Too many repertory bands refuse to blow the dust off of the music that they unearth, resulting in the sonic equivalent of that dank, musty odor that infests a crowded antique shop. In the misguided name of “respect,” these bands place the music of the past under glass, calcifying it to the point where a modern listener wonders what ever attracted anyone to it in the first place.
That’s what makes the Ghost Train Orchestra so surprising. There’s nothing antiquated about this ensemble, which specializes in obscure music from the 1920s and ‘30s. True, the approach that bandleader Brian Carpenter brings to the material is a few steps shy of faithful – surely that distorted electronic howl didn’t cut through “Dawn on the Desert” when it was performed in a 1930s ballroom, and it’s unlikely that the Reginald Foresythe band ever erupted in quite the same way that the Ghost Train Orchestra does on “Volcanic.” But Carpenter respects the intent of this music by dragging it full-blooded into the modern day.
“There are bands that recreate the music of this era very well,” Carpenter says. “So I felt like there was no need to do that. A lot of people think this is a novelty band or a retro band, but that’s really not what this is. This is more about reimagining the pieces.”
Carpenter is no stranger to this sort of repurposing of the past. His long-running band Beat Circus emerged from the same fantastic Victorian midway that spawned some of Tom Waits’ rogues gallery, and the band’s next project is a stage musical based onThe Barbary Coast, Herbert Asbury’s book about Gold Rush-era San Francisco, full of stories that Carpenter eagerly refers to as “lurid and depraved.”
Each of Ghost Train Orchestra’s two albums will be featured in its own set on Saturday at the Annenberg Center. Carpenter is also preparing music for the ensemble’s third CD, which will return to 1920s Chicago and Harlem, but with the addition of Arcade Fire and Bon Iver saxophonist Colin Stetson to the band. He also leads the Boston band The Confessions and produces a number of radio shows, including four-hour programs on saxophonist Albert Ayler and a study of sound design in horror films.