Curtis Eller's American Circus | Wirewalkers and Assassins

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Wirewalkers and Assassins

by Curtis Eller's American Circus

New York City's angriest yodeling banjo player.
Genre: Rock: Americana
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. After the Soil Fails
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
3:55 $0.99
2. John Wilkes Booth (Don't Make Us Beg)
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
2:48 $0.99
3. Hartford Circus Fire, 1944
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
3:41 $0.99
4. Sugar for the Horses
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
2:50 $0.99
5. The Curse of Cain
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
3:31 $0.99
6. Sweatshop Fire
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
4:34 $0.99
7. Plea of the Aerialist's Wife
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
4:17 $0.99
8. Daisy Josephine
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
3:47 $0.99
9. Firing Squad
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
2:21 $0.99
10. Save Me Joe Louis
Curtis Eller's Amrican Circus
3:34 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Curtis Eller is New York City's angriest yodelling banjo player. He started his show business career at the age of seven as a juggler and acrobat, but has since turned to the banjo because that's where the money is.

Mr. Eller and his band "The American Circus" have appeared at funerals, horse races, burlesque shows and vaudeville revues. His biggest musical influences are Buster Keaton, Elvis Presley and Abraham Lincoln.

On the latest American Circus CD "Wirewakers & Assassins" Mr. Eller presents songs about John Wilkes Booth, Joe Louis, Fidel Castro, Jack Ruby and Richard Nixon (as well as the usual tales of Civil War generals and Elvis Presley). As always, sporadic yodeling and some strong language should be expected.



to write a review

Roy Kasten-Riverfront Times

Rough, wide and impervious to irony
Curtis Eller touts himself as "New York's angriest yodeling banjo player," which is like claiming to be the funniest Tuvan throat singer in Tallahassee. He's got the market cornered, all right, but he's less angry than voracious about the old-time American history (in style and song) he plunders. On this year's Wirewalkers and Assassins, the circus-trained juggler and acrobat plucks and plinks over dark visions of the American South, pre-execution prayers, faux-proletarian arsonist fantasies and a heady, obsessive matrix of conspiracy theories. But even as he bumps up against the musical limits of vaudevillian hokum — some slick slide guitar and country-soul-sister backing vocals save him — he spins his yarns with unfettered imagination and affection. Eller's lexicon is rough, wide and impervious to irony.

Scotter Bragg-Detour Mag

American tales of long-dead presidents, robber barons, and of course, Wirewalker
Curtis Eller could be Sufjan Stevens’ crazy older brother. Both Eller and Stevens are banjo-wielding, history-obsessive troubadours born in Michigan, but whereas Sufjan’s style is more sedate and gentle–the blue-eyed angel of Indie music–Eller is a little wilder looking, a more unpredictable performer, and isn’t afraid to get in yer face with his American tales of long-dead presidents, robber barons, and of course, Wirewalkers and Assassins, the title of his newest album.

Now residing in NYC, Eller was born and raised in Detroit and the city’s mythology still lives in his imaginative arsenal of reference points, whether singing about “diggin’ up Henry Ford” in the hard-charging “Firing Squad” or invoking our legendary boxing icon in the melancholic sweetness of “Save me Joe Louis.” Other songs have Eller singing in unusual roles, such as the distressed wife of a wirewalker in “The Plea of the Aerialist’s Wife” and as John Wilkes Booth in “The Curse of Cain.” And if one song about John Wilkes Booth isn’t enough for you, Wirewalkers and Assassins gives us two. “John Wilkes Booth (Don’t Make Us Beg)” is a rompin’ boogie that asks “Where is John Wilkes Booth when you need him?” (and later, Lee Harvey Oswald) and you kind of get the feeling that Eller isn’t singing about the 19th or 20th centuries here.

You don’t need to know anything about the Volstead Act or Robert Moses or the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944 to enjoy this sometimes sorrowful, sometimes foot-stompingly fun album. But it’s likely you’ll start getting curious as you find yourself singing these immediately memorable songs in your head.

Justin Vellucci-Swordfish

Lines pleasantly blur between past and present, fact and fiction, lore and legen
Those who loved Taking Up Serpents Again, Curtis Eller’s excellent 2004 collection of banjo-driven Americana, pre-rock roots-folk and ragtime ruminations, need not tread cautiously when considering his latest, another 10-track offering dubbed Wirewalkers and Assassins. Few records this year have been as adept at mining the successes of their predecessors while still sounding refreshing and new.

Serpents is more than an appropriate comparison for the new disc. It’s almost a mirror. Eller’s carefully plucked banjo and vaguely country-western vocals still steal the show but many of the same elements surface: the walking upright bass and punctuating accordion, the cooing harmonies and rabble-rousing stompers, brushes skittering across a snare as Eller fingerpicks his way through a verse.

And, above all, Eller maintains his focus – some may say his fixation – on historical narratives and anachronisms, the way lines pleasantly blur between past and present, fact and fiction, lore and legend. On Serpents, we were introduced to Abraham Lincoln, Buster Keaton, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Stephen Foster and a host of others. Now, it’s John Wilkes Booth, John Brown, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon, P.T. Barnum and Joe Louis. (Elvis Presley returns for a second go-around.) With this mix of reference points and connotations, it’s almost less accurate to call the disc old-timey than other-timey.

Of the record’s 10 great tracks, the ones that work best are the ones that kick up some dust and get your blood flowing, whether it’s the harmony-backed choruses of “John Wilkes Booth (Don’t Make Us Beg),” the pulsing one-two, one-two throb of “Sugar For The Horses” or the borderline-frantic shuffle of the incredible “Firing Squad.” (Standouts from the more slowly paced tracks include the pedal steel weeping of “Hartford Circus Fire, 1944” and the naked, unadorned “Daisy Josephine,” a heartstring-tugger if Eller’s ever written one.)

The record’s two best tracks, though, are “Sweatshop Fire” and the album-closing “Save Me Joe Louis.”

On the former, Eller ponders the fate of the Confederacy, singing lines like “I’m going to get fucked up/ like Ulysses S. Grant” over banjo, spare percussion, wailing electric guitars and backing from a perfectly timed chorus of angelic female voices.

On the latter, a melancholy offering that takes place, in part, on death row, Eller’s brand of box-car folk slows down and the proceedings adopt an almost gospel-like hue with the addition of a moaning organ.

It’s a breathtaking end, a change of pace after a half hour of acoustic ballads and more toe-tapping fare, and another reminder that, no matter what’s come before, Eller’s still got a lot more ground to cover.


Welcome to the crazy universe of Curtis Eller
Great album with wonderful thought provoking songs (e.g. Save me Joe Louis)..... but to experience Curtis you got to see him live. He's one of the best live acts I've ever seen backed up by a brilliant band who are fizzing with energy. Incredible! If you don't enjoy Curtis Eller live there's something wrong with you.

Stuart Hudson

This album could be twice the length and still hold you rapt
Curtis Eller is as much history professor as musical entertainer, a voice both fragile and fierce relating stories from the halcyon days of America’s youth. Tales such as the tragic ‘Hartford Circus Fire’ are supported subtly by a musical ensemble clearly keen to embellish rather than overwhelm the heartfelt lyrics and minimal banjo plucks. Slide guitar, double bass, accordion and soulful backing vocals add colour to Curtis’ black and white stories.

Of particular note is Daisy Josephine, an ode to his new-born daughter who has so selfishly kept Eller from our shores for so long. Closing track ‘Save Me Joe Louis’ is a wonderful, haunting ballad with a chorus like a Naches funeral procession which, in the manner of all good closing tracks, only serves to leave the listener wanting more. This album could be twice the length and still hold you rapt.

Joey Hood-American Songwriter

the middle ground between Buster Keaton and a banjo-packin Jello Biafra
On his third full-length release, Wirewalkers and Assassins, New York-based folk singer Curtis Eller finds the middle ground between silent film The General and a banjo-packin’ Jello Biafra. In person, Eller is a gawky 37-year-old man with a bushy moustache and spit-polished loafers. Eller’s songs are an American History 101 course in waking life. He melds well-crafted uptempo barn stompers such as lead single, “John Wilkes Booth,” which boasts shrapnel-pointed undertone jabs at Dubya.

Jordn Block-Sepiachord

If you think the line "I'm gonna get f*cked up like Ulysses S. Grant" is genius
Performance and exhibition.

What drives someone to become a performer? Conceit? A passion to be heard? Dissatisfaction with other entertainers? Madness?
What drives someone to become a performer that puts their neck literally on the line?
What drives someone to become an assassin? Conceit? A passion to be heard? Dissatisfaction? Madness?

New York City has a great banjo player and songwriter embodied in Curtis Eller, as evidenced by his newest full length recording: "Wirewalkers and Assassins". These ten songs aren't exactly a cycle but they do touch upon some reoccurring themes (as illustrated by the CD's title). Circus performers, killers and other celebrities peak from behind curtains and strut boldly onto center stage.

Tightrope walkers, assassins and celebrities all have one thing in common: they all have somewhere to fall. And, damn, they can fall hard (though Booth managed to keep going after breaking his leg when he jumped from Lincoln's box to the stage.) But there-in is the essence of drama: the great brought low. It's the goal of an assassin and the end result of many entertaining careers.

Eller is a great storyteller. He takes the tale of John Wiles Booth and carves it into a classic murder ballad ("The Curse of Cain"). He shapes boxer Joe Louis in to an object of veneration, the focus of a condemned man's prayer (on the closer "Save Me Joe Louis"). On "Plea of the Aerialist's Wife" he remolds himself into a country crooner (reminding me of the great Rex Hobart). On this one song he manages to make heartbreak and fear seem both personal and universal. The tunes aren't always downers though, "Sweatshop Fire" and "Firing Squad" are barn burners and flag wavers... rural vaudevillian calls-to-arms. They remind us of a time when folk music was insurrection music, protest music.

Curtis' unease, his dissatisfaction makes him a backwoods troubadour on par with Steve Earl. Both seemed burdened by the past, what could-have-been and the shadows those events throw on the present. This album is haunted by the (American) Civil War and by the killing of a president that followed it. One man can follow a vision and take action. But what vision? What action?

Curtis Eller's troubled soul is palpable on this recording, but he isn't without hope. He finds strength in love and in people's ability to endure... and, most potently, in the witty turn of a phrase.

Perhaps his feelings can be summed up by paraphrasing the Brown Bomber: "We're gonna win 'cause we're on Joe Louis' side."

Lucid Culture

Apocalyptic Nouveau-Ragtime from NYC Banjoist
Intensely lyrical , historically aware, apocalyptic nouveau-ragtime cautionary tale by this superb NYC banjoist/tunesmith. The oldtimey banjoist is also a first-rate songwriter with a potently lyrical edge and a distinctly oldtimey New York ragtime feel.

Ian Kearey-fRoots Magazine

A left-field classic that is already one of my albums of the year
It’s not often that a press release makes one laugh out loud, but Curtis Eller’s is an object lesson in how to engage the reviewer and make her/him favourably disposed even before hearing the album. And there was no disappointment, as the album carries all the wit and quirky originality of the PR: the two quotes on the CD sleeve are from wirewalker Karl Wallenda (of the Flying Wallendas, dummy) and assassin John Wilkes Booth, and it is the latter who haunts the songs in one guise or another.

John Wilkes Booth (Don’t Make Us Beg) is a heartfelt - and somewhat outrageous - plea for one way to solve the problem of the current President of the USA, while The Curse of Cain examines Booth’s mind after the event in Ford’s Theater in 1865, sympathetically.

To make comparisons as a way of getting into the album, Eller’s lyrics are reminiscent of the likes of Tom Waits with a detailed knowledge of forgotten and half-remembered parts of American, and particularly New York’s, history: he doesn’t burn up like the ‘forest fire’ of cliché, but like a ‘Sweatshop Fire’ – the unspoken reference is to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911.

The plea of the man bound for execution, Save Me, Joe Louis is supposed to have been a real cry from a black convict in the 1940s… and so on. The legendary corrupt Tammany Hall leader, Boss Tweed, rubs shoulders with Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, until the whole thing takes on the hallucinatory quality of Luc Sante’s evocation of New York, Low Life.

But if it were just a clever reworking of history, the album would be dry as dust, if unusual; that it isn’t is due to Eller’s clever mixing in of more straightforward (sic) tracks: Plea Of The Aerialist’s Wife adds a plaintive touch, as against the tale of the Hartford Circus Fire, 1944, which may or may not have taken place, and Daisy Josephine is a lovely lullaby/balled as befitting his subject matter. Ellers holds the music together with parlour-style banjo picking, framed by upright bass and drums, with delicate touches of backing vocals, organ, squeezebox and steel guitar. It’s all very light and attractive, with a lot of waltz time in there, and is a bit of a left-field classic that is already one of my albums of the year.

Alan-Lucid Culture

If you haven\'t heard this album, you have been deprived
Curtis Eller, self-described \"yodeling banjo player\" has been a fixture of the New York oldtimey scene for awhile. Wirewalkers and Assassins is his latest CD, and it\'s brilliant, one of the best in recent months, with a frequently eerie, carnivalesque feel. Eller sings in a strong, unaffected voice, really knows his history and has a knack for an offhandedly lyrical knockout punch. His tunes span the oldtime Americana spectrum, with elements of country, vaudeville and a lot of blues. The CD\'s production is smartly rustic and minimalist, mostly just Eller\'s voice and banjo backed by a rhythm section with occasional excellent lapsteel guitar by Gary Langol. It kicks off on a particularly auspicious note with Eller\'s best song, the haunting, apocalyptic After The Soil Fails. Sung from the point of view of a Sarah Palin type, John Wilkes Booth (Don\'t Make Us Beg) effectively shines a light on the kind of psychology that would drive someone to murder a Lincoln or a Kennedy. Amy Kohn\'s accordion and a choir of women singing backup sweetens the sarcasm. The slow, lapsteel-driven 3/4 ballad Hartford Circus Fire, 1944 commemorates one of Connecticut\'s blacker days. \"The maestro kept a short leash on the band,\" Eller sings nonchalantly early on, \"Except for the nightmares and the coughing, it\'s like the circus never passed through.\" Sugar For The Horses is a fast, cynical minor key shuffle that wouldn\'t be out of place in the Jack Grace songbook. Sweatshop Fire is another scorching, cynical, minor-key barn-burner with a murderous lapsteel solo from Langol. The circus fire motif returns in Plea Of The Aerialist\'s Wife, a blackly humorous, straight-up country number told from the perspective of a woman who wants her man off the wire before he gets killed. Firing Squad is another dark, lickety-split, brilliantly lyrical number that evokes LJ Murphy at his most sardonic. \"It\'s just another blackout for New York City, this town can\'t get no sleep,\" Eller rails, chronicling one impending disaster after another. The cd ends with the wrenchingly beautiful Save Me Joe Louis. If you haven\'t heard this album, you have been deprived.
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