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Photo By Paul Moffett
Now Just The Pranksters

Now Just 'The Pranksters,' They're Still Pretty Merry

By Kevin Gibson Additional Photos By Chris Boone

The Pranksters took the stage recently for a show as an acoustic-trio version of the seminal Louisville rock act, and quickly found purchase with the small crowd by tossing off a sweet rendition of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."

In between songs, R.D. Miller and Tom Browning traded quips, and Miller in particular bantered with a front table filled with friends of the band. Meanwhile, the group found its way through some Neil Young, Beatles ("I've Just Seen a Face" which segued nicely into a bluegrass medley), The Band, Jefferson Airplane and more

Clearly, they were having a lot of fun. Even though they are now known simply as "The Pranksters," rather than their long-time moniker "Merry Pranksters," it's clear they're still pretty merry

Sitting down to talk with Miller and Browning is a merry trip down memory lane, in any case. This band that is now more than two decades old (although the core was formed by drummer Dave Young in his basement in 1976) has endured in many forms, developing a local following that would be hard to top even for a Louisville giant like My Morning Jacket. When a band puts in as many years as have the Pranksters, a lot of fans and friends are made

Of particular success has been a long-running (24 years and counting as of next month) Sunday night show at Gerstle's Tavern in St. Matthews. This is one of those underground events in which sometimes 100 people show up late on Sunday evening to dance, drink and laugh until the wee hours of the morning

And old-time just regulars keep showing up. "We actually get children of people who used to come to the Sunday night shows," Miller said. As for the weekly draw, estimates vary, but Miller noted, "We have at least been drawing enough for them to keep paying us."

Merry, indeed

The Pranksters at Gerstle's

Photo By Chris Boone

The Pranksters at Gerstle's The Pranksters at Gerstle's

The Pranksters at Gerstle's

Photo By Chris Boone

The Pranksters at Gerstle's The Pranksters at Gerstle's

The Pranksters at Gerstle's

Photo By Chris Boone

The Pranksters at Gerstle's The Pranksters at Gerstle's

Things are changing, however. Young and most of the rest of the band have parted ways; the band's founder, dealing with health problems, was having difficulties playing multiple gigs per week at long stretches, according to Miller. As the Pranksters are a working band - and as such represents the members' primary source of income - taking extended periods off is not really an option

And so it was decided to move forward with Rick Ennis as the full-time drummer; Ennis has been playing off and on with the band since the early 2000s as percussionist

Meanwhile, Young (who could not be reached for comment before press time) is apparently working on an album of originals, at least according to a September post on his Merry Pranksters website, pranksters.momenlivre.com. The post includes a partial lyric from a song called "Jump on the Pope," but currently there are no show dates listed on the site for Young's Merry Pranksters

Still, Young continues to be appreciated by the, um, other Pranksters

"He invited me to be in his band when I was a kid, when he was still playing in his basement," Miller said. "I owe the guy a lot."

With Miller and Browning the core now, along with Ennis on drums and percussion, Bob Ramsey on keyboards and Ed Snead on bass (with Rico Thomas rotating in and out on bass as well), the Pranksters keep on keeping on.

BUT THEY'RE NOT A JAM BAND

Yes, it's true, the Deadheads love the Pranksters, Merry or otherwise. And it's true that the Pranksters do know their share of Grateful Dead and Grateful Dead-related music. In fact, if you pin Miller down on the subject, he'll admit that if the Pranksters got together and played all their Dead and Dead-related covers back to back to back, they'd have to block out somewhere in the neighborhood of nine hours of their time to do it.

And that doesn't include bathroom breaks

"We're known as a Dead band, but we never started off that way," Miller said. "We were kind of late to the party in that regard."

He notes that in the early days, the band played three or four Grateful Dead songs but 'jam band' was not really a term yet."

"We also did a lot of Beatles," Browning points out

"Then we started to learn one more Dead song, and one more Dead song," Miller said. Apparently, the rest is history

"But the whole Dead community really appealed to us," he continued. "I think our regular crowd represents [a community]. They come to meet their friends, sometimes they fall in love and get married. And every week that goes by, we run into somebody we used to know and haven't seen for 10 years."

Miller admits that, "Our comfort zone is Deadheads and all that. But sometimes we're playing shopping centers for moms and kids; I feel like we have enough songs in our catalog that we can do some radio hits for those types of crowds."

Browning notes that the Beatles usually will win over an audience, and even the Allman Brothers and some Neil Young songs as well. "Plus we can do some Stax Records stuff, like 'Midnight Hour,'" he said

Of course, any band can sometimes run into an audience that just doesn't "get" what the band is trying to do

"We've had gigs where people just sit and stare at us," Miller said. He and Browning related a story in which the Pranksters played a local club that catered to what Miller termed a younger, "hip hop" crowd. It didn't go so well.

"People looked at us like we were from Mars," he said.

"Gigs like that don't go on forever," Browning noted. "They have a very quick beginning, middle and end. The club owner's taste doesn't always transfer to the crowd."

Miller also recalled a gig several years ago at a wedding wherein Tom Constanten, who played keyboards with the Grateful Dead (and performed at Woodstock, no less), was in attendance and wanted to sit in: "It was such a trip for us, and everybody else there could not have cared less who he was. He's in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame!"

Nevertheless, one could make the argument that nine hours of Grateful Dead covers probably does make one a Deadhead band. It bears noting that there's plenty of hair involved as well - even the band's photo on its Facebook group page shows a group of guys with plenty of hair and plenty of tie-dye to go around

And Ennis, who started playing a full drum kit only a few months ago when Young bowed out, came into the group by playing a djembe, which he describes as, "an African communication tool."

However, "More than that, it's the jam band/hippie scene that knows it. Any of those old Bob Marley numbers where it's just him, a guitar and a drum? It's the djembe."

Take note, kids: If you have a djembe in your group, you just might be a jam band.

But hold on - just because they might be a Deadhead band, that doesn't necessarily make the Pranksters a jam band. As they argue, it's not like they're ripping off 20-minute solos or anything

Miller said that the band knows some 400 songs, but may only pull out 35 or 40 a night. Yes, they do extend many of the songs, but it's not a prerequisite by any means

"I used to call us a jam band without all the pesky jamming," Miller said. "We do a little extra, but we don't get buried in it."

"The key is to stay within the form or structure of it," Browning added. "If we do [extend a song], we'll just go one more time through the melody or something."

Browning insists the "jamming" as done by the Pranksters is more about being dance friendly. "When you're a musician, you don't have time to learn how to dance," he said with a smile. "But I can see if you are a dancer how the long, extended jam would be good, just because of the rhythm of it."

In any case, jamming came naturally to Browning. Back in the 1980s he was playing in a number of different bands before joining the Merry Pranksters. "A club owner said, 'I want you to put a reggae band together, and you're going to start Tuesday,'" he recalled. "It was, like, Thursday and I'd never played reggae. So yes, we had some extended jams."

More than anything, the Pranksters enjoy their Deadhead followers because they're fun people and because they are so into the music itself. "There's a dynamic between us and that crowd," Miller said. "They teach us about music and we teach them too. It's easy to make fun of Deadheads, but they know they're stuff."

He notes that Deadheads have been fed a lot of different styles - from bluegrass to folk - by way of the Dead's repertoire. "They're very knowledgeable about music. And obviously we're enthused about it too or we'd be in the wrong business. The Dead were never a band that put on airs or stage production. Well, look at us, we're not either."

"If you play good enough, you don't have to do that," Browning said. "That really started with glam rock, Bowie and all that."

FROM JOCKAMO'S IT SPRANG

The Sunday night show actually began in the late 1980s at Jockamo's Pizza in the Highlands (in the spot that is now Za's). In those days, what was originally known as the Silver Creek Band had turned into an acoustic trio called McHenry, Miller & Young (including original Silver Creek guitarist Chick McHenry).

As the show gained steam, more and more musicians began stopping by to jam with the boys, and the ensemble grew. A drummer was added, and Browning would show up, often after playing gigs of his own. He seemed like a fit for the group, so he officially joined. Sometime around 1989, the name Merry Pranksters was adopted

Thousands of shows and a number of other musicians came and went, but Miller, Browning, Snead and Young would persevere. It was just three years ago or so that Ramsey re-joined the group after a 16-year absence.

Ramsey, of course, plays the organ at Louisville Bats games, along with other gigs around town. He not only played in Leon Russell's band, but he's also backed up acts such as George Strait, Stevie Nicks and Kid Rock

And now, with Young doing his own thing, Ennis (who was Young's protégé from the get-go) takes over on drums. Ennis moved to Louisville in 1997 to attend Spalding, and caught up with the Merry Pranksters at the dearly departed Maier's Tavern in St. Matthews. Of course, he quickly caught on to the band's following, particularly the Sunday night affair

"I started playing with Trustees of Modern Chemistry," Ennis said. "All that time, I was just enjoying [the Pranksters]. After Trustees fell apart and the Internet bubble popped, I started sitting in at their gigs at Gerstle's."

It was 2006 when he was officially installed as percussionist of the band. "Dave was taking sabbatical, and they put me over on the drum set," Ennis said. "Every day is like a lesson, but it makes it easy playing with these old vets. I'm lucky; I'm really lucky."

He especially enjoys the Gerstle's Sunday-nighters, which he says officially begin at 10 p.m. Sort of. "They'll tell you 10 p.m. But it's really more like 11:00. Or 12:00."

But he loves the crowds: "It's the fan base from the Jockamo's days. It's always a good reunion, like, 'Oh, I haven't seen you forever.' Just good people and dancing. It's guaranteed someone is going to dance early on. It's got that cult following, that underground desire."

And what it boils down to, after it's all said and done, is indeed that desire. The Pranksters aren't worried that they're playing sometimes three and four gigs a week with various lineups in dank corner bars. It's about the music and the friends. And there are those gigs that make for good memories as well

The band played an all-Beatles set at this year's Abbey Road on the River festival, for instance, and were selected to play the main stage. "Gary (Jacob, the festival's promoter) introduced us as 'Louisville's best band.' He hadn't heard us yet, but we'll take the compliment

"And for a little bar band to be on the main stage, its something we didn't expect."

If those kinds of kudos and opportunities continue to materialize, so be it. But rest assured the Pranksters will be found at Gerstle's every Sunday night, and also performing regularly at places like Captain's Quarters or rocking at corner bars like Dark Star

"We just hope to keep doing what we've been doing," Miller said. "At our age, we don't have aspirations of getting famous and touring. We have mortgages and families."

"We're working musicians," Browning added. "I was lucky in that I went to U of L and Bellarmine, and my professors there schooled me on how to be a working musician. They said, 'It would be great if you get a hit record and sell a million copies or whatever, but in the meantime you've got to pay your bills. Get your money home and get it into the bank.'"

"The key for us," Miller concluded, "is to keep enjoying what we're doing. If a band goes into it and says, 'If we don't get famous, we're not happy,'" they're setting themselves up to fail

"Enjoying what you do is still half the battle. Even with all the thousands of gigs we've done, I still enjoy going out and playing."

If that doesn't constitute making merry, then what does?