For the past couple of years I’ve been hearing nothing but good things about a band called Pistol Packin’ Mama. Every time I showed up to a venue where it was on the bill, it had just finished playing and people were telling me how I really had to check these guys out. Saturday, I got my chance.
Pistol Packin’ Mama was playing at the Grotto, one of best little intimate neighborhood bars for live music. No matter how long it’s been since I have darkened the doorway of the Grotto, I always feel like I’m among friends the second I walk in. This time, I managed to score a stool right up by the stage, just as the band was playing. Right away I noticed a problem. No pistols, no mamas. Was the whole band was based on a lie?
“It’s not necessarily a lie,” said Justin McElveen, the band’s frontman. “The band is the woman. No pistol, so [it’s] partially a lie.”
Justin went on to explain that his grandfather had served in World War II, and he always felt more at home when he saw the slogan “Pistol Packin’ Mama” scrawled on tanks, planes and other hardware; the band took its name from that. Since Al Dexter charted with a song called by that name in 1943 (and it was popular with our troops overseas), the graffiti and airplane nose art Justin’s grandfather kept seeing was probably a musical reference.
The band members are McElveen (guitar, vocals), Justin Odean (guitar, vocals) Matthew Turrcotte (percussion, harmonica), Paul Lipinski (bass) and Jon Gerner (drums).
When Pistol Packin’ Mama fired off the first few bars, the music was as comforting as the Grotto was to me on that Saturday night. The music has a bluesy, slightly funky feel with a good dose of Grateful Dead and a taste of the Band. The vocals were folksy, the instrumentals were tight yet had room to breathe. Justin described the band as country-funk-blues-jazz, which, I guess, is inclusive enough to sum it up. He cites Texas guitarist Buddy Whittington as a central influence on his musical outlook.
“I’ve known him since I was 15,” Justin says. “I used to skip school and stay out late and sneak into bars like the Jubilation. I would jam with him some, and he taught me a lot about tone. He told me ‘You want to play good, you need good tone. You can play all the notes you want but you have to have good tone.’”
At one point, they called Marquise “Kool-Aid” Jones of the Effinays (who were playing later that night) up on stage to blow sax during an extended instrumental. The band is nothing if not flexible, and Jones fit right in.
The band performed a song called Hands Out Your Pockets, which seems to embody the sense of purpose behind this band. Justin explains that the song is about the big-box store where he works a day job.
“ Hands Out Your Pockets,” Justin said, “is about having to put up with the day-to-day 40 hours a week BS and dealing with the politics of it, and knowing that you have to have your life and you have to have your job to have your life. What makes people get through the day? Music. That’s what helps people and that’s what I want to do.”