Road Scholars

Eating fire, swallowing swords, playing old-timey tunes -- the Yard Dogs offer medicine for the soul. And they'll even work for booze.

"The people at Kesey's place loved us, though. Of course, they were all out of their minds by then. We sort of snuck the band on at about 4 in morning, and everyone was already high."

Six years later, everything and nothing has changed. The group, now comprising 13 members, has garnered a devoted, almost cultish, following. The Yard Dogs perform infrequently, usually choosing to tour in accordance with the traditional circus season, and their shows have become highly anticipated events in out-of-the-way places like Bisbee and Yuma, Ariz.

"We always play at the Youth Cultural Festival put on by the Quechan Tribe [in Yuma]," says Cotton. "We stay for a few days, do sweat lodges, teach workshops for the kids. The whole community responds to us because we're not just a band, we're a show: singing, dancing, sleight of hand. There's something for everyone. The old folks say we're exactly like the shows that used to come through."

Out With the Old, In With the Older: The Yard Dogs' 
brand of retro-retro chic.
Out With the Old, In With the Older: The Yard Dogs' brand of retro-retro chic.

Which isn't surprising. Despite the modern-day humor implicit in acts like "Guitar Boy," an overblown "guitar hero" in spandex shorts, and "Hellvis," a flame-gargling sex machine, the Yard Dogs Road Show might have been lifted right out of the Dust Bowl. The music is a ramshackle blend of blues, ragtime, and circus grinds that inevitably devolves into drunken delirium or explodes with the force of religious mania. Many of the instruments -- like the washtub bass, jugs, saw, and percussion "contraption" (which unfolds out of a suitcase) -- are salvaged or fabricated and carried in steamer trunks. The group travels with hand-painted posters, hand-sewn costumes, and homemade curiosity cabinets. The players -- each drawn by temperament and experience to the Yard Dogs fold -- wear bloomers, bowlers, and vests of their own design; they holler, writhe, sing, dance, beat, and blow, seemingly as the mood takes them. And when Miz Lily Rose Love, the historical fourth member to join the Yard Dogs, strokes her trombone and growls her wildcat song, the crowd, whether it be in a San Francisco nightclub or a Colorado parking lot, becomes riotous. Even if every note is not quite pure.

"Truth is, we don't practice much," says Sidecar Tommy, the drummer whose résumé, which includes membership in both Rube Waddell and the Extra Action Marching Band, makes him the sole "working" musician in the group. "None of these people -- except maybe [Five Livrd Larry and burlesque dancer Tuesday Blue], who have a family now -- are in the same place long enough to practice. They're the real deal. Vagabonds. Tramp artists."

Which is the magic potion corked up in the little dark bottle.

While the various members of the Yard Dogs call the Bay Area home base, they are all travelers, in the nomadic sense of the word. When Miz Love is not painting houses or standing like a statue on Fisherman's Wharf, she's on the road. When Shanandoa Sasafras is not making music, she is making tracks. When Leighton/Hellvis is not creating murals and doing interior design, he is gathering specimens in Southeast Asia with burlesque dancer Gypsy Joblinsky for the Yard Dogs Electric Side Show Museum, or just drifting. When Micha Devlin is not doing odd jobs and turning garbage into art for the Yard Dogs' merch company, Bootleg, Bottle, and Bone, he is roving. When dancer Lil' Leila La Roux is not designing her own clothes, she is dragging her trailer through poppy fields. When burlesque troupe founder Bellpodd Joblinsky is not gyrating in local strip joints, she's roaming. Even Lula, the wee offspring of Five Livrd Larry and Tuesday Blue, has been on the road almost as much as she's been off. Every one of the Yard Dogs has, at one time or another, nestled down in a hobo jungle on the edge of a train yard; every one of them has felt the call of the open road and called back. And that's what they bring to the stage -- a wild, electrifying sense of freedom.

"At the end of every tour, we spread out to all corners of the world, to chase our own demons and dreams, to pursue our own private affairs," explains Cotton. "When we come back together, it's exciting. It's like a big family reunion. We all have stories to tell, new passions to bring to the show. We rehearse for a couple weeks, then we hit the road again just as we are, playing to anyone that wants to listen, anywhere they'll have us."

As with the old medicine shows, the entertainment is often free -- the group has been known to waive the door charge and pass the hat in established clubs, or take over abandoned bars for a night just to play for food and liquor. And like the old medicine shows, the Yard Dogs offer much more than entertainment. They peddle adventure and soulful abandon; they promise a do-it-yourself life unfettered by designer labels and home loans, one written by the light of campfires with the hand of wine, music, lust, and dust. If you want proof that their secret elixir really works, you need only peer into their fevered faces and listen to their banshee howls.

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