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Clip: Ralph Carney

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  • Carl Zimring
    If you like the saxophone honking on Tom Waits s CDs, you like Ralph Carney. His solo albums are a lot of fun. Carl Z.
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30, 2004
      If you like the saxophone honking on Tom Waits's CDs, you like Ralph
      Carney. His solo albums are a lot of fun.

      Carl Z.



      Joe Jarrell
      Sunday, May 30, 2004

      Scattered among small tables at 12 Galaxies, Mission Street's newest
      nightclub, the bar crowd watches CarneyBallJohnson, the trio onstage. As
      the drummer and guitarist continue to jam, their mutton-chopped,
      bespectacled front man blows into a red balloon. Holding it tightly to his
      chest, he stretches and pinches its little neck, letting it yelp its odd,
      somewhat melodic notes into the microphone until it's empty.

      Welcome to the world of Ralph Carney, musical virtuoso and emerging master
      of balloony tunes.

      "The balloon solo is a really good solo," asserts 12 Galaxies' bartender-
      owner Adam Bergeron. "It's not just some guy letting air out of a balloon."

      "I didn't even know he played the balloon until last week," confesses
      Carney's wife, Deena. "Our daughter must have dropped one and Ralph picked
      it up, figuring it was something new to play."

      Looking something like a Civil War brigadier in his wire-rim glasses and
      medium-length hair, Carney exhibits a child's immense curiosity.

      In conversation, he has the nonstop loquaciousness of a kid on four bowls
      of Cocoa Puffs, spewing out noisy waterfalls of ideas that quickly vaporize
      into incomplete sentences as new currents of thought swirl through.

      During performances, he'll play clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, Tibetan
      horn, Pan pipes, flute, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, or any one of his large
      collection of vintage toy instruments -- often during the course of one
      song. He counts famous cartoon composers Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott
      among his musical heroes.

      Aside from his CarneyBallJohnson gigs, the ever-kinetic Carney can be found
      leading or supporting a wide range of bands playing live at local venues.

      He's even been known to invent a band for the occasion -- like the biweekly
      Doc's Clock gig with his "Hawaiian-Italian" band the Hula-Gins. "He just
      bought a ukulele and needed a place to play it," says Deena, explaining the
      band's origin.

      With his ability to slip comfortably into any genre, Carney has contributed
      to recorded projects by performers as disparate as alt-country rockers
      Grant Lee Buffalo and late literary giants such as William S. Burroughs and
      Allen Ginsberg. He'll be on forthcoming albums by Jonathan Richman and Jim
      White, and he's involved in a pair of avant-garde projects hitting record
      stores soon: Danny Cohen's "Dannyland" and "Twink," a toy piano orchestra
      project with a cartoon rabbit theme.

      Carney will also be the subject of a documentary by local filmmaker Laura
      Torell, who has been filming him for the past two years.

      After releasing three solo records since 1997 -- on which he played every
      instrument -- Carney seems relieved to have found musical comrades in
      drummer Scott Johnson and guitarist Kimo Ball. If the name
      CarneyBallJohnson sounds like a musical circus, it's a fitting and
      appropriate estimation of their ability to juggle a dizzying selection of
      sounds including swing, folk, Delta blues, psychedelic pop, hillbilly jug
      and bluegrass music, Dixieland and experimental jazz, and world music from
      Turkey to Nepal.

      "Kimo wants to arrange a Mahler piece for us soon," Carney says with a
      laugh. "Seems kind of crazy for a bar band, but we just might do it!"

      The trio's first exposure came last summer as the opening act for the Les
      Claypool Frog Brigade. The musicians are currently recording their first
      album while continuing their biweekly Sunday gigs at 12 Galaxies, where
      they couple original music with odd interpretations of songs by Cream, Sun
      Ra and Desmond Dekker, the early reggae star known for the hit "Israelites."

      Early in his career, a late-'70s move to New York from Ohio brought Carney
      his first taste of musical professionalism and led to one of his most
      creative relationships.

      Music producer Hal Willner, who was the sketch music coordinator for
      "Saturday Night Live" in its heyday, was an avid supporter of Carney's
      music. Willner got Carney's band Swollen Monkeys a small record deal and,
      in 1984, introduced him to a new transplant to New York named Tom Waits.

      "Tom was doing a couple songs for a documentary called 'Streetwise' and he
      wanted to have a kind of Salvation Army sounding band," Carney says. "I had
      a street band at the time and we just hit it off, I guess."

      Carney was undoubtedly the most vital contributor to six Waits albums
      during the 1990s, including "Rain Dogs," "Franks Wild Years" and "Mule

      "Sometimes he would ask me to play two horns at once, and he liked me to
      play the bass clarinet a lot. But he doesn't like flutes," Carney says,
      laughing. "It's hard not to become attached to working with him, but he
      seems to like to change players a lot, so I guess I was lucky to have
      worked with him more than most."

      Not unlike Waits, the only thing Carney seems out of tune with is
      contemporary life. He lives with his wife and daughter in a sunny Bernal
      Heights home with neat stacks of old magazines, videos of 1930s musicals,
      shelves full of music books, a Victrola and a 1906 upright piano across
      from an antique photo of an Italian mandolin band from the same era.

      "I'm in love with a lot of ghosts," he says. "Hearing so much old music, I
      feel like I was there, so maybe it's a karma thing that I have yet to clear

      "Go toward the light! Go toward the light!" he blurts in a spooky cartoon
      voice, waving his hands and laughing. For anyone who sees Carney play,
      they'll know in the first note that he's already in it.
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