Sure, sometimes bands add a little stage banter to their act between songs. But how many juggle fire, jump through rings of knives and perform traditional burlesque stripteases?
Milwaukee's Dead Man's Carnival is more than music. The circus arts entourage performs to live American roots music at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, Jan. 2.
Last week I talked by phone with carnival member "Pinkerton," who described the theory and practice of a modern musical act that's reviving the weird Wisconsin circus tradition.
How did Dead Man's Carnival get started?
A few years ago, some of us came up with the idea of performing traditional circus arts in front of some live DJs. That became a competition between the DJs and the performers and didn't go so well. So we decided to design our own act, complete with music.
How does the music you write and perform support your overall act?
Our live music is usually an underbed for showmanship or some kind of spectacular feat. We have a skit called "The Ten Suggestions" that's a satire play about the Ten Commandments. The musical support is gospel- and soul- influenced. It's got a distinct church-like feel.
Why do you perform mostly in bars and music clubs rather than theaters?
We see ourselves as sharing characteristics with DIY and punk music. We try to question the relationship between performer and audience. I think a lot of entertainment has become commodified and the audience is passive. Performing in bars and music clubs helps us challenge that. People may be expecting a traditional band, and they get us. They don't know how they're supposed to react, so the response is more organic.
What can people expect to see if they come to your Madison show?
There will be about 20 performers, including a six-piece band, six chorus girls, a magician and a few jugglers. I play a devil character. In one skit, I do a head-first roll-jump through a ring of knives. You might be allured by dancers or scared out of your wits by fire jugglers. We try to perform to the full spectrum of emotion.