Fred Griffeth and Fandango
Wednesday, June 1… and every Wednesday from 7:30 – 9:30 pm
Toad, 1912 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140
The sacred meets the profane every Wednesday night in a Cambridge neighborhood bar named Toad. The sacraments? Traditional gospel, rock 'n roll, rhythm 'n blues, country, with a taste of calypso and New Orleans, washed down with house reds, vodka on the rocks, UFO from the beer tap, and a mysterious amber liquid in the large paws of the Right Irreverent Fred Griffeth at the mike, assisted by his mighty apostles, a quartet by the name of Fandango.
The loyal flock doesn’t call this occasion “Church” for nought. The service is three parts revival meeting and one part cult movie - "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" with audience participation expected. The place is filled with saints, sinners and the great gallop of us who teeter between the two poles. Salvation? Redemption? Hell, no. We’re talking ritual - familiar, satisfying, insistent, uplifting, accept no substitutes ritual. The kind that inspires. The kind that discharges whatever woes you came in with for about three hours and well into the night as you walk to your car.
Hymnals are unnecessary. When the Right Irreverent Fred cues up a song, we know the words. Let me put it this way: most of the congregants probably don’t show up at an “organized religion” service on Sunday but tonight, with tornado warnings blaring on every radio and TV station in Boston, Toad was packed.
The general line of thinking? “We’re going to be blown away with the music anyway so if Cambridge is twirled around like a Kansas farmhouse in a funnel, at least we’re gonna fly to our graves to the beat of a familiar song.”
The response here is visceral bordering on spiritual. How else can you explain it? The songs traverse the path of human experience - love, loss, ecstasy, melancholy, joy, sorrow, and hope. The melody from at least one song will dominate your brain waves through the rest of your night.
A deeper current courses through your gut. Other than this one night, you probably don’t connect with the people packed into this tiny bar. By the end of Fandango’s set, you’d go to war with them if Fred Griffeth were leading the charge.
Susan Sullivan, Prez of Griffeth’s fan club, has alerted us that tonight Fred is celebrating his allegedly 71st birthday. Expect the unexpected. Cakes and trays of cupcakes lie about on the bar and Toad’s tiny tables. Arrive before 7 pm if don’t want to be stranded outside, in a long line, when Toad gets filled to capacity, which it will, and you will suffer mightily at being so close yet so far away from the action.
Griffeth launches into the traditional gospel hymn, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” the standard set opener. “Choich,” as he pronounces it, has begun. Stragglers start filling the pews. When he digs into the calypso tinted “Sittin’ Here In Limbo,” two songs later and saunters up the aisle, which is jammed like an MBTA trolley at rush hour, we know the drill. We sing along with the refrain.
“Hey, it’s my birthday, no one’s gonna have more fun tonight than me!” Griffeth shouts. We give him a run for his money.
For the rest of the set, Griffeth’s velvety baritone plus his assorted barks, groans, and yelps that spontaneously punctuate the lyrics, are familiar anchors.
When local belter Kit Holiday joins Fred for “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” a pretty good choice for the occasion, the audience needs little encouragement to holler the chorus to the bluesy tempo. Holiday’s upper register tickles the glass you’re holding.
“We’re gonna try something new!” Griffeth shouts. Perhaps in the spirit of turning a new annual page, Freddy is showing his flock he’s not afraid to mess with the tried and true repertoire. “Devil Moon,” the Neville Brothers song, takes on the flavor of a home movie when the woman in the front row holds the lyric sheet so Fred can read it and cradle the mike and his drink at the same time.
The set steers back into familiar territory with “It’s All Right,” “Amen,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” We know every verse.
Fred, the good pastor, wades into the aisles and spreads the mike around like an electrically charged communion chalice, offering it to amateurs and veterans alike, and good lordy, they testify unabashedly. No one is more charged up than Reverend Fred, exhorting the assembly- “Don’t be afraid - feel the spirit!”
By this time Cliff Spenser on keyboard, Steve Cuoco on bass, Bob Enik on guitar, and Chris Anzalone on drums, have jammed solos that have the effect of a good snort of nitroglycerine. These talented musicians don’t lurk in Griffeth’s shadow. When they take their solos during each song, they're channeling vibes that would stop traffic on Mass. Ave. if someone opened Toad’s front door. They’re rewarded by hoots and cheers.
Two songs into the second set, Griffeth’s voice caresses the lyrics of “Since I Met You Baby” like warm honey. It appears to ignite a conspiracy being hatched by nearly every female in the house.
Two women, their arms outstretched, g strings and thongs in hand, approach Fred and plant them ceremoniously upon Fred’s hat. Amidst giggles and screeches of laughter, a mind boggling array of lingerie is being tugged from purses and handbags, held high in outstretched hands. A pagan procession advances. Fred is festooned with enough female underpinnings to satisfy all the gods in Bacchanalia.
You’ve heard of the laying on of hands. This, my friends, is the laying on of drawers-full of Victoria’s Secret’s finest along with Target’s most flagrant. There isn’t a man in the house who does not wish he were Fred, the object of such diaphanous affection.
The set rolls on with “Serve Somebody,” with spiritual overtones like many other songs in the standard set. Cuoco’s insistent bass makes you want to bear witness yourself.
By now, Reverend Fred doesn’t have to encourage his flock to sing the choruses, they nearly beat him to it. If this were a meeting of Holy Rollers, there would be people on the floor.
Around 9:30, the service ends with napkin-waving and full-bore engagement. People have been seizing the moment and each other to dance in Toad’s narrow aisle. Cake and cupcakes have been dispensed. Some lucky men have been beneficiaries of ‘flimsies’ as Fred calls them, generously bestowed by women who had the sense of occasion to purchase enough for mass distribution. When I exit the bar, I hope I remember to remove the pair of panties a woman decorously placed over my head during Freddy’s birthday baptism.
“You can’t capture this in words, you can’t capture this in pictures. You have to experience it,” one congregant says to me as I scribble. I fear she’s right.
I have stopped taking notes. The tornado warning for Boston has been lifted. The roof over Toad is intact but that’s my mind playing tricks on me. I know damn well it blew off a couple of hours ago and has just decided to come home to roost for the night.
Photos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.
Fred with Prez Susan Sullivan and wife Gail Nickse.
during the festive break.
The party's over...