Shane Speal wants you to be afraid. Very afraid. Because anything can happen. Speal’s Snake Oil Band performs with a near manic energy that is, at best, unpredictable. There is no homeostasis here – and the band wants it that way. What’s coming next? You. Just. Don’t. Know.
Vaudevire: A theatrical performance which incorporates song, dance, comedy, and magic… and, if you are lucky, rubber chickens.
Snake Oil: Various liquid concoctions, of deeply questionable medical value, sold as an all purpose curative medicine by traveling hucksters, to heal you.
This is the traveling tent under which you will experience Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band. The magic of the Snake Oil Band will captivate your mind, your body and – if you buy the snake oil – your soul. You cannot walk away untouched – flying rubber chickens and toilet paper cannons won’t let you. And if you give yourself over to the Snake Oil experience – you will have a damn good time.
Blues Biscuits had the opportunity to sit down with Shane Speal, King of the Cigar Box Guitar, and Ronn Benway, Master of Mayhem, Band Philosopher, at the Annual Guitar-B-Cue held in New Alexandria Pennsylvania. As I approached the well worn picnic table for our interview, Ronn was busy preparing his body (and yes, it is his instrument) for the evening show, with duct tape, thimbles and other assorted assemblages.
I had interviewed Shane Speal several years ago when The World’s First Cigar Box Guitar Museum opened at Speal’s Tavern. At that time Shane was primarily a solo artist, and, even then, performing with an intense energy that has only been magnified with the addition of Ronn Benway, Aaron Jones and Farmer Jon.
MaureenElizabeth: Tell us about the evolution of this particular incarnation of your music… Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band.
Shane: It all started as jams at a bar… the band has never practiced. We take the stage without a set list and we just feed off the audience. It started with me being a solo performer back when I ran an open mic out in York, PA. Ronn is originally from Las Vegas and Venice Beach, California and for a while he was busking…
Ronn: I was busking in Seattle; just singing and street performing in the market area and it became clear to me that if I didn’t get there early enough… it’s a real shot for the best spot at the market everyday because you want the 12:00 – 1:00 spot. So, I kept this washboard with me and if I couldn’t get the best spot to play, I could pony up with another guy and say “hey, look, we can make more money if there is two of us together.” That’s how I started with the washboard – I just bought it – I didn’t know how to play it! It was $3.99 in the Mexican market and it was the first washboard I ever bought. I went to Lowes ® and bought the least amount of screws and stuff I could put on it and started playing it. When I moved here in 2011, I left my washboard in Seattle. I went to Shane’s open mic and there was a washboard sitting there. He had a washboard on a stand with cymbals and cowbell…
Shane: I jokingly called it my drum set for the open mic because here I am, running an open mic, playing Cigar Box Guitar using a footstomper. So, I brought a washboard as the house drum set and Ronn walked in…
Ronn: As far as I could tell no one was touching it.
Shane: No one was…
Ronn: And it just sat there…
Shane: And when Ronn saw it he went nuts!
Ronn: I couldn’t believe I walked into a bar in Pennsylvania and there was a washboard. So I said “hey, can I play this?” and Shane said nobody plays this. I said I can play this! Anyone who runs an open mic for any length of time is like Oh? You can do that? Go ahead! You get to know who in your audience can do what… you know this guy does poetry and this guy sings…
Shane: That’s a good point! That’s an excellent point. Ronn would sit in with me and I would play the first forty minutes of the set and Ronn would play washboard.
Ronn: After a while when my friends would ask me to go to play trivia at another bar I would say I kinda have to go practice washboard with Shane – not like it’s a burden- but like as a “thing.” I need to go do this! At first I was just coming into open mic and we were just hanging out and singing and putting my name on the list and suddenly I needed to go practice with this guy every Wed night.
Shane: “Practice” meaning sitting in, live, in front of people!
Ronn: It was as if something was growing and we had to keep helping it grow and keep nourishing it. Farmer John had a plastic bucket when we started…
Shane: Farmer Jon, our bass player, built a washtub bass out of a plastic bucket – he showed up just to be goofy and we tried to put microphones on it just to make it work – it was just fun. One night I brought in parts and we electrified his washtub bass and plugged it into the P.A. system and it worked. So he started sitting in. Ronn on washboard, Farmer Jon on washtub bass and Aaron Lewis, who is one of the best harmonica players in Central PA, ended up coming out to the open mic and sitting in as well. So, once a week, for the first half hour of an open mic, four people got onstage without any practice and just ripped the place apart. I looked at these guys after a few months and said “you know, I’m gonna start booking gigs, you are that good.” So we booked our first gig, showed up with no set list, no plan – everybody just plug in and go – and we rocked the joint. These guys watch me constantly. If you ever watch a Snake Oil Band concert, they (the band members) are dancing in the crowd, they are going nuts-but they always have on eye on me and all I have to do is lift my guitar up once and strike it down and everybody stops. It’s almost like Frank Zappa, the way he used to lead his band, with one motion of his hand the band would stop. We are now that tight that I can do that and -Boom – the band stops.
ME: It’s becoming intuitive…
Shane: Yes, very intuitive.
Ronn: You learn to read your leader.
Shane: Lately we’ve been performing our album from start to finish, which means for the first time in our existence we use a set list. And these guys don’t like it. It’s weird.
Ronn: Yes, it’s weird.
ME: Lacking the spontaneity!
Shane: Yes, because if we are feeding off the crowd and someone starts yelling something at us we want to play what they want!
ME: Do you feel that this was certain alignment of stars that brought you all together?
Ronn: (laughing) Nooo – we’re people that just like to drink…
Shane: We like to get together and drink and jam.
Ronn: Everything in my life works out this way. Everything just drops in my lap and it just happens. We all create what we need in our lives and we all hope for what we want. Some people hope for horrible things and get them. Some people hope for wonderful things and get them. Literally, I joined my first band the first week I moved to York. I remember one of the first times I played with you (Shane) was at the Revolution Field at a beer fest at a minor league baseball stadium at second base. Shane said “ why don’t you come out and join me out there?” and I said “oh, okay.” We had never really played outside of the open mic-we were nowhere near close to amplification at that point – and he leans over to me and says “hey, we’ve practiced in this bar why don’t we play a baseball stadium!” (At this point Ronn and Shane erupt into laughter at the sheer absurdity of the moment.) When we were playing at the stadium, Shane leans over and says “man, I know what you want to do Ronn Benway – I am sitting on this stool, banging on this box with my foot. I cannot dance with these people, but you can – go dance with these people!”
Shane: And Ronn looked at me and said “you get me.” And that is the magic of this band – even though my name is one the top of the bill and I’m in the center of this stage – Ronn has become the star of this band – people talk about him and his washboard playing once we leave – yeah, I’m playing 3 string cigar box guitar doing Led Zeppelin on it and they go nuts about that, but they go insane about Ronn. Each member of the band has their own distinct personality just like the Beatles and Kiss – both of those bands were four parts of one whole and that is what I love about this band.
Ronn: Oh, I forgot all about this (story). I’m at the Hive, which is in the Royal Square, it’s an art studio, and a photographer from the York Daily Record comes up and takes some pictures from across the street. I’m playing guitar and Michael Sallemi is playing upright bass and we’re singing and dancing around, putting on a show… we’re gathering a crowd in front of the studio and this photographer comes over and she comes up and she’s a little confused… and she says “you’re Shane Speal?” And I said “I’m not Shane Speal” and she says “but you’re in Shane Speal?” And I said “I am a member of Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band” and she says “and what’s this?” And I said “not the Snake Oil Band!” (Laughing) and she says “well, what do I call this?” I said “I am Ronn Benway.”
Shane: York is going through an Art renaissance right now, so there is music everywhere… so that’s how we started, just four guys jamming around an open mic, getting an audience. Our shows got more and more insane – we added the confetti cannons, we began throwing rubber chickens at the audience …whatever we could to bring the theatrics -because I’m all about theatrics. I grew up with Kiss and Blue Man Group – lately our newest weapon is our toilet paper gun –we’ll be firing that off tonight as well.
ME: I’m going to hide – I’m feeling very unsafe right now!
Shane: It’s hilarious – but any time we do these things, it’s a fun interactive thing – and, let’s face it, no Blues band I know of is doing anything like this. We are a Blues band – we’re playing Blues, we’re playing old Blues, we playing our new version of it. – the day we put the album to bed we sat there in the studio and looked at each other and the feeling was… we think that we created a new genre or a new subgenre of the Blues. As we were listening we were all thinking no one is doing anything like this – it’s all homemade except we are mixing stomp/rock blues sort of like R. L. Burnside based, a little Led Zeppelin thrown in there, a little bit of punk with jug band and prison chants
ME: I love the chants on your new CD.
Shane: It was something no one was doing…
ME: Oh, I want more!
Shane: Thank You! I’ve been listening to them and wanted to do a project based all on prison chants and I had one record company interested in it but it ended badly.
ME: Ronn, watching you play the washboard – that looks like a skill…
Ronn: Skill? (Laughing)
ME: It doesn’t look like just anyone can pick it up and just do it!
Ronn: Easier than digging a ditch I’ll tell you that! A couple of times I have put it (the washboard) on a drummer and just have him not know what to do with it because he is a drummer and they drum! They don’t play themselves! I get washboard players who don’t like my technique. They want me to bring it down, like you’re trying too hard, really that’s not the way you play washboard.
Shane: I don’t want Ronn to play rhythm – I want Ronn to play MAYHEM. Just like Farmer Jon, I don’t want Farmer Jon to play bass _ I want him to play rumble. What blew our minds was nobody could really hear Jon on stage and then when we were in the recording studio and we had done some isolated tracks – Jon went into the studio and did tracks on top of what we did. When we were listening to it later we all looked at each other and we’re like he’s playing gospel running bass lines on a washtub bass! None of us realized how intricate he was playing. He doesn’t have time to listen to anything that any of us are doing. He’s stomping on his feet, he’s picking up the next guitar and, not to be insulting to Farmer Jon, I don’t think that any of us thought that he was playing much on the tub until we listened! We sat there and listened and we thought wow he should be playing in a Black Baptist Church! It was just insane what he was playing!
Ronn: But none of us can hear him usually because we are all busy…
Shane: …and it’s always been enough rumble to give the bottom end to this band that we were lacking – and I wanted that low rumble! Just like with Ronn – I don’t want him to play perfect washboard, to play perfect Rock. No, I want him dancing, I want him slamming whistles, and I want him shaking his butt with the women in the audience
Ronn: And these are all things I enjoy! Coincidentally enough!
Shane: Nobody ever accused KISS of being good musicians – yet they were one of the biggest bands in the world.
ME: Very theatrical.
Shane: Yeah and that’s why you go to a KISS show. But, if you actually break KISS down, you realize that Gene Simmons is one of the most underrated bass players in history. With us, too, I’m not too worried about musicianship, but if you break the musicianship down, everyone is a baddass in my band. And they’ll rip any musicians head off. The harmonica player, Aaron, – the funny thing about him is I like him better than any other harmonica player because he knows when not to play. I need John to be the rumble, I need Ronn to be the rodeo clown, I need Aaron to step back whenever he needs to step back, and then I just do my thing. Trust me, I’m a lazy man and I would never force this band to have a practice, but I would lose it if I lost any of these members because I can get on stage, no preparation, and know that we are going to blow away the audience. The shows we pay – nobody can touch us. They may be better musicians – but nobody can touch us.
Ronn: I have a little workout regimen that I do before I play – a little stretching – and people will ask “what are you doing?” Or when I am taping up before I play “what are you doing?” and I say “just relax, this will all make sense in a little bit.” Don’t worry – you’re gonna love me or hate me in 20 minutes.”
Shane: And that’s what we’re all about. There are a few ingredients in this band. Number one is the theatrics, number two is the novelty of the instruments that we are playing, and number three is that our music has hooks. We have hooks in all our songs.
ME: And those hooks do stay with you!
Shane: Ronn used to run a music store out in Venice California, so Ronn is my music trivia nemesis.
Ronn: Before the internet, you know, when you just had to know stuff.
Shane: Well, Ronn’s a music expert and we’re both huge Bowie freaks, Beatles…all songs with hooks and Ronn is a songwriter too. He’s going to start opening up Snake Oil shows, and so is Aaron, and all his songs have hooks and sing along choruses. We want to take things back to the roots. Howlin’ Wolf used to crawl across the stage in concert, he used to bark at the audience, if you ever go on You Tube and see some of his concerts he’s eating his harmonica, licking it and eating it and shoving it in his mouth and pulling it out and playing it. It’s all his theatrics and it was dangerous. The Blues used to be dangerous and it’s not now. You go to a Blues festival and there is nothing dangerous about it. We want to bring that back. We want people to be afraid you’re going to get electrocuted when you go to one of our shows (laughing). Or hit with a rubber chicken.
ME: Well, I’m getting a little nervous….
Ronn: I have the worst aim with those rubber chickens – I hit children. I hit a lady in a wheelchair…I have these worst aim…
ME: Where does your theatrical background come from, Ronn?
Ronn: I was born in Las Vegas, my parents both worked in the Sands Hotel with the Rat Pack on stage. I used to go to Wayne Newton’s Christmas parties – I am born and raised Las Vegas and all the BS that goes with that is in my soul. I am the party commissioner. I am here to make sure that everyone has a good time. I didn’t drink alcohol for 14 years and that was great time for me because I would go out and think how much would I spend if I was drinking. I would buy the bar drinks and then once everyone got liquored up enough I could be myself. I don’t need alcohol to be like this –although I enjoy alcohol – and I can get a little out of hand sometimes if I have too much of it – but I don’t need alcohol to perform a show. And I have this thing too where I really try to play every show like as if I might walk out of the venue and get hit by a bus. I don’t want anybody to go like “wow did you see his last show?” “Yeah, it was alright.”
Shane: He leaves everything on stage. This whole band leaves everything on stage. That’s just how we are.
Ronn: I play like I’m never going to play again – that’s the only way I want to do it.
Shane: And we’re getting older and older and it’s getting tougher and tougher.. and we still drink.
Ronn: I was old when I started this!
ME: So how long is recovery time these days?
Shane: Red bull is my best friend.
Ronn: If I’m not feeling it, then how are you going to feel it? I mean we are selling snake oil here. In general the music business is snake oil – it’s hey look over at this it’s shiny and pretty – it’s a trick. We’re tricking people to have a good time. You go to a bar, you buy the beer, you think you want to have a good time, and you sit there with your arms crossed and say “impress me.”
Shane: A lot of bands show up with their hats and their 2000 Stratocasters and play Messin’ with the Kid. I’ve heard that that motherfucking song 15 million times and if another Blues band does Messin’ with the Kid I’m going to fucking cut ‘em. I swear to god we did a Blues fest last year and I heard it three times! I’m sorry but our goal is to shake up and destroy the Blues status quo and take it back to a dangerous period!
ME: What drives your anti-establishment vision?
Shane: I’ve always been that way. It even goes back to being in school and being a nerd misfit –not like the rest of the kids. Back in the 80’s everybody was listening to Duran Duran and that’s when I decided to go through my Beatles phase.
Ronn: That’s why you hate fedoras!
Shane: If I see the waves are going one way with a trend I will immediately go the opposite way. I don’t know why – it is ingrained in me. In the 90’s everyone was playing Strats and wanted to be Stevie Ray, so I started playing the shittiest guitars I could find – the stuff that Hound Dog Taylor played – because to me Hound Dog Taylor was the opposite of clean Blues. From Hound Dog Taylor I got into the Cigar Box Guitar. I’ve always gone against the grain. We have only one goal – to make it impossible for anyone to follow us – and we will pull out every anti-establishment trick.
Ronn: I love that someone came up to us after a festival and said that we blew Tesla off the stage!
Shane: We hear that a lot! Angry Johnny Stangry played ahead of us today – he could rip my head off on the guitar, he could rip my head off. That’s not what I want to be. He’s doing his thing and he is going to get famous because he is that good. Me, I’m playing three strings on a stick jammed through a box. I’ve got three guys behind me playing on homemade instruments. Even my harmonica player is playing his harp through a beer can microphone. I want to do everything different. I don’t want to follow any trends – I want to create the next trend and be the king of it. I call myself the King of the Cigar Box Guitar because nobody was stupid enough to choose it in the first place. Now that I’ve chosen it and I have used that stupid moniker for 10 years, people respect the name. I think it’s hilarious because it’s always been a joke to me. But, in the same way, I’ve always wanted to create my own sound and let everyone else follow me. Right now we are in a big movement of Bluegrass. Where we’re from, everybody is doing Bluegrass. My band refuses to do Bluegrass, but my band will get in to Bluegrass shows and I will plug my guitar into distortion and I will crank it up to feedback levels in the middle of a Bluegrass fest and people love it. They freakin’ love it because nobody’s crazy enough to do it. We’re antiestablishment. We’re punk rock on junk instruments –we’re junk. Jug band punk – junk rock. (Laughing)
Ronn: In life you are either your own product or you are helping someone else sell their product. That’s really what we all are. I owned a record store and I sold other people’s products and at one point in my life one day I said I don’t want to sell other people’s products anymore, I want to sell my own product. And if there is anything that is counter culture about us, it’s that this guy sits in his woodshed and makes this shit and makes it look easy – easy enough to sell to people. He is his own product. I am my own product. I moved to York and somebody said what are you going to do for money and I said I am going to go in front of the Strand Theater and play before the concert. Really? Nobody does that! Well I just made a hundred bucks doing that! I came to town and I created my own job. This guy (Shane) didn’t like selling advertising and so he created his own job and now he is his own product. And that’s the trick to being free. Everybody wants to be free deciding between Coke ® and Pepsi ® and the truth to being free is not being controlled by all these others – it’s taking your own destiny and making your own – making what you want to see in the world.
Shane: At the same time I still feel compelled. I have made my own genre; I’ve made my own music. But I still feel compelled to teach everyone how to do it. I actually started the whole Cigar Box Guitar movement by posting free plans on line. And now that I am playing, I do free lessons on line. How hard is it for me to set up my iphone and show my tips and cheats on guitar? I do it for free and other people are joining suit and their starting their own bands and showing up at open mics
ME: Giving people the opportunity to follow their own creative spirit…
Shane: Exactly. If you want to pigeon hole us, in a way, I am telling booking agents that we are bringing back Vaudeville. Vaudeville died when motion pictures took off – we’re bringing it back and we’re putting it in stage. Ronn is very much the comic relief on stage. We’re doing the Snake Oil pitch and everything else. When you come to see us you will see modern electric blues that is as rough hewn as R.L. Burnside , as funky as Bootsy Collins and as rocking as AC/DC in a Vaudeville setting. This is just who we are and this is just what we do.
Rubber chickens, confetti cannons and toilet paper guns aside… there is nothing like the live experience of Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band. Let me tell you, whatever they’re sellin’ – I’m buyin’. You will be healed.
Olivier Basselini would be proud.
Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band is currently touring the Mid Atlantic States.
Shane Speal’s Snake Oil Band is:
Shane Speal – cigar box guitars, vocals and stomping foot
- Ronn Benway – washboards, rubber chickens and stunts
- Aaron Lewis – harmonica, vocals and confetti cannons
- Farmer Jon – electric washtub bass and high fives
CONTACT: SHANE SPEAL