Every time the roving bacchanal known as the Underhill Family Orchestra rolls into a foreign town in their graffiti-doused psychedelic Dodge Ram Cargo Van, they must be expecting a hoard of Timmy Martins to traipse over and drop their jaws in wonderment at the sight of seven veritable savages, all bearing the surname “Underhill”, cavorting around unhinged in an incompatibly refined world. Covering the eyes of their sons and daughters from such wanton deviance, repressed older men will wonder if the lone lady in this hippie commune is its queen or its concubine or, even more perversely, both. And as soon as these derelicts reach into their van to reveal ROCK MUSIC INSTRUMENTS, it’s all over.
“Ruining good ole christian family towns! Looking like drug-adled miscreants, freaking out the ass-backwards establishment, spreading the message of perception in God’s Country” is how I imagine this young Mobile, Alabama-based band fantasizes its own existence in a still very traditional area of the United States. For that matter, it might indeed be true that Underhill – with their 60s-harkening “Family Orchestra” title, their Kesey-inspired flying bus and their faces all detailed in red and black paint – often find themselves gleefully at odds with the spirit of the small towns surrounding Mobile. Maybe they can genuinely freak folks out with image alone.
But in New Orleans, where Religion comes to die and even suited-up politicians have weird subversive arts obsessions, people see right through face paint, modes of transport and collective demeanor, and they’re more than adept at perceiving Underhill Family Orchestra for what they truly are: a roaring, catastrophically energetic rock n’ roll band, in possibly the oldest fashioned sense of the term. With no trace of Red Krayola pumping through their veins, Underhill plays a set more akin to early Small Faces, muffing out their guitars to the point that acoustic and electric conjoin for a seamless ear-bursting howl, pummeling the crowd with bursts of cymbal crash, and gracefully abandoning all rhythmic continuity in favor or a looser, far more endearing milieu.
It’s to a setting of this sort of startling energy that you begin to realize that all the non-musical miscellanea Underhill carry with them is less like a grand gesture to their audience of how “different” or “open” they are than it is the result of an instinctual need to physically embody the thrill they experience from performing a piece of creative work more revelatory than any one of them could muster individually – the “family”. Everyone sings or yells or bellows or growls and trades high fives or knowing grins, and it isn’t before long that half the crowd, fully entrenched in the band’s unforced and organically-born live antics, is on stage with them to share in the titillation; because lawless reciprocal participation – rock n’ roll as a truly democratic art form – is precisely what makes New Orleans kids sweat ecstasy. The wacky Ram Van unassumingly at rest outside of Cafe Prytania is a mere bonus.