You could call the Mammals a rock-and-roll string band, a roots outfit with punky, puckish style, or a "rad trad" mix of acoustic folk and contemporary attitude. You could spend a lot of time trying to describe the band, you could listen to the latest Mammals CD, "Rock That Babe," released in April on the small, classy Signature Sounds label, or you could simply come and hear for yourself.
What you'll get Sunday night is a blend of instruments, influences and repertoires that reflects the skilled pedigree of the players. Soulful vocalist and fiddler Ruth Ungar grew up in a musical home. Her dad, Jay, is a Grammy Award-winning fiddler and composer, and her mom is a singer. Despite such obviously rhythmic genes, Ungar was actually pursuing an acting career when she met art-pop tunesmith Michael Merenda.
Merenda began his career as a rock drummer, guitarist and songwriter until learning to play claw-hammer banjo inspired a musical detour. Settling in Massachusetts, Ungar and Merenda began performing as a duo.
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, meanwhile, grew up in Nicaragua, steeped in the country's traditional music and culture. He began performing alongside his grandfather, Pete Seeger, at age 14, evolving into a triple threat -- guitarist, banjo player and song stylist. He met Merenda while purchasing a set of guitar strings; they began trading songs, and before long, a trio was born. In the studio for "Rock That Babe," bassist Pierce Woodward and drummer Ken Maiuri brought the number of Mammals to five.
It's a gang of multi-taskers. Rodriguez-Seeger is working on a solo CD that will feature songs in Spanish. Ungar has released one solo CD, "Jukebox," and Merenda is working on his second, to follow a collection of his early works, "Trapped in the Valley." Woodward, himself an accomplished solo artist, occasionally serves as the Mammals' opening act.
On "Rock That Babe," the band offers both traditional fiddle and banjo tunes, albeit played with rock-style attack, and some originals, such as the disco-banjo (?!) tune "Bad Shoes Blues" and the politically charged "Bush Boys." The latter, loosely modeled on the classic "Mockingbird," tells the tale of a fortunate son who gets ahead thanks to a doting dad's connections.
The group's publicity material quotes the Boston Globe's description of the Mammals' sound as "wild, mirthful and masterful." The San Francisco Bay Guardian praised the group's ability to "bridge the generational and stylistic gap between Peter, Paul and Mary and Badly Drawn Boy," the young British popster whose studio experiments are a puree of rock, pop, folk and electronica.
There's nothing old-timey about the Mammals' string-band stylings, but plenty of good-timey to be had.
For more things Mammal, check out www.themammals.net.
-- MARIANNE MEYER
Jammin' Java is at 227 Maple Ave. E. in Vienna. This all-ages venue offers general admission seating, along with sandwiches, chili, gourmet coffee, wine and beer. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, and can be reserved by calling 703-255-1566. The Web site is www.jamminjava.com.
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