains the idea behind the staging as "bringing the color back into his life story." That idea provides a nice analogue for how the Opera Bell Band approaches its music and specifically its live shows. Devine and his multi-instrumentalist bandmates — Jess Adkins, Jake Everett. Kristina DeYong and Grant Martin — look more like a raggedy vaudevillian troupe than a band, and its charmingly antiquated folk songs seem to come from some imagined past, populated by jazzy 7th chords, twinkly xylophones and seemingly nonsensical lyrics about produce.
In a town where most bands will follow the routine of a live show — modest introductions and awkward banter between songs — the OBB seeks to inject color and liveliness onto stages across town (and, with a recent tour under its belt, across the Midwest and South as well).
"The main thing that we're trying to do is to leave it to the audience to decide how serious they want to take it," Devine says. "There is a lot of care put into the songs and the staging, but there is a carefree silliness to it. You can enjoy it for what it is on the surface, which is a big, colorful circus."
That carnivalesque mentality is apparent from the band's on-stage uniform, which consists of yellow attire, floppy hats and painted red noses. Often, the stage is saddled with props; most shows feature an emcee called Butternut the Pilot.
"The importance of it to us is that we want to do things that are entertaining to us," says Devine. "We want to surprise ourselves and that we as concertgoers would be surprised to see. With every new show, we try to think of something that we haven't done before."
That immersive spirit was in the air at the release show for the band's full-length debut Bell-Slide, which took place at Off Broadway in June. The afternoon show included a shrimp boil and a bevy of interactive activities.
"It was supposed to feel like a family reunion," Devine explains. "We had cornhole set up in the venue, and a watermelon spitting contest and a pie eating contest. We had these little competitions built into the framework of the whole day."
Opera Bell Band walks a fine line between novelty act and serious band — and showgoers would be forgiven for thinking of the music as secondary to the spectacle. But Bell-Slide introduces Devine as one of the sharper sui generis lyricists in town, and the music the band plays sounds like an indiscriminately old-time pastiche.
Part of that sound comes from Devine's record collection — he counts Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks and Smile-era Beach Boys as inspiration for this project. And those influences, especially that of Parks, come through on the first single "Green Lemon Buggy," a song that marries two of the band's key fixations: food and travel. In it, Devine envisions an automobile made up of comestibles, traipsing over wordplay ("cucumber bumper," "celery accelerator") several times a verse. The song travels on the back of a wheezy melodica and some Spike Jones-esque marimba, and while it sounds fleetingly familiar, the Opera Bell Band succeeds in being impossible to pin down.
"I get a little disappointed if I write something that fits too perfectly in an old-timey genre," Devine says. "I love '30s folk music and '40s pop music, arrangement-wise, but to me I'm not really interested in being faithful to those genres."