Ken Maiuri's Tuned In: Julian Koster’s ‘The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) at the Iron Horse, and more music this week in the Valley

  • The Stray Birds Emelia Paré

  • The Stray Birds —© 2016 Emilia Paré

  • Emo

  • Jason Robinson and Anthony Davis Charlie Quigg

  • Samirah Evans and Evelyn Harris

  • Squirrel Nut Zippers

  • The Orbiting Human Circus

Published: 11/10/2016 2:17:45 PM

“I won’t grow up,” goes the song from Peter Pan. “I don’t wanna grow up,” sings Tom Waits.

But sometimes you can use growing up for the power of good. Artist and musician Julian Koster, now in his 40s, once said in an interview: “When you're a kid, you have all these dreams and this innate understanding of the universe, but you don't have the skills to create things. Now, if you decided you want a 50-foot talking cloud in your backyard, you can create it, and all of a sudden that's a part of other people's reality.”

Koster — a member of the beloved band Neutral Milk Hotel and leader of his own group, The Music Tapes — has been playfully warping reality for decades, giving audiences immersive collective experiences that go beyond a regular concert.

Instead of separating himself from the crowd on a stage, he’ll cover the inside of a venue under an actual tent and invite everyone to sit inside with him. Or bring along a handcrafted snowman that reaches up to the ceiling. Or feature a song sung by a static-filled TV set.

I first saw Koster and The Music Tapes play locally in summer 1999. The band performed among homemade fanciful instruments — a 7-foot-tall wind-up metronome, a big blue wooden box with clapping hands coming out of the top. Instead of having a drum set, Koster created percussion by jumping up and down on a pallet covered in amplified chicken wire, sometimes while playing a banjo with a bow. Other instruments the band used were musical saw, pump organ, tuba, toy piano, a bouncy red dodgeball and empty office-sized plastic water cooler jugs.

A Koster-drawn T-shirt I bought that night read “The Orbiting Human Circus: The Greatest Show IS Earth” — and that’s where his latest project got its name.

The storytelling musician has created a new podcast, “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air),” and its recent debut got a big push by being featured on the popular “Welcome To Night Vale” airwaves. It’s a continuing radio play, for which Koster’s talents are perfectly suited; he appears as the character of The Janitor, working at the Eiffel Tower.

He’s taking the idea on the road as a live show, described thusly: “Walk into the world of the Orbiting Human Circus and see: the mystifying performing musical bird, the trombone-playing polar bear, legitimate feats of time travel (no, really) and other extraordinary exhibitions!”

Koster is, as always, letting his imagination and heart be the engine; experience the music and stories of The Orbiting Human Circus live at the Iron Horse in Northampton Monday at
8:30 p.m.

Shokazoba — the Valley’s “Conscious Fusion Funkestra” that draws from Afrobeat, jazz, funk, rock and reggae — brings its dance-friendly protest music to The Root Cellar in Greenfield Friday at 9 p.m. Before, after and between sets, DJ Studebaker Hawk will spin disco, soul, funk and Afrobeat records to keep the party going.

Cult fave garage-rock band The Sonics recorded raw songs in the mid-’60s (“Strychnine,” “The Witch,” “Psycho,” “Boss Hoss,” “Have Love Will Travel”), full of blunt sharp drums, growling saxophone, gritty guitar, wild piano and some of the best vocal screams ever committed to tape. See the current lineup of The Sonics at Pearl Street in Northampton Friday at 8 p.m. Local band Walking Ghosts will open the show.

Local vocalists Samirah Evans and Evelyn Harris present a special tribute to legendary jazz and blues singers Nina Simone and Etta James, backed by an all-star band of pianist Miro Sprague, bassist Dave Picchi and drummer Jon Fisher, at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke Saturday at 8 p.m.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist F. Alex Johnson (leader of his band Colorway, former guitarist for Drunk Stuntmen) celebrates 25 years of living in the Valley by playing a solo show at the Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton Sunday at 3 p.m. Free, all ages are welcome, and tips are appreciated.

Pianist Anthony Davis and saxophonist Jason Robinson team up for the latest show in the 15th annual Solos & Duos Concert Series at Bezanson Recital Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Sunday at 8 p.m.

Comedian Emo Philips burst onto the national scene in the mid-’80s with his ever-odd delivery and jokes to match (his “Golden Gate Bridge” routine about religion is a particularly memorable one). He’ll take the stage at the Iron Horse Wednesday at 7 p.m. Starting off the night is Northampton singer/songwriter Henning Ohlenbusch, a unique and wry performer in his own right.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers was a blast of vintage air in the mid-’90s, with its fusion of gypsy jazz, early swing, calypso and more. Founding members Jimbo Mathus and Chris Phillips have put together a new version of the band (featuring vocalist Ingrid Lucia) and will play Pearl Street Thursday at 7 p.m.

Harmonizing roots trio The Stray Birds returns to the Valley for a show at the Iron Horse Thursday at 7 p.m. Anthony da Costa is the opening act.

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