Volume 81, Number 3 | June 16 - 22, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by J.B. Nicholas

From left, John Heneghan, Eden Brower and R. Crumb at the opening of Crumb’s recent retrospective at the Society of Illustrators.

Crumb drew the cover illustration of Eden & John’s East River String Band’s new CD, above.

Call him ‘Mr. Natural’; Cartoonist is right in tune with E.V. blues band

By Lincoln Anderson

After doing the cover illustrations for the last two CD’s by Eden & John’s East River String Band, legendary cartoonist R. Crumb put down his pen — at least for a while, figuratively speaking — and picked up his mandolin to join the East Village outfit on their latest release.

A devotee of traditional American blues music, and a musician in his own right, Crumb plays mandolin on 10 of the new disc’s 14 songs.

The “Mr. Natural” and “Keep on Truckin’ ” creator also illustrated the cover of the band’s new CD, “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down.” The image shows Eden Brower with a beaming Dom Flemons, of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, walking past the Temperance Fountain in Tompkins Square Park; Brower nonchalantly flips a coin to John Heneghan, her boyfriend, who is sitting on a bench, glumly jamming with Crumb and violinist Pat Conte, who also plays on the new album.

Multi-instrumentalist Flemons played guitar, harmonica, quills and jug on Brower and Heneghan’s second CD, “Drunken Barrel House Blues.” Their first album, “Some Cold Rainy Day,” received glowing reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone magazine, which said they “cover black country blues from the 78-rpm era with crisp fervor” and “a natural flair.”

Brower and Heneghan have long lived in the East Village. A former squatter at See Sqwat on Avenue C, Brower also maintains the “Slum Goddess” local blog, which takes its name from Tuli Kupferberg’s song “Slum Goddess of the Lower East Side.”

Their latest CD, according to Brower, “is more old country blues than the others. It has classic Americana tunes on it that people will recognize, like ‘Oh Suzanna’ and ‘Swanee River,’ and we have a lot of mandolin and fiddle, and some banjo on it, too. It’s basically in the same vein, but with a more toe-tapping, sing-along feel to it. We recorded most of the tracks live, and so it sounds very loose, which we are pleased with,” she said.

As for how the iconic underground artist, who lives in France, wound up playing on “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down,” Brower said, “We have known the Crumb family for years now and are good friends with all of them. I met Sophie first in New York City, and she is quite an amazing artist. We play with Robert when he is in town here, or when we are in Europe. Robert loves playing music and he and John both collect 78’s. They will sit around listening to great old music for hours upon hours. He was doing the artwork for the CD cover, and when we were in France last summer, we had been jamming a lot and we decided to record some songs. It was a lot of fun.

“Robert is great on mandolin,” Brower said. “He also plays other instruments, but the mandolin fits nicely with what we do.”

In March, the Society of Illustrators, on E. 63rd St., put on a retrospective of Crumb’s work, and also hosted a night of traditional blues music, with Crumb playing along with Brower and Heneghan and their band, and Flemons opening for them.

The notoriously press shy Crumb only consented to do one interview about the retrospective, with the Associated Press, and otherwise basically declined to speak to the media at the exhibit’s opening.

“Neeewwwwwspaper?!” he said with mock revulsion, emphasis on the “eeewww!” (perhaps also mixed with genuine revulsion) and recoiled when this newspaper approached to ask him to pose for a photo.

But he ultimately did agree to pose with Brower and Heneghan next to a “mechanical” sketch on grid paper that he drew for the cover of the old East Village Other.

When the opening-night crowd swelled and got large, Crumb wandered off to some recess within the building.

“He’s hiding, a bit overwhelmed,” his wife, cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, explained.

Later on, Crumb re-emerged to sit at a private table, joined by Brower, Heneghan and a few others, while Dennis Dittrich, the society’s president, pressed into doing “security,” kept the cartoonist’s fans at bay.

Brower said their new CD, which had a “street date” release of June 7, is selling very well, so far. They have also released it on yellow vinyl. They have new distribution with RedEye, which she called, “Exciting! They are kinda big.”

Also exciting news, Brower and Heneghan recently found out that the disc will be available at Barnes & Noble bookstores and music stores worldwide and on Amazon.com.

The East River String Band has been playing local gigs, without Crumb. But in July, they’ll be in northern Italy for the Ameno Blues Festival, where they’ll play several shows, joined by Crumb on mandolin. For a listing of upcoming shows or to buy their CD’s, go to www.eastriverstringband.com .

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