November 04, 2014
Forget cowbells! What the music world really needs is more yodelling. And western swing, boogie and rockabilly, with a little touch of Roma gypsy tunes and the odd Latin American revolutionary anthem thrown in for flavour. It is into this musical melange that Vancouver’s Petunia & the Vipers have made a home, playing music that not only defies categorization, but takes the very idea of musical genre and obliterates it, armed with lap steel, an upright bass and kazoo. Also with yodelling. Most definitely with yodelling.
“Cricket Song” (performance video) Pickathon Pumphouse sessions, 2012.
The Vipers are comprised of some of the west coast’s most highly acclaimed roots musicians, including electric guitarist Stephen Nikleva and veteran lap steel guitarist Jimmy Roy, both of whom were band-members of the late Canadian rockabilly legend Ray Condo. Drummer Marc L’Esperance is a celebrated multi-instrumentalist who extends his talents to mixing duties on the band’s acclaimed 2012 self-titled album. Not one, not two, but three upright bassists: Patrick Metzger (who also plays with the Abramson Singers) , Sam Shoichet and James Lillico who round out the Vipers’ roster, along with a rotating who’s who of musical talent stepping in from time to time. And of course, there is the enigmatically named vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and kazoo-player, Petunia.
A shadowy figure on the Canadian music scene, the man known as Petunia has been mesmerizing and mystifying audiences across Canada for many years with his avant-garde, rockabilly-noir style. From the Quebec countryside of his birth, the Canadian original has played his way back and forth across the nation many times, performing on countless street corners and subways. His gripping presence—and a voice that is at times mellifluous, at times heartbroken and at times honkytonk preacher-man—has enthralled audiences which have grown by whispers and secret passwords over the decades.
Petunia & the Loons – “Once Upon A Time”
That Petunia’s true identity remains something of a guarded secret contributes to the aura of mystique that surrounds the musician. A band profile published in MUSIC NEWS Scotland in advance of Petunia & the Vipers’ 2013 Celtic Connections tour, however, reveals his true identity as Ron Fortugno. Legend has it that a girlfriend—a Canadian folk singer with a household name—once presented Fortugno with a suitcase full of home-recorded roots country cassettes, taught him to play guitar and yodel, and rechristened him Petunia.
Petunia released his first album, PETUNIA LIVE! in T.O., in 1999. With songs like “Trouble on My Mind” and “Don River Jamboree”, the live recording captured the vibrancy of a rollicking evening of cowboy blues. Petunia continued to captivate listeners with his mournfully titled 2002 solo album The Ugliest, Bitterest, Coldest, Dreary Place I’ve Ever Seen, which featured suitably breaky-voiced yodel ballads like the title track and “The Lonesome Pine Hollows”, with a good measure of kazoo thrown in to keep you on your toes. Even the more cheerily named “Big Bright White Ice Cream Truck” laments the dark side of that summer frozen treat phenomenon.
2007 was a watershed year for Petunia, with the release of two albums. City of Life or Hayride to Hell featured what was to become such a crowd favourite (the lung-taxing “Bicycle Song”) that it was reworked for inclusion on a later album, while Petunia & the Loons—an album which he recorded with his Fredericton band, the Loons—was named #1 Independent CD release of 2007 on college radio across Canada in the Folk/Roots/Blues category. One of that album’s standout tracks, “Cold Heartbreaker”, was later brought to life in a 2010 music video where it was given an imaginative stop motion treatment with Buster Keaton sensibilities. It features Petunia as a homesteader, a sweetheart in peril and a hungry bear.
Petunia & the Loons – “Cold Heartbreaker”
2007 also marked Petunia’s relocation to Vancouver and, as the year drew to a close, the formation of the Vipers. Petunia & the Vipers released Live at the Cafe Montmartre in Vancouver in 2009, followed by I Live in the Past in 2010 and a 45 rpm vinyl featuring “Mercy” on one side and “Song for Ray Condo” on the other.
“Mercy” performance at the Ironwood in Calgary, March 19, 2012. Video credit: Thomas Funasaka, NEWLOSTWORLD Media.
The band’s 2012 self-titled release was recorded over a two-year period at the Sound Factory in Los Angeles amidst an unstoppable tour schedule. Widespread critical acclaim of the album, along with the spreading word surrounding the band’s jitterbugging, western-swinging, foot-stomping stage shows, brought increasing awareness of the band to people who like their music to go beyond the cookie cutter. Some of Petunia’s original songs have now been used in prime time television programs.
Through relentless touring across North America (including appearances at such high-profile festivals as SXSW) and an increasing presence on the UK tour scene, Petunia & the Vipers are shedding their mantle of closely guarded anonymity. The release of Inside of You in the spring of 2014 was met with considerable anticipation among long-time fans and recent converts to western swing.
Look for the jumping hot Petunia & the Vipers to tear up the stage and shake up the dance floor of a venue near you.