As Big John Bates plays, a crisis brews on stage. Two women circle each other in a combative dance. The conflict escalates into a full-fledged tussle that leaves both combatants far less clothed. The band plays on. Before long the ladies are locked in a mortally perilous—and perfectly choreographed—switchblade battle. Just as the band's number draws to a close and one girl rises victorious, the other limps up and cuts her throat before falling over in time to the song's snappy conclusion.
This is Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz, the self-proclaimed first band to fuel its blues-punk shows on the raw sexual energy of burlesque. The combination has been fruitful: The group has headlined at festivals with over 10,000 people and is currently preparing for a 14-week U.S., European and Canadian tour.
"It's going to be huge," singer, guitarist, and lead songwriter John Bates says. "Especially Europe. We've toured there nine times so far, but it's growing every year."
Burlesque has played a key role in the expansion of the band's touring. Since its formation in 2001, Big John Bates has played with over 30 women in the role of the "voodoo dollz," usually touring with two at a time. And these girls, they're no bunch of bored bra-shedders out to give the guys a quick peepshow. Their performance is a lesson in seduction, where an over-the-shoulder glance can be just as tantalizing as the barest sexy bits.
"The whole thing really goes beyond burlesque into this whole new realm of performance art," Bates says. "The Voodoo Dollz are excellent performers. World class."
Bates arrived at the combination of blues-punk and burlesque thanks in part to his then-wife, who was exploring the scene's international resurgence. The two elements proved a natural fit. Little Miss Risk, aka Tristan Risk, took creative management of the Voodoo Dollz in the mid-2000s. A full-time band member, she choreographs the routines and adds flash to the flashing in the form of creative costuming, flaming tasseled pasties and those aforementioned knives. As the band's sound evolved from its original straightforward psychobilly to experiments in exotica and a stripped down lo-fi sound, Risk matched the progression with more elaborate costumes and performances. The first priority at a Big John Bates show remained the same: keeping the musical energy as high as possible. Bates says he fully appreciates how critical his bandmates and dancers are in creating that energy.
"The band is called Big John Bates, but it really shouldn't be," he says. "It's only called that because I'm the last man standing."
That's undeniably true, literally. There's only one other male in the band besides Bates, drummer J.T. Brander, and he's sitting down. Otherwise, Risk serves as a dancer, choreographer, costume designer and background vocalist, while Florence, Mont.'s own Brandy Bones, known to decent folk as Brandy Anderson, wields a vicious upright bass that, for its bulk, supports a surprisingly large repertoire of rock moves.
"Sometimes I climb on it and play it, sometimes I sling it over my shoulders and dance and play," Bones says. "I have a wireless, so I can go into the crowd and sweep people around. People usually aren't too threatened by a little guitar, but when you're coming at them with an upright bass, they'll get out of your way."
The third female upright bass player in Big John Bates' history, Bones is used to being another one of the guys. Touring with dancers, then, presents its own set of nuances.
"I'm used to traveling with smelly, farting guys, so going on the road with a bunch of high-maintenance girls takes some adjustment," Bones says. "On the other hand, I don't have to tell them to change their socks every week."
The upcoming tour will be Bones' first major road show with Big John Bates. Fortunately, she'll have a little taste of home before the long road ahead when the band arrives in Missoula next week. She has friends and family spread across Montana, all of whom, for the most part, are eager to see her play with Big John Bates.
"My grandpa's definitely not going," Bones said. "He's not into the whole boobs thing."
Missoula was one of the first cities Big John Bates played since its formation, so it's an appropriate early stop on the band's biggest tour to date. And lest you think the band is discouraged by the prospect of a Wednesday night performance, think again.
"Every night we play is a Friday night," Bates says. "You haven't seen anything like us before. Even if you've seen us before."
Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz plays Harry David's Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 7 PM. Cover TBA.