Generations of children have screamed some variation of “Olly Oxen Free,” to signal freedom during games of hide-and-seek. The catch phrase is also the title of an expansive new album by Dangermuffin, a dichotomously named “post-roots” trio that headlines the American River Music Festival on Saturday, Sept. 15 at Henningsen-Lotus Park, 950 Lotus Road in Coloma.
A couple of hours later they’ll play again at Gringo’s Mexican Café, 7310 Highway 49 in Lotus. Both performances promise to be memorable.
Dangermuffin’s playful name is indicative of an inherent dichotomy in the band, according to lead singer Dan Lotti, who’s also the lyric writer, rhythm guitar player, bass player of sorts, spokesperson and more-or-less manager.
“It’s two worlds colliding … a minimalist folk-driven core and a technical, jammy element,” he said. “The balance of the two makes us what we are.”
What they are, as measured by their other-worldly two most recent albums, is, to coin a corny phrase, “jamazing.”
Dangermuffin’s penchant for playful names extends to the title of their most recent album, “Olly Oxen Free.” The songs evoke freedom: coming out of hiding, putting the past behind, facing what’s out there and above all, carrying on.
Most Americans’ exposure to the catch phrase, more accurately a “release” phrase, is courtesy of hide-and-seek’s more strategic cousin, “kick-the-can,” in which children assume roles that evolve over the course of the game.
The “hider” becomes a “hunter-rescuer,” charged with freeing her teammates. The “seeker” eventually becomes part “jailer.” The opposing roles become formative archetypes.
As the game unfolds, hunter-turned-rescuer advances her position with patience and poise, waiting for seeker-tuned-jailer to get distracted or stray from his post. Eventually, she pounces, sprinting to the target for the kill-shot, a kick that launches the can down the street.
Awash in adrenalin, she bellows some variation of “olly olly oxen, free free free,” to the universe, thus freeing her teammates who praise her decisiveness, courage and stealth. She dons, perhaps for the first time ever, the mantle of rescuer, hero, leader. Perhaps it feels good — Olly Oxen Free.
The details of the game and the phrase vary across countries and neighborhoods. “All-y all-y in come free” and “All ye, all ye ‘outs’ in free” are common. Children in one 1960s Midwestern linguistic backwater outside Chicago yelled “Oh-lee oh-lee ocean, free free free.” Imagine.
The struggles and transformations that accompany the phrase and its variations have played out on playgrounds and battlefields for millennia, becoming the subject of thousands of stories along the way, including the recent “Hunger Games” trilogy.
They are now reprised in a playful, freewheeling, beach-themed album filled with world flavors that get tastier with each listening.
The first song is a wake-up call titled “Slumber.” A dreamer gains clarity of thought and self in a ringing refrain: “Olly Oxen Free, all abilities. In worlds like these, I know I am home.”
The song closes with a lingering, anthemic chorus: “Me and my soul …. We carry on.”
Dan Lotti’s soaring rasp begs comparison to Sledgehammer-era Peter Gabriel, which Lotti acknowledges as flattery. It plays front-man to a textured, listenable sound that’s simultaneously dense and spare.
Nashville-veteran percussionist Steven Sandifer’s ever-shifting tempos and cross-cultural influences anchor the band’s sound. Dangermuffin’s spare instrumentation provides a spacious palette for the rhythmically adventurous drummer.
The third element in the laid-back Dangermuffin tri-chotomy is Mike Sivilli on lead guitar, delivering slide-driven, atmospheric, “edgy” fills, sharp funk/reggae chops and stark, ringing solos.
The formula that’s landed these guys on top of the Home Grown Music Chart and all over satellite radio requires a light touch from the instrument that typically plays a louder role in the rock band formula.
The result is refreshingly straight forward sound, fully capable of building and sustaining tension. But these guys go the other way more often than not, preferring restraint to excess, delivering a relaxed “beach” sensibility.
Backed by the barely-restrained energy of percussionist Sandifer, Dangermuffin blends elements of funk, reggae, Calipso and good old southern rock, with the chutzpah to close Olly Oxen Free with a perfectly executed country-gospel piece that’s both moving and sincere.
The world rhythms, spacey guitar solos and soaring vocals have made Dangermuffin a rising star in the up-and-coming jam music scene, where audiences thrive on improvised, sometimes frenetic live performance.
Lotti worries that some of his fellow jam bands tend to forget about the song.
“There does seem to be a lot of ‘play as fast as you can’ in the festival scene,” he said. “There’s a place for that and good reasons to do it, but it’s not what we’re about.”
Not playing as fast or loud as possible allows more room for dynamics, emotion and touch. It also creates that breezy beach feel.
Lotti calls the band’s sound “folk music at the core,” a credit to uncles that exposed him to Steve Earle’s songwriting, Lucinda Williams’ soul and most importantly, Boston singer-songwriter Martin Sexton’s guitar-work.
“Hearing that music opened up another world for me,” he said. “I’ve gotta’ hear songs. The beauty of improvisation has to be balanced with melody and hooks, the stuff you hear in a good folk song.”
The Sexton influence extended to the use of a specialized Gogin acoustic guitar that’s become a large part of the band’s sound. Configured to deliver access to low E and A notes, the guitar can be a little challenging to play, “but holds down the low end grooves,” he said. “It lets us move in and out of genres without sounding contrived.”
“There’s only a finite amount of sonic space,” he added. “You can split that six ways, with horns or back up singers. We choose to split it three ways. With fewer people, we all have room to do what we want to do within that fixed space.”
A key ingredient to the band’s success at all levels has been a willingness to let go of things that don’t work, said Lotti.
One of those is apparently meat. Dangermuffin consists of two vegans and a vegetarian, extending a festival tradition of gaunt headliners that includes Jackie Greene and Tim Blum
With two years of heavy touring under his short belt, Lotti reports that the band’s not missing many meals, and that veganism is alive and well, even in Texas.
The band remains completely independent with no record deal, making all their own artistic and financial decisions.
“It goes a little slower this way, but we like the control,” said Lotti. “It lets us make records our way and live this lifestyle.”
The band hails from Folly Beach, South Carolina, a surf/tourist/artist beach town that calls itself the “Edge of America.” Lotti calls it “the most west coast beach on the east coast.”
Charleston is just minutes away, and is becoming a southern music Mecca, with Dangermuffin leading the charge.
“Our number one goal at the end of the day is subsistence, to keep playing, keep creating and writing,” said Lotti.
The other roles are split among band members. Sivilli does the graphic design work. Sandifer is the accountant. Lotti, who has a business degree, performs management functions, including PR.
Another advantage of having just three members, especially skinny ones, is “We all fit in one van, which keeps the overhead low,” said Lotti.
He estimated the band has played between 400 and 500 shows over the last two years, and put 150,000 miles on their van in the process, keeping it real every inch of the way.
Dangermuffin keeps it real at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 on the Henningsen-Lotus green, and again at 9:30 p.m. at Gringos Café.
For tickets and information visit the American River Music Festival Website, AmericanRiverMusic.org.