Washington Post Washington Post
Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page G04

Moxy Fruvous's Maple Leaf Ragging

By John Schwartz

Washington Post Staff Writer

It takes guts -- or cheek -- to slag Rush Limbaugh where he's loved. But early this summer, the Canadian band Moxy Fruvous decided to do just that in a festival appearance in Fort Smith, Ark. Its sly satire, "The Greatest Man in America," starts with praise for the conservative broadcaster, and the many dittoheads in the crowd initially cheered the seeming gesture of friendship across the 49th parallel.

Only as the words of the song sank in ("He's a dose of P.T. Barnum/ With a Mussolini twist") did the audience realize that these boys from Canada didn't actually like Limbaugh, and that they were damning him with ridiculous praise:

Not since Jesus Christ has the world seen someone 
With such widely syndicated views
Hundreds of years from now they'll celebrate Rush-mas 
And Rush-Hashana for the Jews . . .

"I'd say there were a couple of thousand of people there, and two or three hundred got up and walked out," recalls lead singer Jian Ghomeshi. "We've seldom had that stark a reaction." But, he said, "we obviously endeared ourselves to two or three hundred of the people there, too," many of whom came up after the show specifically to thank them for playing the Limbaugh song.

You win some and you lose some on the road; lately, Moxy Fruvous has been winning. With its fourth album, "Live Noise," on sale, and a tour that has it pinballing around the North American continent -- including a stop at the Birchmere on July 30 -- the smart, energetic band from Toronto seems poised to gain the kind of popularity in the United States that it has enjoyed back home.

Moxy Fruvous (the name is nonsense) pumps out an adventurous blend of pop, rock, rap and jazz, built around an ambitious core of four-part harmonies. The lyrics are clever and decidedly left-wing: targets of their barbs include bosses, politicians and "that guy who wrote 'The Bell Curve,' " as one of the songs puts it.

What really drives their cult following, though, is the band's frenetic performance at every show, even at one-hour appearances at local record stores to push the new disc. "Our promise to people is that you will never see the same show," Ghomeshi says.

During a set, the four are constantly in motion, running back and forth across the stage, doing complex hand jive and leaping around. Improvising maniacally between (and during) songs, they have in recent shows riffed on the World Cup and Olestra. Ghomeshi, who plays the drums standing up, provides a helping of jokey bump and grind during "I Love My Boss," a song about a guy too dumb to know how wretched his job is:

Bosses through the ages prove
They're the ones that make it move
Bewitched would have an empty plate
If it weren't for Larry Tate
Clark Kent reached the highest height 
With the help of Perry White
And if we may be retrograde
Speak the name Reuben Kincaid.

Ghomeshi, a Canadian citizen of Iranian heritage who grew up in a largely Jewish suburb of Toronto, claims the outsider's license to poke fun. Like Ghomeshi, Fruvous members Mike Ford, Murray Foster and David Matheson play multiple instruments and come to music by way of performance, acting and comedy.

Fruvous has a following that literally follows them; like fans of Barenaked Ladies, Dave Matthews and Phish, "Fruheads" (as they call themselves) will travel across the country to catch a set of promising shows. The band issues cards stamped at each show; those who accumulate enough stamps get prizes, including key chains, a bowling outing with the band or even a band-logo tattoo. (One fan, reportedly, has claimed that 50-show prize.)

Not all of the fans are youngsters. Retired Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Isadore Schwartz says "everything they do, musically, is innovative." He's actually jammed with the band, during Fruvous's lean days in the early '90s when they felt lucky to have snagged a gig playing a reception for the Horsemen's Benevolent Protective Association.

All of a sudden, in the middle of their set, members of the audience started goading the octogenarian Schwartz, who sits on the association's board, to play with the band. "There was this old guy in a pastel yellow jacket and a cigar, total Milton Berle," Ghomeshi recalls. The boys were game, and broke into Tom Waits's "Jockey Full of Bourbon," with Schwartz playing along.

"We got the biggest reception I ever heard in my life," Schwartz recalled in a telephone interview. "People were stamping their feet and yelling 'Izz-ZY! Izz- ZY!' " -- apparently, the kind of ovation that wasn't commonplace at orchestra performances. "It was the last time I played a concert in public," Schwartz said wistfully.

The band has an ardent online following, with a main Web site (www.fruvous. com) and numerous online discussions. But Ghomeshi also sees a downside to the wired audience: Developing a new song through trial and error on the road becomes that much harder. After trying out a song in Utica in front of 250 people one night recently, Ghomeshi logged on the next day and found that "the lyrics of the song were printed on the Internet," he said. "It's a little bit disconcerting -- you have no previews, you're going straight to opening night." Besides, he jokes,

"My mom logs on to the Web site. She knows how many times I swore the night before."

The band members knew each other as teenagers, students at a Toronto high school for the performing arts. They formed the band in college; drawn to the traditions of vaudeville and stand-up comedy as well as music, they began "busking" -- singing for change -- on Friday nights under the marquee of Toronto's busy Bloor Cinema. At first they performed every song a cappella -- largely, Ghomeshi has said, so that they wouldn't have to lug instruments around. They won over the weekenders with their renditions of songs like "Green Eggs and Ham," a rap version of the Dr. Seuss children's classic. By the summer of 1991, Ghomeshi recalls, things had gotten "really crazy. We would show up at the Bloor theater and there would already be 200 people there waiting for us to busk."

They have now brought out five albums, rich with zingers but also including some of the band's serious work, such as "Horseshoes," about a man who sets himself up repeatedly for failure and which skewers the maudlin slogans of young love:

Don't push the river; if you love it, set it free
I said "go on and see him, you can still come home to me" 
Sent me a letter. I didn't read it.
I already knew the words
Look straight at the coming disaster 
Realize what you've lost
You keep handing out horseshoes
Horseshoes have gotta be tossed.

They have hardly, however, eschewed zaniness. In "Michigan Militia," for example, a swain tells his betrothed that he is "Fighting for your honor/ Like would any Afrikaner" and butters her up with "I hope y'like the double barrel/ I think it goes with your apparel."

Ghomeshi credits their early experience busking as the key to the energy they pour into every performance. The show, he says, "is 100 percent entertainment all the time -- because if you're not they're going to walk away and buy an ice cream."

Ford notes that his relatives figure he's rich now, but he says the money is just good enough that they can buy equipment and make albums with their own money, and fix the van when it breaks down on the road. He and Foster like playing golf, but rarely do so on the road because of the expense of renting equipment and paying greens fees. "We're paying the rent, and we're still healthy," he said.

It bothers Ghomeshi that some members of the audience seem to think the band's satirical jabs are serious. A woman in Buffalo stood in line to meet Ghomeshi and then asked, "Why do you hate all Americans?" Ghomeshi was stunned. "I don't hate all Americans!" He says he thought about explaining that "my last two major relationships have been with Americans," but realized he couldn't respond to the question. "There was nothing I could say -- she just didn't get it. In Canada it would be, 'Why do you hate Canada?' I'm [dumping] all over them, too."

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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