Petunia and the Vipers
Moving on Music ship the eclectic outfit over the pond to perform an invigorating set of standards at The MAC
Appearing at The Mac as part of the Moving On Music initiative, Petunia And The Vipers’ name may suggest an L7 covers band, but in actuality they are an altogether more eclectic outfit, combining old-style country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll with elements of big band and swing. Furthermore, Petunia is the stage name of 100% male frontman, Ron Fortugno.
As the five-piece take to the stage, I suspect that the singer's gender is going to be far from the only surprise of the evening. Working through a selection of cowboy classics, the show starts a little like an episode of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, with close part harmonies lending a campfire vibe to proceedings. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Champion The Wonder Horse mosey onto the stage.
Comprising of lap steel, stand-up bass, drums and hollow-bodied electric guitar, the Vipers are a tight outfit with a cartoonish charm about them. There are cowboy hats and neckties aplenty, with Fortugno himself decked out in an appropriately floral shirt, seeming like a cross between Hank Williams and a pomade-haired praying mantis. This is a band that wouldn’t look out of place in a John Kricfalusi creation.
A cover of Texas hellraiser George Jones’ 'White Lightning' allows lap steel player Jimmy Roy a chance to step to the mic, with his deep baritone complementing increasingly spicy guitar licks to good effect – although his vocals aren’t a patch on Fortugna’s, which are the real highlight of the show.
Ranging from a nasal Williams twang to a raspy Tom Waits growl – with a smattering of Jimmy Rodgers yodeling thrown in to prove that the vocal medium isn’t dead yet – Petunia’s pipes ensure that the performance is constantly surprising, especially when his trademark kazoo comes out to play.
There are plenty of original jams that more than satisfy, most notably 'I’m Shakin’' – a high-powered slab of 1950s party rock that is as fast as a Plymouth Fury and just as mean – although the highlight of the evening is undoubtedly a cover of Marty Robbins’ gunfighter ballad, 'Big Iron'.
Evoking the dusty bleakness of the Mojave, rumbling percussion and tender lap steel allow Fortugna’s scratchy drawl room to really breathe on this song. The jauntier numbers are great fun but this is the band at their serious best, gritty as a Sam Fuller western. As the accompanying members quietly leave the stage, this segues seamlessly into a cowboy song. 'I’ve been gunned down,' Fortugna moans. 'My lifeblood will soon drain away.'
After some existential spoken word, Fortugna announces that they’re 'gonna rock for the end of the show', and so they do, with the singer managing to invoke the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis with a hint of pre-Cramps sleaze, shaking his hips and flicking his legs like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Although the theatre in The Mac feels cosy, I rather suspect that the Vipers are used to performing in rowdier honkytonks, with Fortugna repeatedly (and exasperatedly) urging the ‘people who feel the need to shake’ to get up and dance. Unfortunately nobody takes him up on his offer, save for one woman who manages to keep the party going, jiving solo at the front of the stage for the duration.
That isn’t to say that the audience don’t enjoy the performance – their appreciation is shown when the crowd meets new single 'The Cricket Song' with tremendous applause, during which the band reveal one last surprise for the uninitiated. Despite their music being deeply rooted in Americana, they are in fact Canadian!
With this in mind, some might see Petunia and the Vipers' often surreal performance as a funhouse mirror offering some hidden truth about the American Dream. For this reviewer’s money, however, this band are, first and foremost, an impressively eclectic group breathing new life into a smorgasbord of classic genres.