By Rick Stiebel
Monday Magazine contributor
Listening to Petunia and the Vipers is like feeding your mind a bowl filled with many flavours of Jello that shimmy, shift and quake in different directions with each shake. Somehow the flavours come together in a way that’s packed full of flavour, but difficult to describe.
“Our music can’t really be pinned down,” admits the man they call Petunia. “I really wouldn’t know where to begin.”
The songs switch gears from elements of country, rock, hillbilly, ballads, jug band, rhythm and blues, jazz, gypsy, Roma and the odd yodel. “You could call it a mix of early American music painted out with our ears by modern musicians.”
Petunia and the Vipers bring their unique sound to the Oak Bay Recreation Centre’s Upstairs Lounge for a rare dance event at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 1. Rare, because Beacon Ridge Productions’ promotions are generally “listening shows.”
Petunia grew up in St. Dorothee, a former farming community that’s been paved over near Montreal.
“I did a lot of travelling in my teens before I became a musician, hitchhiking and bumming around,” he says. Although he played trumpet in high school, music wasn’t a big part of his life until a guy he met introduced him to guitar.
“I fell in love with a woman (a few years later) who turned me on to classical old-time hillbilly music and inspired me to play and sing. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
Petunia and the Vipers is where he’s been for the past 15 years. Based in Vancouver the past eight years, the band tours and performs with players from a posse of about 20 musicians. The band’s core has been together for a decade; guitarist Stephen Nikleva, Jimmy Roy on lap steel guitar, Joseph Lubinsky-Mast on stand-up bass and drummer Paul Townsend.
“I’ve been blessed with a long line of really great musicians,” Petunia says.
The band’s last performance in Victoria included sax and clarinet, trombone and trumpet. “The horns have been loosely assembled for two years leading up to a new album we’ve been working on for the last eight months.”
The group has a devoted following forged through numerous tours and 15 albums.
“If you listen hard you may find threads of a sonic continuum, but each album is very different.” Petunia notes. “I enjoy songwriting, but it’s not something I just wake up and do. I write when I think I have something to say. The songs form in my mind and come out when they’re ready.”
Petunia recently completed a pilot film, The Musicianer (themusicianer.com), which has been making the rounds on the festival circuit – it won him a best sci-fi actor award in New Jersey. “I play a time-travelling musician who never knows what time he’s in. I’m hoping it gets some legs from Ken Burns country documentary buzz.”
When he’s not playing or writing, Petunia can often be found playing ball.
“I love baseball. We take bats and balls on the road looking for pickup games. It’s a great way to warm up before a show,” he says.