With vaudeville dead, we are no longer accustomed to "novelty acts" -- one-of-a-kind performers who have created a very particular, and often very peculiar, form of entertainment. But Keith Terry, a percussive artist who appeared at the Wolf Trap Barns on Saturday, is a latter-day, postmodern novelty act.
We are not talking dancing dogs or contortionists here. Terry's act is strictly class -- Palace material. It is also sophisticated and up-to-the-minute in its intellectual appeal, in its multicultural inspirations and in its blending of boundaries between art forms.
Describing where Terry belongs is easier than describing what he does. He calls it "body music," a self-created genre that is not music or dance, but is certainly both. On one level the appeal of this work lies in Terry's naive way of finding music the way children do -- by beating his hands against his chest Tarzan-style, for example, or by throwing his voice into a fan to distort the sound. On the other, it is as rhythmically sophisticated as the most intricate bebop.
In his work, Terry ingeniously explores his body for any possibility of coaxing rhythm from it. Snaps, claps, slaps, coughs, rubs, slides and audible breathing create an extraordinary palette of sound with singular properties of pitch, dynamics, duration and rhythm. And it is just as intriguing visually as it is aurally. It is percussive dancing that contains something of tap, of urban street dancing and of Oriental forms, among other styles.
Terry is also a connoisseur of found sound. He creates an orchestra of objects that are quite funny when put to artistic rather than practical uses. Toys, for example. Those cylinders that "moo" when turned upside down became the funkiest kind of backing vocals for Terry's rendition of "Proud Mary." In "Ego Emote Voodoo From Texas Jazz," Terry found the musicality in the fractured English he spotted on T-shirts in Bali (one of my favorites: "Hope Makes the World Go Away"). Kimi Okada provided the choreography for an infectiously delightful romp that culminated in Terry's coaxing squeaks, whistles and an entire artillery of snap, crackle, pops from a length of bubble wrap.
A former drummer, Terry also displayed his impressive abilities as a percussionist by working with such instruments as twin drum towers, Japanese fan drums and metal instruments created for him by Pete Engelhart, which included a triple rainmaker and a birdlike contraption of cones and springs.
As with the best of the old-time novelty acts, Terry's genius lies in the sophisticated exploitation of eccentricity.