When you consider yourself some type of high fallutin’ music critic, you get asked many times what your favorites albums, artists, etc. of all time are, and when it comes to albums, this one is near the top of the list, considering any genre. I would honestly say that Happy Birthday, Sabo! by the long since defunct band Royal Fingerbowl sits in my top 3 albums of all time, and can reside in the very top spot depending on the current mood.
Beyond being in my personal top troika, this band holds another very significant (and actually important) distinction. The reason Tom Waits is one of the most revered artists of our generation is because his style has never been duplicated, and never will be duplicated. . . except by Royal Fingerbowl. Yes, this obscure and extinct band from New Orleans and their frontman Alex McMurray in my opinion are the only ones that have ever been able to re-create the Tom Waits magic, and they do it not just from employing excellent songwriting and an undefinable style. Yes, sonically and sometimes lyrically they are similar to Waits, and possibly more similar to Waits than anyone else. But to truly be like Waits you would have to be wholly unique on your on right, and that is exactly what Royal Fingerbowl is.
Happy Birthday, Sabo! is an album of sheer madness. Alex McMurray creates characters through his music, and then he makes them go crazy right before your very eyes and ears. His use of imagination and storytelling is superlative, and Fingerbowl’s mixing of musical styles is both dizzying, diverse, and seamless. This is the album every other artist had wish they made, but Royal Fingerbowl beat them to it. This is one of those albums you’ve been waiting your whole life for, that when you listen to it, you succumb to that peak visceral bliss only the very best music you’ve ever heard affords.
And Royal Fingerbowl’s music is the definition of timeless. The album came out in 1997, but it could have been made in the 70’s or last week, and it would still awake the monster that lives in us all. Even when the song is simple and sweet, you can feel the narcissism and rage boiling under it’s surface, yet the sweetness still remains refined.
If you held me down and made me assign a genre to this music, I might say simply “roots”. With Royal Fingerbowl originating from New Orleans, there is a tremendous amount of New Orleans-style jazz and blues here, as well as some sincere, straight-up country. Horn sections, accordion, keys, they all make an appearance, and the instrumentation is nothing short of spectacular. Whatever was heard by Royal Fingerbowl’s ear in a composition, it was procured and cut into this album.
Happy Birthday, Sabo! starts of a little slow. The opening “Nothing But Time” begins to open your heart up to the idea of Fingerbowl’s themes and use of dynamics. The droning, 6 1/2-minute story of “Manahawkin” is something you may only be able to appreciate once you have established yourself as a Fingerbowl fan. But the achingly-lethargic stupor of “Big Whiskey” marks the band’s mastery of all tempos and moods, and sets the table for the whirling madness of the album’s heart, the absolutely out-of-control “My Money”, and “Munchentown”, where the vengeful version of Jesus is evoked and then climaxes in the most cacophonous ending to any song you will ever hear this side of a full blown philharmonic.
Royal Fingerbowl’s follow up and last album Greyhound Afternoons from 2000 had it’s moments, but it only seems fitting that a band this pure and insane flew off the handle on their first attempt and burned extremely hot for a few years before leaving a beautiful corpse. Alex McMurray, the guitar player, singer, and songwriter of this three piece band is still around however, and is a regional celebrity in the right circles of the New Orleans music scene. But Alex is just too good for his music to be confined to one region. Alex, and Happy Birthay, Sabo! are national treasures.
If you don’t have Happy Birthday, Sabo in your music collection, it is woefully incomplete. Simply put, it is a masterpiece of American music.
Two guns way up!
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WARNING: This is one of the craziest tracks, but one of the best:
Alex McMurray solo: