Inner Muffin 

Backed by Richmond’s Spacebomb crew, Grandma Sparrow spins a surreal psych-folk song cycle.

click to enlarge Grandma Sparrow is the absurdist alter ego of Durham-based Joe Westerlund, a composer, vocalist and percussionist known for his work with avant-folk and rock groups Megafaun, Califone and Mount Moriah.

Samuel Dixon

Grandma Sparrow is the absurdist alter ego of Durham-based Joe Westerlund, a composer, vocalist and percussionist known for his work with avant-folk and rock groups Megafaun, Califone and Mount Moriah.

It really shouldn't work, but it does.

Grandma Sparrow wears a purple flowered cap, big round glasses, a yellow beaklike nose and a full red beard. A postmodern eccentric, he trills his R's while spinning out inventive, semi-impenetrable nonsense. His sui generis debut, "Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra," is a surreal, train-wreck masterpiece. It's an idiosyncratic collage, a puzzling mélange of brittle whimsy and vague threat.

His name evokes Mother Goose, but the character is unambiguously male. Scatological jokes abound. It's a fairy tale so fractured that the central narrative — the story of the diaper-wearing, poop-tossing, "clown prince of Piddletractor," Alewishus, who may or may not have been kidnapped into a Grandma Sparrow play date, glints from the genial lunacy like glass shards in Jell-O. Events unfold with dreamy, amoral childlike linearity, an odd cross between "Naked Lunch" and the board game Candy Land.

The quirkiness gains dramatic depth in a brilliantly realized, unpredictable musical landscape, courtesy of Richmond's Spacebomb Records. Like Matthew E. White's 2012 debut, "Big Inner," the record seems to feature an entire generation of youthful players and singers, with horn arrangements by White and strings by Trey Pollard that give the project a distinct Richmond sound.

"There is a huge comedy element," White says. "But from the start we knew it was only funny if the playing was serious. A great work of art can't be cute. The music needed to be the straight man."

The comedian is Joe Westerlund, a well-established drummer for avant folk and rock groups Megafaun, Califone, Gayngs and Mount Moriah. Westerlund earned a music degree at Bennington College, where his adventurous musical eclecticism was honed studying with great free-jazz drummer Milford Graves.

"He showed me how I could create something directly tied to things engrained in me as a person," Westerlund says. "But I am not sure he would like ['Grandma Sparrow.']"

The record was envisioned as a cross between Frank Zappa, Sgt. Pepper and avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton, according to White. The wordplay is full of inside jokes, pet names and whimsical non-sequitur humor.

"From the beginning it was in danger of becoming an obvious concept record, with developed lore, like one of those progressive rock records from the '70s," Westerlund says. "I don't get into records like that. I'm more interested in creating a world and dropping the listener in without explaining too much."

The record is the result of 10 intense days of recording in Richmond, followed by more than a year of cutting and culling. Often, what was recorded were brief cues, eight-bar snippets, each performed in several variations for later assembly. The piece opens gently, with a suite of five short, cheerful songs, and evolves into longer, darker collages. "Do You Know the Muffin Man" floats by several times. Nodding to 20th-century classical abstraction, there's a 12-tone lullaby. All is swathed in Spacebomb's Technicolor arrangements.

Performing it live is a new challenge. "This is the most fun I've had playing music," Westerlund says. "And it is the highest risk. I know that it might give the impression I am a goof-off, but I always try to make statements from my heart. In music your career is your life. It can easily take a bad turn. It's scary, but rewarding."

"I saw him do it for real, last night in D.C. with a shredding guitar band," White says. "He was totally committed, super weird and incredibly disarming."

The French poet Charles Baudelaire said genius was nothing more or less than childhood recaptured at will. It's a notion to which Grandma Sparrow flocks. S

Grandma Sparrow performs with Pigeon on Friday, May 16, from 10-11:30 p.m. at the Coalition Theatre. General admission tickets are $11.54 and available at rvacomedy.com.

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