It’s the night before the opening of Jazz Fest, and the tourists are wandering into Beth Patterson’s set at Margaritaville. No doubt they’ve noticed an attractive, silver-voiced woman playing a folk instrument, and figure they’ll hear something gentle and familiar.
What they get is the following: A couple of smutty song parodies, one of which gives Bryan Adams’ “Summer of 69” exactly what it deserves. Then Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty,” done in aggressive roots-punk style. Then a furious bouzouki instrumental that falls somewhere between Dick Dale and Richard Thompson. Then Rush’s “The Trees” sung to the tune of “Clementine” (try it, it works). And a version of “Iko Iko” that turns into the Mickey Mouse theme (ditto). And finally, something pretty and folky: “Unsurpassed,” a gem of a dark-night-of-the-soul pop song that reveals the softer and emotive side she’d been keeping under wraps.
Watching Patterson play for an unsuspecting audience can be one of the most entertaining sights in town. “If I’m lucky they go for it,” she says, interviewed at her French Quarter home. “A lot of people who go to Margaritaville are not expected to be serenaded with ‘Tom Sawyer’ on electric bouzouki. There might be one person in the audience who’ll get it, but that person will be your friend for life. There’s something I love about busting down musical walls. It’s very tempting to play something just for the sake of doing something in 11/8.—If someone is dancing too close to the stage or trying to bang objects, I just slip into an odd meter. Some people pay a lot of money for that kind of abuse. Every so often you get someone who says the equivalent of ‘Yes Mistress, may I have another’?”
She’s even written a song called “Phree Burd”—it’s on her latest Threadhead CD, Hippocampus—that makes mincemeat of someone who shouts requests for a similarly-titled tune. At the pre-Jazz Fest show the audience was in on the joke, but that’s not always the case. “I use that one all the time; I keep it locked and loaded and up my sleeve.” Has she ever had anything thrown at her? “Not because of that song, but yes. I’ve had a dart thrown at me at O’Flaherty’s. The combination of alcohol and sharp pointed objects—What could possibly go wrong?”’
So Where Does Beth Patterson Fit Into New Orleans Music?
The simple answer is that she doesn’t. She’s still known as a Celtic performer—after a stint with the popular Celtic band, the Poor Clares, and a few performing trips to Ireland—but her instincts are proving more eclectic all the time. The above-mentioned track aside, Hippocampus is an ambitious, melodically rich concept album that brings her prog-rock leanings front and center (The concept itself, about the layers of long- and short-term memory within the brain, is straight out of the Topographic Ocean). And she didn’t have much use for the conventions of Celtic music in the first place. “I don’t play ‘Danny Boy’ and I shrink away from green-beer type music. Sometimes I tell people I play SWAP—That’s songwriter/world/acoustic/progressive.” Or as she puts it in a less discreet moment, “When people hear you do Celtic music they expect Puff the Fucking Magic Dragon. Which I will only sing if I can use ‘puff’ as a verb.”
In fact Patterson didn’t even hear any Celtic music until she was well into her teens—by which time she’d already played bass in a metal band, and shown enough ability on oboe and French horn to ultimately get a scholarship at Loyola. “I grew up in Lafayette, and ‘nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone’—That lyric could have been written about Lafayette [Note: this is a Rush reference. Stay tuned, there’ll be others]. If you were a musician there in the ’80s, you either played heavy metal or you played Cajun. So I would always joke that my first band was called Iron Crawfish. My friend Mitchell Reed, who is now playing bass in BeauSoleil, was the one who got me into Irish music. And it was so different than anything I was raised with, I didn’t know what a bouzouki was. He turned me on to bands like Planxty, De Dannan and the Bothy Band, all bands that had bouzouki.” And that’s been her primary instrument ever since. “A lot of times instruments choose us. I chose the oboe at age ten because I’m the offspring of two college professors, and they worried about my immortal soul if I didn’t play something that I could get a scholarship on. But hearing the bouzouki turned my world around. It’s an instrument that’s neither fish nor fowl, it has aspects of a mandolin and a guitar. I could joke that the guitar is too normal, but that’s not really it—the bouzouki was just something that I knew I had to play.”
The Poor Clares, who formed in the early ’90s; were the closest local equivalent to the above-named bands, a traditional group with a progressive slant. “Myself and the flute player, Justin Murphy, played together for 11 years in various combinations, but the Poor Clares held the widest appeal. I could use all the musical tools in my head, backing the jigs and reels and being asked to do some of the vocal arrangements. We took a few more risks than some of our peers.” The band played a “farewell reunion” at Jazz Fest in 2011 and has been dormant since then, but Patterson still gigs occasionally with co-frontwoman Betsy McGovern; and she and bandmate Patrick O’Flaherty teamed up last year for an acoustic CD, Caelic (ie, Cajun crossed with Gaelic). “Once I left the Poor Clares some odd rumors started getting back to me about why I’d left to go solo—like I’d hooked up a rich guy who forced me to quit. And I thought ‘Really? Is that the best you can do?’ Why don’t you say I joined a cult, or moved to Tajikistan and became a part-time goatherd?”
Since Going Solo, She’s Gotten Further Away From Her Framework
“For the second CD, Take Some Fire, I did an album around a certain lineup of musicians—more singer/songwriter players, so I was working around that musical parameter. Very much about introspection and I guess it was that time in my life, epiphanies and apostasies [Note: See above]. I started to get more daring around the time On Better Paths  came along. A friend told me it was more experimental, but it was really about dropping my inhibitions—maybe with a hefty dose of ADD.” That album made the first round of Grammy votes for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2010; she didn’t get past the first cut of 120 nominees, but neither did (the former) Cat Stevens or the Indigo Girls.
Hippocampus pushes further in that album’s direction, both for the eclecticism and the lyrical themes. Its centerpiece “Black Swan Rising” was not inspired by the movie, but has a similarly dark and dreamlike flow. “A lot of my songs are very much encrypted, and there are some that are meant to be understood by nobody else but me—which is very selfish I know, but it pleases me when people can take songs that are so quirky and make them their own. I didn’t see the movie Black Swan until I’d written the song, so it’s not about that or Swan Lake. It’s more about an extreme duality—in Northern European thought, the swan represents the shadow self, so it’s about honoring our many selves and rising above vices.”
Even the seahorses on the cover painting are fraught with meaning. “In seahorses it’s the males that carry the young, and from the female point of view that means there are times you have to leave precious things behind. There was a certain change in my life and a lot I had to leave behind, figuratively and literally, so it’s a nod to that process and the people who helped me through it.” Meaning it’s a breakup record? “It’s an everything record. Believe me, if I did a breakup record you’d know.”
Then there was the other album, the one that came out in 2011 and showed her evil side. And those looking into Patterson’s psyche can have a field day with 2 Deep, credited to Bad Beth & Beyond, the cover showing a dark-haired, corseted woman who’d likely be at home on certain parts of Bourbon Street. For a time Bad Beth was known to show up and hijack Patterson’s gigs, or to talk trash about her on Facebook. “She even went on WWOZ once and just totally bashed me. People started calling me and said ‘Who’s this crazy bitch that’s talking about you?’.” These days the good Beth performs the songs and insists they’re covers. “When Bad Beth arrived on the scene I really didn’t know who she was. There were speculations of other names, like Carmina Purana, Donna Matrix, Helena Handbasket, Methyl Ermine, Teen LaQuiffa, and Mariah Heep. I have always loved wordplay and making up spoonerisms, but this crazy woman beat me to it. She is clearly out to get me. I am beside myself.”
In more mundane terms, the Bad Beth disc, which isn’t even mentioned on Patterson’s website, revived the tradition of filthy under-the-table records like Boozoo Chavis’ “Uncle Bud” or the Blenders’ immortal “Don’t Fuck Around With Love.” And not all its songs are sexy; she also has a go at religion by rewriting the Christmas ditty “Must Be Santa” as “Must Be Satan” (“Who lives down in a place called Heck? Who’s still got my FEMA check?”). As she explains, “People are always going to crave smut, and there’s a lot that I write strictly for shock value. And to get people’s attention—if they’re not going to listen to a song in Manx Gaelic, maybe ‘Show Me on the Doll’ will do the trick. If I’m doing a family show I can say I know nothing about it.
“The thing is, for years I’d be playing these songs and people would ask me what album it’s on, I’d say ‘It’s not’ and they’d walk away. Once you put one of those songs on a serious album it’s the kiss of death, because people are not going to take the rest of your music seriously. So if you have that buffer, people can say, ‘Great. This is playtime, and this is your punishment’.”
But though she may make fun of religion, she does bow to the holy trinity. That would be Geddy, Neil and Alex, who loom large in her worldview. “I’m such a Rush fan that whenever I find a new man, I make him wear a strap-on nose,” she says. “In my youth I was living in my head, I wasn’t popular to say the least. Junior high is the deepest pit of hell, but they made a wonderful soundtrack. And they opened up a whole new world of things I could write about. There are a lot of songwriters who express emotions very tersely, but I have never been a woman of few words. Most of my life I’ve had my own nose buried in a book. So Rush ties in nicely with my living in my head, and the way I process my own emotions—which is to disguise them with images.”
That’s not to say you’ll hear a lot of direct Rush influence in her music, save for occasional live covers and a rare homage like “Rapid Heart Movement” on Hippocampus. “They come and go as much as any musical influence. It’s not just prog rock and Celtic; I love world music too, so there are songs I may have written after hearing a Latvian singer. Or when I played with [local Latin band] Ancestro, they had me listening to a lot of Latin music. Still, it’s pretty comforting to put [the Canadian trio] on at the end of a day, whatever kind of day I’ve had. Putting anybody on a pedestal is a little bit dangerous. But sometimes you find yourself in the studio thinking, ‘What would Geddy do?’ or ‘What would Neil write’?’ Like them I’d much rather write about concepts, I’m more comfortable in that realm. Because trust me, you don’t want to hear me write about boys.”
Or maybe it’s just that she’d rather not do so. “When it comes to interpersonal relationships, that’s something I like to keep up my sleeve—I’m convinced I would instantly jinx myself otherwise, it’s like tattooing somebody’s name on your flesh. But I think that the things people look for in a hit song are not something I would tend to write about. I have made valiant attempts to look at what other successful songwriters do and it’s a challenge—I’m not one of those people who’s easy to relate to anyway, I just have that stamp of decidedly different.”
But then there’s the album she’s making now—her third in twelve months, tentatively called Forward. With an eye to current trends she’s planning to release it as a USB bracelet and not a physical CD. “CD sales are declining and you can’t stop file-sharing, so I’ll have a note that says ‘look, if you burn more than two copies of this, just throw a few extra bucks in my tip jar and we’ll call it even’. I figure Forward is a terse, motivational title that people will want to wear. And the first song I recorded for the album is called ‘Say Nothing and Run Free,’ so it’s about the open road ahead of me—thinking forward and thinking ‘wow, I have options’.”
The new album is really the other side of the dense and cerebral Hippocampus, and the rough mixes sound as straightforward—and maybe as commercial—as Patterson’s ever gotten. The tunes are lovely and the sound is keyed to her bouzouki and rhythm loops, the kind of folk/electronica mix that’s no stranger to the mainstream (but fear not, prog fans, there’s a Mellotron on at least one track). Even with the loops, it’s a Joni Mitchell Blue kind of album, the kind made for late-night commiseration. And if the words aren’t necessarily about boys or relationships, they do address emotional issues in an undisguised way—“Unsurpassed” is among the tracks, and not the only one to deal with moving on after a personal shakeup. Her evil streak’s in there too, as “Nature of the Beast” compares a wayward partner to a feline, and suggests calming him down with a trip to the vet.
“Gosh darn it, did I have to go there? Yeah, I did,” she says. But the overall themes she wound up writing about were somewhat heavier.“We all have to emotionally clean house once in awhile, and it’s not exactly a trip to Disneyland. But it’s necessary, and there is an exhilaration in that. Honestly there isn’t one big event behind this, it’s more about living things day-to-day, as I try to figure out what the hell is going on in my life. There are a lot of themes from hope to heartbreak to utter bewilderment. Questioning, acceptance, sitting back and hiding in the bushes.”
In fact these new songs may be the place where the good and the bad Beths finally come together. “You can’t be one or another all the time,” she notes. “If I was tender and emotional all the time, I’d get walked on a lot more than I do. And if I was dark and sarcastic all the time, I’d do a lot of drinking with myself.”