Los Angeles

Lambs Eat Ivy


Nancy Andrews, Emma Elizabeth Downing, and Michael Willis, recently joined by Jonathan Gorrie, are the eccentric, decidedly unsheeplike minds behind Lambs Eat Ivy. In a quasi-backwoods style, the Lambs perform foot-stomping nouveau folk songs, with lyrics chock full of pancultural transcendentalism. Self-described as “Appalachian Zen” or “Mystic Hillbilly Theater,” they draw on sources that include the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Baptist sermons, and Native American folklore. The Lambs’ slightly warped, hoedown sound is heightened by vocalist Downing, whose otherworldly warbling weds a Dolly Parton twang with falsetto keening reminiscent of Kate Bush. The group’s instrumentation includes a cowbell, washboard, guitar, fiddle, melodica, and harmonica.

The first half of the set consisted of the most recent version of their eerily amusing passion playlet entitled “Dream Bardo,” 1989, performed as if by priests-in-training of some religion of the future that includes humor as sacrament. Birdcalls, yips, and chirps of enthusiasm peppered the singing. Costumed like child-escapees from a demented vegetable pageant, the Lambs issue instructive warnings to the recently deceased not to panic and thus rush into being reborn too quickly: “If the newly dead sees ripe fruit spoiling, / animals fighting, willow trees bending, / great bulls drowning, red mud sliding, / pictures of his future parents mating. / . . . he will seek a womb.”

Part two of the program consisted of a looser set of songs evincing interests along the same lines as those presented in “Dream Bardo;” the repertoire of evocations includes lotus blossoms, lakes of fires, snakes becoming backbones or swords, Jesus, Shiva, and bloody cakes being served up. In a wide-eyed introduction to one number, Downing blithely described the experience of nursing a lamb at her breast. Another song was an expression of gratitude to household objects and an acknowledgement of their resident souls. During this second part of the show, the three main players’ personas remained consistent. Andrews maintained the mien of a shell-shocked, gawky, knock-kneed librarian—a deadpan female Harpo Marx, armed with a fiddle instead of a harp, descending into the underworld in a state both fallen and full of grace. Willis’ character suggests a satyr/Elvis figure from some garish limbo, and Downing’s a lively mythical bird. As the newest addition to the group, Gorrie held his own; though he stayed somewhat in the background, he contributed musically, calling to mind an Adam in search of other Edens. The bright, surreally painted sets, covered with images of eyes, flowers, supine bodies, and flying heads partook of the Lambs’ interest in hallucinatory imagery.

The wacky and spiritual exist side by side in Lambs Eat Ivy’s fertile circus. The gothic excess of the American rural South meets ornate Buddhist imagery in their performances, and the juxtaposition throws both traditions into surprising relief, exposing unexpected commonalities. The combined fervor, richness, and sensuality is enough to give the audience shivers. This is country music with a pancultural bent, brimming with ancient wisdom.

Amy Gerstler

#image 1#

#image 2#