The death of Steve Weber, one half of the fabled Holy Modal Rounders, progenitors of underground then psychedelic and eventually freak-folk has, for the most part gone unnoticed. The Rounders, a guitar, banjo and fiddle duo featuring Weber and co-founder Peter Stampfel, were a bellwether of sorts back in the sixties, blazing trails and opening the doors for acts such as The Lovin’ Spoonful while they became a touchstone for many in the freak-folk movement at the turn of the century. They were irreverent, sometimes obscene, always euphoric, putting the alt in folk and country long before the term was coined. As Rolling Stone called them at one point, they were gonzo traditionalists, they made folk music weird.
The duo met in New York in 1963. Stampfel, from Wisconsin, had followed the beatnik trail to San Francisco before ending up in NY where he met Weber, a six-foot five handsome youth (with a reputation already even then following exploits in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with teenage friends Michael Hurley and Robin Remailly). Aside from being the prototype hippie, Weber turned out to be a brilliant guitarist, steeped in hillbilly music. Typically, when it came time to record their debut album they signed to Prestige Records because producer Paul Rothschild, smoked dope and they reckoned they could get high in the studio while recording. In a foretaste of future bad luck for The Rounders, by the time they got into the studio Rothschild had up and left the label.
The Holy Modal Rounders recorded two albums in 1964 and ’65. Both are essential listening as the duo offer up their unique and irreverent take on traditional folk and hillbilly songs, many lifted from the Harry Smith Anthology. Writer Byron Coley noted that “Black- eyed Suzie is a particularly fine example of Weber detourning hillbilly music to his own perverted ends.” They sounded like a pair of skillet lickers who had accidentally licked something lysergic. Moving on, the duo then joined The Fugs for a brief time, the only band who were zanier than The Rounders before there was a brief parting of the ways.
By 1967 Weber and Stampfel were back together with the band expanded to include playwright Sam Shepard on drums. This line up recorded the infamous psychedelic folk album ‘Indian War Whoop’ and the equally loopy ‘The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders’ which afforded them their 15 minutes of fame in the shape of ‘Bird Song’ which featured in the ‘Easy Rider’ soundtrack. A further two albums were recorded before Weber and Stampfel went their separate ways with Weber setting up a west coast version of The Rounders in Portland.
Weber and Stampfel reunited twice for live shows and two albums, 1980’s ‘Goin’ Nowhere Fast’ and the 1990 release ‘Too Much Fun’. However, Weber’s ongoing drinking and reluctance to work on new songs, always irksome to the studious Stampfel, meant that ‘Too Much Fun’ was their last outing. Their longstanding friendship was finally split asunder when Weber decided that a 2006 documentary on the pair, ‘The Holy Modal Rounders … Bound to Lose’, was a conspiracy t0 deny his role in the band. Stampfel continued to record in myriad set-ups but Weber faded from view, estranged from most of The Rounders family. This estrangement lasted to his death, aged 76, in West Virginia in February. None of his previous friends were informed of his passing and it was only discovered by chance via Facebook.
AUK spoke to Peter Stampfel and we asked him what his long time partner had brought to The Rounders:
“Weber was a great piedmont style country blues guitarist, he played hillbilly music which made us more interesting than a lot of the folkies, a really great guitar player. But he was the guy who would always cause trouble, the fly in the ointment. That sometimes made it interesting and fun to be around him but at other times he was a real pain in the ass.
Our last falling out was over the film. He enjoyed the documentary until he met up with his new girlfriend and she convinced him it was a plot designed to make me look good and him look bad, that it didn’t feature the west coast Rounders. That the film did while not mentioning my work with The Unholy Modal Rounders, The Bottlecaps or with Gary Lucas, I didn’t have a problem with that, but Weber believed her bullshit. She became his personal manager and nixed a proposed 40 year Rounders’ anniversary show as, “a bad career move for him.” He refused to speak with me afterwards and at one point he even had a website with a stick figure pissing on my face, all sorts of fucked up shit.
I’d say that originally, he was a brilliant and unique guitar player, a really great singer who wrote a number of lovely songs but over the years he stopped wring songs, or, more precisely, he started songs but never finished them. As he became more fucked up with the booze he really was a victim of New Orleans syndrome. That’s where a really good musician doesn’t practice anymore but just retreads his past and never does anything new. When we got together again he wouldn’t work on anything new, he just wanted to play stuff we had recorded 50 years before.”
A sad end then to The Rounders story but Weber has a legacy which can’t be denied, with the first two albums in particular, testimony to his talent. We can thank The Rounders for inspiring a generation of artists who sit on the weirder side of Americana.