If you can’t figure out why the song titles at tomorrow night’s Bop Stop concert by Mostly Other People Do the Killing might provoke laughter among some audience members, don’t worry. They’re just Pennsylvanians who are in on the joke.
Those titles, like those of almost all of bassist Moppa Elliot’s compositions, are simply the names of Pennsylvania cities, towns, hamlets and crossroads. Some of those names are quirky in their own right (Slippery Rock, Forty Fort), but tomorrow’s program will undoubtedly include more prosaic titles such as “Exeter” and “Dimock.” Is the famously antic Mostly Other People Do the Killing (hereafter MOPDtK) going soft?
Not while Elliot and his bandmates, drummer Kevin Shea and pianist Ron Stabinsky, are around.
MOPDtK is touring to support the band’s latest Hot Cup Records release, “Disasters, Vol. 1.” It’s a collection of eight new Elliot compositions named for Pennsylvania towns that were the sites of various disasters.
Take “Johnstown,” named for the southwest Pennsylvania city where six major floods in the last 130 years claimed more than 2000 lives. What does this gracious, somewhat exaggeratedly polite parlor waltz have to do with Johnstown’s sad history? Nothing. And that, Elliot says, is exactly the point. “If the title a piece of music changes, does that change the music?”
His rhetorical question was playful and so is MOPDtK’s music, but the band’s project is a deadly serious one: to destroy the pretentions and misconceptions that can rob the music of the vitality and joy that is its inheritance–and to have a good time doing it.
So, any connection between “Centralia,” a burning boogie-blues, and its namesake ghost town, emptied by an underground mine fire that has raged since 1962, is purely coincidental.
MOPDtK crashed onto the scene in 2007 with the release of “Shamokin!!!” From its campy cover design scraped from an Art Blakey album with an added mordant twist to the brash extroversion of the band, “Shamokin!!!,” named for an eastern Pennsylvania coal town, seemed not to bury jazz but to praise it. It was laugh-out-loud funny but also audacious, a cup of tea spiked with 100-proof vodka.
Subsequent releases featured cheeky send-ups of classic album covers and impudent playing of often astonishing brilliance by players such as trumpeter Peter Evans and whirlwind saxophonist Jon Irabagon. The band’s provocations reached an apogee with the release in 2014 of “Blue,” an eerily note-for-note recreation of Miles Davis’ canonized “Kind of Blue” album that raised questions about the notion of authenticity in jazz.
These days, MOPDtK is a piano trio, but not like any piano trio you might know. Stabinsky (Pottsville, Pennsylvania), also a member of indie-rock band The Meat Puppets and Philadelphia new music ensemble Relâche, is a classically trained pianist with a lot of blues under his fingers. Shea is a Minnesota native who attended high school in the Pittsburgh area. He’s an anarchic force with an untethered, crashing style who somehow manages to sustain a groove while never quite playing the groove. He’s at the very small spot on the Venn diagram where the Who’s Keith Moon and Paul Motian meet.
And Elliot? Call him MOPDtK’s straight man. On a hilariously entertaining phone call from his home near Binghamton, the Factoryville, Pennsylvania native explained his role this way: “I play pretty conventionally. Someone has to establish the harmony and song form inside so you can tell when the music goes outside.”
I asked Elliot if a “Volume 2” might have room for a tribute to the blizzards that annually torment my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. “Why not,” he said. “There’s plenty more PA towns and their disasters to choose from.”
Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Thursday, February 24 at 7 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person are $15, available here. The concert will will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.