”I wish somebody would open a speakeasy where I could play every night,“ Janet Klein says over the clatter at Musso & Frank, a fitting place to meet with a fellow true-blue nostalgiac and talk about her Jazz Age–flavored vintage-song combo, Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys.
”Well, first we have to re-outlaw alcohol,“ I suggest.
”We‘ve already outlawed cigarettes!“ she says, correctly. Maybe an opium den!
Janet and her Boys are a darn-near unique ensemble, expert purveyors of what she likes to call ”obscure, naughty and lovely songs,“ the all-but-forgotten American popular tunes of the 1910s, ’20s and early ‘30s. Fittingly, the group recently performed at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax as a surprise opener for the 1927 Harold Lloyd comedy The Kid Brother, turning the evening into a deep immersion in the ’20s. The Parlor Boys wore suits, a few hats and their instruments: acoustic big-band and steel guitars, mandolins, a big tenor banjo, plus fiddle, bass and a trap set.
The Boys started by knockin‘ out a 1936 Django Reinhardt number, ”I Found a New Baby“ (Billy Steele’s frantic Django-strumming was spot-on), then backed the lovely Miss Klein, bobbed and coifed with geraniums in a slim, vintage puffed-shoulder dress, cradling a ukulele. In her pure, remarkably controlled and slightly kittenish voice, she belted out Depression-era double-entendre numbers like ”Any Kinda-Man (Would Be Better Than You)“ (”If he‘s got one leg, that would be all rightjust so he brings that one leg home to mama, every night“), ”Clip Joint“ (”I love those speakeasy tunes,“ Klein says) and other reincarnations heard on their new CD, Paradise Wobble (Coeur de Jeanette).
The crowd was wowed — and how! They thunderously applauded Klein, and she bowed slowly sideways, clasped hands to cheek, elaborate arabesques from both arms hailing her partners to each side.
While Janet’s cute as a button in a way that‘s perfect for her, uh, time, there is no Betty Boop–like eye-rolling in her act at all. In fact, it turns out she has a positive dislike for wackiness.
Back at Musso’s: ”Yeah, the thing is, I can‘t take that much kitsch, you know? I’m not into old stuff because it‘s ’funny.‘ I like it because I think it’s great, and I have respect for it.“ She smiles. ”On so many levels, boy, I feel like all my molecules have finally fallen into the right place.“
Predictably, I ask: When did you first start digging into the old stuff? ”Mostly in college days. I was an art student. I came to L.A. from San Bernardino in ‘81, and I was going to the music library at UCLA a lot. I discovered Kurt Weill by accident. I’d found these German records, and I‘m sitting there with the headphones on, and it was this beautiful song all about ’the beautiful girl that drownedwith algae between her toesand God forgot her.‘ Wow! I was like, ’What is this music?‘ Then I got all the translations to ’Mack the Knife,‘ and that started me thinking . . .“
Were you singing then?
”Oh, I sang all the time to myself, but no one ever encouraged me in any way . . . People might make fun of me!“ She laughs.
Pish posh, I say, retroactively.
”So I went ahead and worked on my poetry. I did lots of readings, and I did pretty well. People liked my poetry; they thought I was odd, probably, but it was sincere, it was sweet; it was funnyish and weird, you know?“
I love the birds!
With my loving heart!
I llllove when they sing!
I love — singing — birds!
When they kiss, I leave.
I’ve never kissed a bird
in my life.
”And in retrospect, I mean, there‘s a million bluebird songs! I didn’t even know at that point how many. And the idea of singing a song about ‘Gosh! Bluebirds make me feel nice!’ I mean, who sings about that anymore?“
Taking up the uke in ‘95, she eventually banded with a network of vintage-music players that includes current Parlor Boys Tom Marion (guitar, mandolin, banjo), Robert Armstrong (steel guitar) and composermulti-instrumentalist Brad Kay, whose nostalgia career dates back to what he calls the ”Shakey’s Pizza movement“ of the ‘60s. Both Tom and Robert are ex-members of R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders.
”All the guys in the band are collectors,“ says Klein, ”and they‘re all encyclopedic about this stuff, Brad especially.“
Speaking of collectors’ items, Paradise Wobble has 12 Parlor Boys, 23 songs, and so far no real distributor, though you can get it from CDBaby.com, RadicalNote.com, or at McCabe‘s . . .
”So be like those Banjo Babies in the South Sea tropic zones’Cuz it ain‘t no sin to take off your skinand dance around in your bones!“#
Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys perform at Atlas on Wednesday, December 20, 8 & 10 p.m., and at McCabe’s on Sunday, January 14, 7 p.m.