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The Knotwells (Friday, June 3rd, 2005, 7th St. Entry, Minneapolis)
The Knotwells - Photo from their website (credit pending)

By Cyn Collins

The Knotwells have played nearly 70 shows since September, 2001 including a recent benefit for Cam Gordon, Music and Green Politics at the Triple Rock, May 19. They’ve just finished recording an album with Mother of All Music’s Brian Herb.

The Knotwells are a tightly wound and barely restrained band, full of manic energy. Their music is a full-body experience akin to a rollercoaster ride. Friday at the Entry they kicked off their show with “It’s That Man Again,” the wild, dark, gypsy viola of Jackie B. mixing with the intricate bluegrass-style banjo of Joel Cahalan. They followed up with “Treblinka,” a song the band refers to as “the gypsy song.”

Singer Arik Xist moves from a low, alluring croon that hooks you in and builds tension until he’s screaming, his voice breaking hoarse and raspy. He transitions from Nick Cave’s moody, tinged with evil introspection to Gordon Gano’s hysterical, country-inflected backwoods tales full of off the map freneticism.

The six members of The Knotwells are equally skilled both instrumentally and vocally: Arik Xist provides vocals and theater, John Knuckles plays drums, Jackie B. (classically trained on viola) uses East Euro fiddle style, Brian Udz played only guitar this night, but also plays accordion, banjo, mandolin, trumpet, trombone, violin, lapslide, harmonica and kazoo, “The Joel” Peyton plays bass (and sometimes the “manjo” a large banjo made out of a drum”, and electric washtub), and Joel Cahalen plays banjo.

Jackie’s viola’s creates a solid, poignant melody and at times the percussive foundation for the band. Many songs use minor keys, naturally setting the right emotion for the songs. That the banjo simultaneously goes into old-time and bluegrass territories while retaining gypsy influence seemed no small feat to me, and is a large part of what makes the band stand out, along with Arik’s charisma and revivalist preacher style rants.

Tall and wiry, Arik’s restless stalking or crouched angular strutting enhances his carnival barker persona, along with the traditional interjected “Hups” as found in old East Euro music on “the gypsy song.” The giddy carnivalesque environment is replete with wildly spiraling music and insistent punk rhythms pushing it ahead. The audience is always compelled to dance at Knotwells’ shows.

Arik leapt into the crowd to dance wildly during instrumental breaks. When he took a “drink break,” Brian Udz sang a sorrowful version of Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man” with powerful, deep vocals and perfect inflection. For this, Arik jumped back on stage to contribute ad libs to the song, providing an observer’s commentary, and then leapt down again.

The storytelling aspects of the rebellious songs (written by Arik) stem from life, film, culture, cartoons and imagination and sound as timeless as the hallowed hills he often sings about. Tales of murder, debauchery, the ills of the system, classism, addiction, mayhem, and woe are all aspects of a Knotwells song. A few major inspirations include Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Music, the recordings of Koerner, Ray, and Glover, and the music of Jay Munly and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, and 16Horsepower. They are well-versed in a huge eclectic range of music. I suspect from songs such as “If the Pills Don’t Kill You, (then I Will)” and “Trash Like You,” that they have much in common lyrically and vocally with the Handsome Family, taking gruesome murder ballads to darker, more sordid levels to the point of insane laughter.

The Knotwells also share a stylistic kinship with Gogol Bordello (gypsy punk, frenetic political and debauchery rants, “drunken circus” vibe), and uncanny parallels with Gogol frontman Eugene Hutz (who I feel is a brother Arik hasn’t met.) There are additional comparable genre and live show similarities with local compadres Mike Gunther and His Restless Souls with whom they sometimes share bills (incidentally, Restless Soul Suzanne Scholten created the Knotwells website). The Knotwells is a live show I highly recommend, and I look forward to hearing the CD.

The Knotwells play Wednesady, June 29th at Lee’s Liquor Lounge, then the last 3 Wednesdays in July.

For more information and to listen, go to:

Cyn Collins is