Smart Snake Music

Manic Rhymes & Misdemeanors - Live At Barretones
Serpent Wisdom

By Paul Moffett

One evening not too long back, I stopped into Air Devils Inn for a dose of open stage and ran into Jak Son Renfro, leader and vocalist of the otherworldbeat band Serpent Wisdom. After a short conversation, he pressed a CD-R disc into my hands, saying "Yeah, this is what Serpent Wisdom should really sound like," and wandered off.

A few days after that, the completed CD arrived at the LMN office, signifying that Renfro was serious about this project. By then, the CD-R had managed to maintain its place on the player for a while, but in truth, the songs of Jak Son (neè Jerry) have been on my mental player since the mid-'80s, when he, Ken Lucchese and Bob Maples began frequenting my Monday Night Open Stage at the Rudyard Kipling. Over the ensuing years, the songs appeared, solidified, transmogrified and transmogrified again, depending on what group of players he had backing him up. During that time, he stopped teaching and got married, Lucchese left town (and returned) and Maples died, but Renfro persisted, always the weaving, dancing, chanting stage master. Step by step, inch by inch, the following grew until ...

So how did he do on this, a "real" recording, with some not otherworldbeat musicians added to the mix? Well enough, I'd say, though some of the tunes differ even from the last few times I heard them live.

"Lookin' For My Angelina," in which Renfro defines himself as a worldbeat Billy Bob (and which contains, one supposes, a verse to his significant other Jenn), kicks off the CD and sets the mood for jam, no jelly, though nailed straight by the trap set drumming of Ted Richardson. That's followed by his "hit" song, "Fat Lotta Good," which has what is arguably a bona fide hook for a chorus: "She had blue eyes, blazed / Like two Mexican pistols / She was fire / he was wood / The laugh was always on him / He was Poncho / She was Cisco / With a fat lotta good / That did Poncho now."

Renfro's twisted-left politics and literati sensibilities suffuse this CD, from the faux-Jamaican feeling of "Til He Bellyful" to "Quasimodo," "Soft White Underbelly" and the "om" of "One God." Given his well-known disinclination to be slotted, taking a stand without quite taking a stand, the choice of material is no surprise.

Then there's "Once Upon a Derby Day," a tune most long-time fans probably thought was called "I Threw My TV Out the Window on Derby Day." This one is, upon close inspection, a song about a fight and a lost love.

Renfro has, to all appearances, had a lifelong struggle with the culture in which he lives, picking up parts and throwing them down again, while asking (allowing?) his fans to witness the battle from off the stage. That brawl continues on this CD, as he has added the ubiquitous keyboardist Pete Peterson, as well as the aforementioned Richardson, plus A-list bassist Danny Kiely to the normal configuration of Lucchese and Earbie Johnson on percussion. His statement to me at ADI suggests that he likes the results for now, even if it squares up the music a bit more than one might expect from Serpent Wisdom. But of course, each Serpent Wisdom show, like many jam band shows, differs from all the others and that's true for this live recording as well, so if you are a fan (or not), pick this one up. It sounds like it must have been quite a night.