The Big Sleazy

Fingerbowl hops the New Orleans/Boulder Express

Boulder Weekly by P.W. Miller

When metaphysical Elizabethan poet John Donne wrote "no man is an island, entire of itself," he was referring to the collective plight of mankind and the certainty of death. Now, when Royal Fingerbowl singer/songwriter/guitarist Alex McMurray howls "No man is an island/On the other hand, I'm an island," he's referring to the lonely, sordid circles outside civilization which transcend such lofty clich�s.

These "Bad Apples" orbit the Faubourg Marigny scene-the fringe of the French Quarter-where classic New Orleans sounds and youthful invention mix in a mumbo gumbo of funk, jazz, R&B and blues. It was there in 1995 that Red Bank, N.J., carpetbagger McMurray fibbed (claiming he had a band when, in fact, he didn't) in order to land a gig at a sketchy Thai dive called the Dragon's Den. Things fell into place, and with a little help from drummer Kevin O'Day and bassist Andrew Wolf, the first incarnation of Royal Fingerbowl was born.

Two years later, after recording a high-quality, live demo, the band was picked up by New York's TVT, leading to their 1997 debut Happy Birthday Sabo! and recognition as one of the best things to happen to New Orleans since the Louisiana Purchase.

Now, Fingerbowl returns to Boulder for the first time since '97, with the support of their latest stew, Greyhound Afternoons, and a different lineup.

"The drummer (Carlo Nuccio) has been with us three and a half years, (and) the bass player (Matt Perrine) is kind of new," was how McMurray described the latest Fingerbowl threesome while back in Jersey for the holidays.

Before heading off to form the Latin band Los Vecinos, co-founder Wolf played bass on Greyhound. He was replaced by Perrine, the sousaphonist/bassist who helped with horns on the new album, and has, among other things, played with Bruce Hornsby.

Despite the reshuffle, McMurray is clearly the King of the Fingerbowl.

With a degree in English and philosophy from Tulane, and years spent paying dues in New Orleans dives, McMurray's no stranger to the literary allusions resonating from his rusty vocal cords-notably Homer on Sabo!'s "The Rosy Fingered Dawn" and Donne on Greyhound's aforementioned "No Man is an Island (On the Other Hand, I'm an Island)"-or the down-and-out misfits that make up his cast of characters.

"No Man is an Island," turns benevolent sensibilities on their head, as McMurray gives voice to the downtrodden rogues who thumb their noses at convention and pseudo-liberal progressiveness. In a Louis Armstrong yowl, he sings, "I'll sit here/in my shit/For the whole wide world's concerned I'm long gone dead." After warning stray cats and mankind to "Stay off/my property/'Cause I might hang you from the nearest tree," the song disturbingly concludes with a carnivorous quip-"Well I used/to have a dog/But you can butcher dog as well as hog/You'll find that the meat is sweet/if you don't have a thing but dog to eat."

A bawdy mixture of lap steels, tambourines, organs, Casiotones, horns and an assortment of axes, Greyhound ranges from the grindingly bluesy ("Fine-Ass Chemise") to the down-homey ("Echoes in My Mind"). An echo of the album title, "Blurry" provides a bittersweet affirmation of wanderlust, and the introspective images and dreams that emanate from a Greyhound window. During this afternoon bus ride, the whims of Fortune can just as easily send a boy tumbling off his bike to the ground, as send a girl with a "summer smile" down the aisle to sit next to you; or substitute that beauty with an old, inquisitive man. But, with sensible optimism, McMurray sings-straining the cords and airbags close to his heart-that there's "always tomorrow, always another town," another locale in which "All your dreams disperse like butterflies/and maybe/everything that seems so cut-and-dry is blurry."

He claims to just "make up" these vagabond characters, but McMurray's colorful creatures shine brighter than those on any other album released last year, and they're certainly more interesting than any wayward, dreadlocked "outcast" you're likely to find on the Pearl Street Mall. So while the group was originally conceived as a "quiet" band that wouldn't disrupt the smoky tranquillity of certain watering holes, McMurray confirms "it's getting louder." With the help of more amplification?

"No, (I'm) just screaming harder," he mutters.