Road warriors 

Yard Dogs deliver vaudeville with an edge

For Yard Dogs Road Show founder Eddy Joe Cotton, it’s important to start with a history lesson.

“There is a road that has been built, brick by brick, that began years ago when traveling performers first began to journey from town to town,” he says. “We are a continuation of that.”

Cotton is talking via cell phone—from the road, of course—about the pending arrival of his Yard Dogs Road Show to the Wilma Theatre this Friday. The Indigo Belly Dancers, featuring Bellydance Superstar Rachel Brice, joins his troupe as the opening act. It all sounds very interesting, but what exactly is it?

“The Yard Dogs Road Show is really just an extension of what my life has been before we started doing this ‘formally,’” Cotton says. “I have been traveling ever since I was a teenager. I rode freight trains; a ‘yard dog’ is actually a locomotive used to move trains around in train yards. As I started to pay attention to my future, the idea of this kind of travel-based performance art grew out of the creative relationships I’ve made along the road and the collaborations I was part of.”

“Hobo cabaret” is what the press release calls the show—“a living patchwork of vaudeville and rock and roll.” Think of a play or stage show infused with a rock ’n’ roll attitude that features dancing dolls, fire and sword eaters, and poetry, all blended together into one spectacle. The idea is not just to recreate the magic of the traveling circuses and shows of the 1800s, but to live it.

“This is our life, but it isn’t like a ‘carnie’ life or a circus life,” Cotton says. “This is abstract art, and we are a family moving around the country performing it. We often have people tell us that the show reaches a part of them that they didn’t even realize was there—something magical and exciting, something creative. And that is what we want to have happen. We want to create a long-term, thriving subculture that will live outside of what we are doing, but also be part of it. That is how we want to interact with people. We want to keep doing our thing, even as we inspire people to find and do theirs.”

The show began when Cotton and a couple friends started a three-piece jug band called Yard Dogs that traveled up and down the West Coast. When asked if what they were doing was essentially busking, Cotton laughs.

“Not really,” he says. “We weren’t good enough for busking! I’m sure the word came up once or twice in describing what we were doing, but we weren’t very good at it. We didn’t set up on street corners and play; we were doing things like playing parties, backyards, people’s porches, things like that. And it was all themed around travel.”

Relationships grew, and the Road Show as it essentially exists today was born. What began as a not-so serious endeavor five years ago has become a livelihood over the last three, with a lineup that ebbs and flows, and a show that changes even as it continues to grow. They have toured nationally and internationally—a trip to Portugal was a resounding success, and Europe beckons yet this summer. The show has been recognized in SPIN magazine, and they have collaborated with Cirque Du Soleil and Burning Man festival.

“We do very well in the South,” Cotton says. “We do very well in smaller towns, mountain towns, where performances like ours don’t often happen…We aren’t rock ’n’ roll kids anymore, nor are we older, retro-style recreationists. This is all very organic, and people can sense that and really get into it.”

Not to be overshadowed by the Yard Dogs are their openers: The Indigo Belly Dancers.

Indigo founder Rachel Brice was a member of Bellydance Superstars, the touring dance company that was put together by entertainment agent Miles Copeland. The world’s only full-time, professional belly dance troupe, the Bellydance Superstars have performed over 500 concerts in 18 countries, and been seen on more than 60 television shows.

“The Bellydance Superstars have done more for belly dance in America than anyone else,” Cotton says. “They are doing things I’ve never seen done before in belly dance.”

Rachel brings her experience with the Superstars to her own troupe. Indigo is rooted in American Tribal, a form of belly dance that encompasses aspects of traditional styles of the form along with cabaret and even hip hop. The troupe is based in the San Francisco Bay area, also home to the Road Dogs when they are between trips. It’s a perfect fit for them to tour together.

“We are part of a community that includes cabaret and burlesque performers, and the Indigo troupe as well.” Cotton says. “We move in many of the same circles, so it seemed inevitable that we would tour together.”

The Yard Dogs Road Show and Indigo Belly Dancers, perform Friday, May 9, at 8 PM, at the Wilma Theater. $20/$17 advance.
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