Booking the Best of the Beat was one of the best parts of my time at OffBeat, and the Valparaiso Men's Chorus played one of its most contagious sets during my tenure. It was the end of the night and the Parish was thinning out, but everybody who was left stood as close to the stage as possible and sang along with woozy energy to the set of sea shanties. Their may have been 16 people onstage, but the line between band and audience had dissolved so that in fact, the Valparaiso Men's Chorus was 60 or so male and female drunken voices strong.
The Valparaiso Men's Chorus returns with its second album, The Straits of St. Claude, and it reaches through the speakers just as live they leave the stage. There are a few "subtleties" such as the shift in "John Kanaka," which shifts to a second line beat half-way through before closing at punk velocity, but the songs generally come straight at you. Alex McMurray leads the chorus with sensitivity to the songs, so his lead vocal on "Hanging Johnny" has moments of near-delicacy, but more often than not, he gives them an appropriately spirited yowl. The songs are all call-and-response, and he's answered by half of the Bywater music community, who holler as if they warmed up for a few hours in the Saturn Bar - the Chorus' live home on St. Claude Avenue - before the session.
For the most part, the band provides structure for the songs, keeping them moving without drawing attention to itself. The Tin Men are the core, and they're joined by a number of artists including Greg Schatz and Dave Rebeck on accordions, Carlo Nuccio on drums, and Joe Cabral, Rick Trolsen, Matt Rhody, Chris Lane and Janelle Perrine on horns, whistles and strings. When they get a chance to show off on the familiar instrumental "The Sailor's Hornpipe," the sea and the second line once again meet without selling out either.
Because the Valparaisos sing sea shanties, the rough-and-tumble atmosphere not only works but is essential. The songs are bawdy drinking songs, and McMurray and Company keep them that way, favoring the more off-color lyrics. The communal, irreverent vibe is central to the band's appeal, and part of what makes it so inviting. If I have a complaint, it's that it's hard to hear The Straits of St. Claude and not want a beer.