If it were not for the fact that Ralph Thumas was always capable and willing to laugh at anything - himself, art, life, death, cancer - this album likely would have been depressingly maudlin. Because the guys in Zen Penguin - Ralph, David Evans and Joe Ford - were/are friends of mine, reviewing this CD would have been painful beyond words. Even with Ralph's laughter, it's not easy.
For background, the project was started in the early '90s by Zen Penguin, with several songs more or less done. As often happens with self-produced projects, life got in the way and the tracks languished, incomplete, until Thumas was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and began a course of chemotherapy.
In order to relieve the monotony and general grimness of sitting in a clinic with toxic chemicals dripping in his arm, Thumas began bringing his guitar to entertain himself and the other patients. Then Dave Evans and Joe Ford began to come down on Thursday mornings, along with other musicians, and the "Chemo Lounge" was born. Soon enough, other chemotherapy patients began to request that their treatments be scheduled to coincide with Thumas' in order to join in the singing. The result, which was entirely consistent with the rest of Ralph Thumas' life, was that he and the other Penguins brought cheer and a measure of happiness to a group of people who were otherwise deep in their own misery.
Another result was that the Zen Penguins decided to complete the earlier project, adding some new songs (and new Penguins) in the process and donate any proceeds to indigent cancer care and prevention. The project wasn't finished until after Thumas' passing, so the CD also includes sections of conversations about Ralph among those involved, including Thumas's son Nat, whose is also a singer/songwriter; his oncologist, who helped finance the project, and the various people who helped create it. The recorded conversations are full of laughter amid the remembrances.
All three of the original ZP men had gone through life-changing experiences of various sorts between the start and the finish of the CD and yet they managed to retain continuity in the sound and feel of the overall project, something which is not easy even when the project is done over a short period of time. Others involved in the project were ill as well and two have since passed away, including cover artist "Bug" Uhde and violinist Stephanie White of the band Foolish Pleasure.
The Penguins were blessed with two members with exceptional and distinctive voices: Thumas and Evans. All three wrote and contributed material to this CD, but their individual contributions were not documented on the advance copy I received. Thumas sings on several that sound as if they were written subsequent to his diagnosis, including songs for his children ("My Three Sons,"), his wife ("Song For Linda"); philosophical material ("Window to Forever," "Your Message is Your Life,") and the cheerfully black blues "Chemo Therapy Blues," with these lines: "If I don't get me some remission, I guess I'll have to do some pain."
Evans' offers up the complex "Turtle," a personal favorite, and the self-examination of "Here I Am," which, in the face of Thumas' condition, weighs a lot less. Joe Ford sings two of his love songs, "Until the End of Time" and "Tonight (I Have Learned)."
In fact, what is not immediately obvious about this CD is that it is primarily built around love songs and songs of love, which is, really, a proper epitaph for the laughing Buddha who was Ralph Thumas.
"Live from the Chemo Therapy Lounge" is available at ear X-tacy Records. The CD can be ordered at www.flockofpenguins.com, where there are also photos and text about the project.