March 27, 2008


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Sorta bluegrass
Mandolin, claw hammer banjo, kazoo and more pile into the ‘Short Bus’
By Brian Early

“It’s not the least offensive name that we could have been,” said Josh Bearman, who sings and plays mandolin, the claw hammer banjo and the kazoo for Special Ed and the Short Bus, which will play a show at Milly’s Tavern next Thursday, April 3.

Before the band was a band, guitarist Ed Brogan had a friend who called him up and said, “If you’re ever in a band, you should be called Special Ed and the Short Bus,” Bearman recalled. “I wish there was a better story.”

It’s sort of a bluegrass band with drums, but they also play Klezmer, a traditional Jewish style music, as well as some Frank Zappa tunes.

“They’re out of control,” said Mike Dionne, the front man for Hot Day at the Zoo, who will split the bill with the Richmond, Va.,-based Special Ed, as well as with the Seacoast-based band The Verbs. It’s a triple-bill bluegrass night at Milly’s, though most of the night won’t be straight-ahead bluegrass.

Hot Day and Special Ed teamed up a couple of years back when Special Ed was touring the Northeast trying to fill in a couple more show dates. They called around and happened upon Hot Day and asked them to split the bill, and they’ve been playing together whenever tour dates allow.

“They do some fun stuff on stage,” Dionne said of Special Ed. “Like switching instruments in the middle of the song. They all play the instruments really well.”

Hot Day is “more rooted in rock, blues and jazz,” Dionne said. “We’re into effects. We’re doing funky stuff that you don’t see.”

Special Ed is into improvisation, Dionne said. “Their approach to sound is like a typical string show with a single mike set up,” he said. “It’s a very ambient approach to live music. We plug in like a rock band. Our sound can get pretty loud compared to a string band.”

The Verbs music is a bit bluegrass, a bit hillbilly music. “They’re a young string band coming up,” Dionne said. “Chad [Verbeck] is a great song writer.”

Bearman of Special Ed grew up in a folk family, but not playing bluegrass. “None of us are from the hills,” he said. But his father was a caller at square dances, and a lot of old-time traditional music is played at the dances. At age 13 he started playing the mandolin; he picked up the banjo along the way.

The fiddler, Aaron Lewis, is classically trained. Last year Lewis took first in the bluegrass fiddle category in the Old Fiddler’s Competition in Galax, Va. Brogan, the guitar player, was originally a saxophone player.

“We take our music very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously,” Bearman said.

“There was a time when we were all about the toilet humor. The people who found our name offensive would have found our act offensive,” Bearman said. “Don’t get me wrong, there is still toilet humor, but we’ve moved away from toilet humor to social satire.”

Hear it live
What: Special Ed and the Short Bus, Hot Day at the Zoo, and the Verbs
When: Thursday, April 3, 9 p.m.
Where: Milly’s Tavern, 500 Commercial St., Manchester.