Rock groups are known for having unusual names, but in the weirdness sweepstakes few monikers can top Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams- and even fewer bands produce music whose appeal bridges so many generations.
Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams Cold Spring, Putnam County In July the lease on the house they were renting in Ossining ended, leaving Joziah Longo and Tink Lloyd, the husband-and-wife centrum of the mildly eccentric rock quartet known as Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, with a tough decision. Should they move the band’s base to Vermont? After all, several ardent fans with real estate connections in the Green Mountains were trying to entice the musicians northward with offers of affordable homes that included adjacent barns begging to be converted into recording studios.
Knowing that lead guitarist Sharkey McEwen, living with his wife and children in Croton-on-Hudson, and drummer Tony Zuzulo, a bachelor with a New Jersey address, would follow the band’s destiny wherever necessary made deliberations even more difficult. “We needed a place to live that would be conducive to conjuring up great art,” says Longo, the Slambovian’s charismatic frontman and songwriter, “and we were ready to go anywhere.”
Then, one day Longo and McEwen, friends and musical partners since 1991, took a drive up Route 9D, stopping in Cold Spring, and followed the side streets to the river’s edge. “We got out of the car just as evening was hitting and looked out over the water toward those mountains, and the view was breathtaking,” says Longo. “We realized this is where we should be, that the mystery and magic of the Hudson Valley were what first gave birth to the Circus and what would allow it to expand creatively.”
A week later Longo and Lloyd were resettling in one of Cold Spring’s old three-story frame houses off Main Street — no surprise, really, since the band has reveled in an aura of serendipity from the start. They barely had time to unpack before heading out for a series of concerts in Maryland and Virginia to support their latest album, Flapjacks from the Sky, a self-produced double-CD on the band’s own High Noon Records label.
As for the growing legion of Gandalf Murphy adherents in the region, they are understandably relieved that the band is sticking around. “I think it’s really important for them to be near New York City for business purposes, and from a personal perspective, I’m truly impressed with their music and feel they’re one of the few bands worth going out to hear these days,” remarks Pamela Lippe, a part-time resident of Cold Spring and executive director of Earth Day New York, an organization whose annual celebratory event in Manhattan has featured performances by the Slambovians for the past two years.
Although Longo likes to say that Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams emerged out of the misty hillside behind Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (where he sat with his guitar in 1996 and composed the songs that would appear on the group’s first CD, A Good Thief Tips His Hat), its origins actually go back to the late 1980s, when Longo and Lloyd fronted a promising Manhattan hard rock quartet called the Ancestors. McEwen joined that band for its third and last album, Brigadoon, and deciding they were sick of the impersonal nature of the music business, the three called off their quest for the Big Time and moved out of the city to Westchester — first to Briarcliff Manor and then to Ossining.
To learn more about computer graphic design and video production, Longo and Lloyd began taking classes at the Westchester Art Workshop in Peekskill and became friends with Zuzulo, one of their instructors. Meanwhile, Longo was also getting itchy to perform some of his new songs publicly, and was soon haunting open-mic sessions at area coffeehouses and bars, often joined by McEwen and Lloyd, an accomplished accordion player and cellist. When the trio discovered Zuzulo was hiding a percussive past from garage band stints around Pelham, where he grew up, the band’s membership was complete. Its name was taken from a fictitious musical group Longo had created for one of his design projects.
The band’s music is a lively mix of folk, country, and progressive rock, with lyrics full of mystical stirrings and an idealism suggestive of the 1960s. Adding recognizable snippets of songs from the Beatles — in homage, of course — plus the occasional careening guitar solo and a “hint of hillbilly dust,” says Longo, to their soundscape, the band has been able to attract a wide range of fans. Appearing at a time when many listeners were getting bored with classic rock, and just as the folk-leaning singer-songwriter movement was cresting, the Circus seemed to furnish the right vibe for an audience that was ready for something genuine and new to chew on. With a smart, eye-popping Web page (www.slambovia.com) and frequent e-mails to fans announcing upcoming events, the group has been able to build a large audience of hard-core followers bent on helping out the band whenever possible. For instance, at a concert celebrating the release of Flapjacks from the Sky held in Mount Kisco earlier this year, a family of thankful fans from Connecticut cooked and served 450 turquoise-colored pancakes — free of charge — to the audience, which was made up of equal numbers of teenagers and their boomer parents. A small army took care of the ticket sales, refreshments, and cleanup, too.
Despite not having the marketing punch of a big record company behind them, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams has steadily increased its popularity to the extent that the group now receives nationwide radio exposure, and recently one of the band’s songs was even included on the soundtrack of the hit CBS television show Joan of Arcadia. For the past several months Meg Griffin, the redoubtable radio host and a champion of the band since their open-mic days, has been keeping a number of Gandalf tunes in rotation on Sirius Satellite Radio, while XM Satellite Radio ran a 45-minute-long special on the band in August.
“It’s been a rough tumble up the hill for us,” acknowledges Longo, “but it’s starting to pay off. Our instincts led us against what people said to us about relying on the Internet for marketing, or even pursuing something like this at our age. Now this whole thing is flying on its own.” Adds Lloyd, “We left the traditional music world behind us, and in a leap of faith found a new approach to what we love to do. Luckily, the Hudson Valley was becoming a real center for musical creativity just as we arrived here, so we’ve been able to start the Circus rolling from our backyard, so to speak. It seems we tapped into something that people really needed. This isn’t just a band, you see — it’s a public service organization.” — Thomas Staudter