For longtime San Francisco fixtures the Bedlam Rovers, a time of fruitfulness may be here. Two new releases, the 10-inch EP Roll Over and the album Wallow (both released on the Spirit label) are inspired pieces of work blending folk, country, ska and 80s protest-punk influences into an irresistible stew. Caroleen Beatty’s husky, heartfelt vocals, Marko P. Soapbox’s songs and guitar (and banjo-picking), and the tight rhythm section of bassist Greg Snyder and drummer Andrew O’Doughaill have grown tremendously over the years. Original violinist Cynthia Wigginton lends graceful style to most of the tracks, with new member Shannon McGuire displaying her fiddle skills on a fistful of tunes. (Morgan Fichter, founding member of Harm Farm best known for her brief stints with Camper Van Beethoven, Jane’s Addiction and 10,000 Maniacs, does some impressive sawing on the track “Scream” as well.) It would be blasphemy to call this the emergence of a homegrown Mekons (excellent as the songwriting may be, it’s not yet in that league); but on songs like “Big Drill,” “Speed Of Light,” “Nevada,” or “Brown Rice,” the Bedlam Rovers come pretty damn close.
Meeting with Caroleen, Greg, Marko and Andrew (Shannon’s on tour with her dance troupe), I meant to ask, how did you guys get so great all of a sudden? But we start with the subject of songwriting. Caroleen’s voice inhabits these songs so thoroughly, I ask her if Marko ever submitted material she felt she couldn’t sing.
“Not really,” she says. “Marko even wrote ‘Corner Store.’ To me, it’s about being a woman and being hassled when you’re walking down the street. But the same thing happens to men too…”
“I write bunches of different things,” Marko offers. “I’ll say, ‘here’s the main body, the chords can change here and here.’ Sometimes Caroleen will just go, ‘no, I like this chorus, I don’t like those.’ With ‘Corner Store,’ I wrote three different choruses; she just sings one. Also, there are certain songs we play that have more energy about them—everybody likes one song and we play it like we mean it. Other songs, we say, ‘Oh, we gotta play two sets tonight, we might as well play that.'”
Caroleen adds, “It seems the songs we change most die earliest. We’ll say, ‘oh, this has to have a really fast part right here,’ and get carried away, then when we’re done it’s tired…stretched out in all directions.”
“I’m an amateur at writing songs,” Marko says. “But everyone puts so much into it. Shannon’s fiddle parts, they’re not given to her. When I sing a song for you guys, the melody is the least common denominator. ‘This is not how it’s gonna be; it’s all I can do with my voice.'”
Caroleen laughs. “Then I add trills and yodels.”
The Rovers are involved in Komotion, a collectively run venue/recording studio/practice space/art gallery surviving against the odds as an important resource on the San Francisco scene. The EP and album were recorded there, with unexpected sound quality for such a funky little place.
A while back, following a showy bust triggered at a NOFX show by hyperactive hardcore kids setting off fire alarms, live gigs (the space’s main source of income) were shut down for a while. Greg says the police had been hassling them for months. “It was the last straw. They called up and said, ‘If you do another show, you’re going to jail.’ We spent months in a Kafkaesque nightmare of fire people and cops… No one bothered to explain why we got shut down.”
“Now we’re a legal nonprofit,” Marko adds.
The flip side of the Roll Over EP has three covers. The Rovers’ version of the astonishing country lament “Speed Of Light” (written by Mary O’Neill of the Wannabe Texans and Virginia Dare) amounts to an act of song preservation. The Mob’s anarcho-Goth classic “Cry Of The Morning,” a staple of their earliest shows, is a simple chant-tune with doomy lyrics, arranged nicely with sparse melodica honks and fiddle scrapes. “To Have And Have Not” is a hillbilly-punk romp through a Billy Bragg number, sung by Marko with outrageous vocal twang and offering a memorable yell-along chorus, “Just because I’m dressed like this/doesn’t mean I’m an anarchist!” Oi.
Wallow begins strikingly with “Big Drill,” a slow-building drone-ballad of colonialism and conquest climaxing with an image of miners in Antarctica and a noise-ending similar to the Mekons’ “Trimden Grange Explosion.” “Emily” veers from the Rovers’ brand of two-step hoedown to a reggae midsection with Swarbrick-like violin swoops as the lyrics portray the busy mind and mundane routine of a lonely character. Marko says he wrote the song in Montreal. “There were six days of pouring-down rain. Shannon had left for Europe with a dance troupe, and I was stuck in a small apartment with a woman I didn’t know… I never got to know her, but this is what I saw about her life.”
“Hot Asphalt.” their “token Irish tune,” is a traditional ballad about the sad fate of a cop who falls into a vat of boiling asphalt. “Caroleen read the lyrics and went, ‘that’s cool!’ Then we figured out what it sounded like.”
“It’s full of Irish wit, and it’s beautiful,” Marko says. “It has, like, seven meanings going on.”
“Brown Rice” satirizes New Age commercialism with a lazy shuffle reminiscent of Fairport’s “Come All Ye.” “Eat My Pie,” with its overworked art censor barking “suggestions” to “improve” a painting, is straight-up bluegrass thrash featuring Marko on banjo.
With members in the carpentry and plumbing trades, the Rovers are better placed for survival than most musicians. It’s still a struggle, but their idealism is unfaded. Marko hopes “to play more shows on the road, in alternative spaces rather than local rock bars, which can be pretty harsh environments.”
Caroleen: “Those places beside the highway, with a poker table in back…”
They played twenty miles outside Tacoma once, at a military base complex.
“We got heckled…’Fuck you! Play some Ozzy!”
“Show us your tits!”
“We got into it, though.”
“We did. It’s the story of the tour.”