By Charlie Swanson
Skiffle is defined musically as a blend of jazz, blues and roots music dating back to the early 20th century that’s often homemade and improvised. But, for musician and bandleader Farmer Dave Scher, it’s a way of life.
“I think the idea of skiffle and the function it serves in the human story appears again and again in all kinds of cultures,” says Scher by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s something cobbled together, something unpredictable, there’s a certain disregard for propriety that ensures beauty, fun, truth, authenticity and some good sounds.”
With that mindset, Scher, a keyboardist whose previous bands include alt-country outfit Beachwood Sparks, formed the Skiffle Players with folk songwriter Cass McCombs, guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dan Horne and Beachwood Sparks drummer Aaron Sperske. The ensemble’s debut album, Skifflin’, comes out on Friday, February 12, and the group performs live on Feb. 15 at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.
“The idea is to work with what you have. It’s not about polish and procedure, it’s scrappy,” Scher says. “It’s a reflection of the human spirit, and the human spirit cannot be bought and sold.”
The players were originally assembled in Big Sur as a backing band for McCombs, who’s been a close friend of Scher since 2004.
“The vocabulary was good, the camaraderie was good,” says Scher of that initial performance. “We decided to pop into the studio and we got about two albums worth of stuff in three days. It was like an old car or something—it started right up.”
Scher sees that ease with which the band was created as the essence of skiffle. Without contrivance, the accomplished musicians each let forth a flow of roots-inspired music that ranges from moody to whimsical. “The guys I’m playing with have a lot of knowledge and really go back with songs and stories from the past,” Scher says. “I’ve learned a lot from them over time.”
Many songs on Skifflin’ prominently feature a repetitive hook, with McCombs singing sonorously over a weeping lap pedal steel guitar solo; others nearly verge on honky tonk, with barroom pianos and blazing harmonicas. Collected together, Skifflin’ is a satisfying road trip through the Americana landscape.
“Skiffle is an open invitation, without limitations,” Scher says. “We cover as much ground as we can because that’s what makes it so fun, sort of like you’re jumping from one box car to the next.”
The Skiffle Players show their stuff on Monday, Feb. 15, at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave, Mill Valley; 8pm; $22-$25; 415/485-9555.