If Will Ryan and the Cactus County Cowboys are known for cowboy music, why do you expect them to play the Merrie Melodies theme as their finale? Maybe it's because a) they're funny, and b) Will Ryan is a legendary voice actor who brings along other legends--legends who do things they're not legendary for.
If you have kids you know Ryan as the voice of Willie the Giant on the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. If you were a kid, you know him as Tigger from the Disney TV series, Welcome to Pooh Corner, and a hundred voices in between.
Minutes before Thursday night's Cactus County Cowboys performance at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, the room was in an uproar. While the band got ready for the show a film crew was on hand to interview the evening's celebrities. They're making a documentary about animation actors called I Know That Voice. Will Ryan is not the only person they came to see.
The crew moved off. The audience packed the house. The lights dimmed and the music began. By the second song Ryan, who writes his own music, had the audience singing along.
The Cactus County Cowboys are accustomed to guest performers. joined the show early in the evening, distributing sheet music and saying, "A gentleman is a man who owns an accordion but doesn't play it." Hard to believe the band had never played the song before as, along with Whitcomb and accordion star Jim Gilman, they filled the room with the sweet, weeping "Sierra Sue."
Next celebrity up was Johnny Crawford, star of "The Rifleman" and one of the original Mouseketeers.
He sang "Pennies from Heaven," which is where the audience thought they were, in a lovely, old-timey radio tenor.
Ryan saved the biggest (well, okay, smallest) celebrity for last. The diminutive June Foray took the stage late in the second act to reprise some of her cartoon voices. The list is too long for her to do them all (her page at imdb.com is so extensive it exhausted me to read it), but from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show she gave us Natasha, Nell and of course Rocky the Flying Squirrel. (She was also the voice of Witch Hazel, Cindy Lou Who and Chatty Cathy, and more recently voiced characters on The Family Guy and The Simpsons.)
Other notables in the audience included film historian Robert S. Birchard (we figure we're related), who wrote the liner notes to the band's new CD and fed me tidbits of information throughout the evening. He pointed out the Disney executives sitting with Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse. It was an absolute hoot to hear Minnie talking to the performers.
With all this going on, you still have the benefit of enjoying a terrific band. The Cactus County Cowboys play energetic, light-hearted cowboy swing music Will Ryan calls "cowboy skiffle." Ryan writes the music, plays guitar, sings lead vocals and runs the show. He's got the confidence to be the star yet let others take center stage.
Balancing the band on stand-up bass, Westy Westenhofer adds to the hilarity with a backwoods charm brewed in Hollywood timing. The banjo is "Chapparal Katie" Cavera's expert contribution; Katie's warm smile would be enough but she sings, too. John "Presto" Reynolds plays guitar with speed and precision and his wit is just as sharp.
"Cactus Chloe" Feoranzo joined the band at age 16 and is still barely old enough to vote, yet her sultry riffs on saxophone and clarinet are mature and oh so sweet. "Buckaroo Benny" Brydern strums the fiddle with bow and/or fingers. You'd think the guy was homegrown in Kentucky but he's a classically-trained violin virtuoso and composer born and raised in Germany.
In other words, these musicians are as good apart as they are together. Everyone got featured solos, everyone got to shine, but the smooth harmonies of "Too Big to Fail" were proof of what the best musicians have over the mediocre: ensemble power.
And then there were the hand tunes.
You need to see hand music while you hear it. It looks like irreverent sign language and it sounds like farm animal flatulence played by tubas. Westy Westenhofer and John Reynolds may be the premiere practitioners.
The Cowboys closed the show with a gorgeous rendition of "Louisiana Fairytale," with Chloe soloing on sax and the band playing a slow ramble underneath to walk it all home.
I waited after the show for an interview with Will Ryan. Just about everyone wanted to talk to him, get his autograph or plan the next show with him. Tired but still cheerful, he said he, Reynolds and Westenhofer had been together since the band's 2008 beginning and that Whitcomb and Foray had visited their first show. Benny and Katie joined soon after. Westy discovered Chloe at a jazz camp where he teaches. Apparently even as a kid she was a prodigy, able to play anything Westy put in front of her.
I told Will it had crossed my mind during the encore that my dad (who'd be one year older than June Foray if he were here) would have loved the show. I loved it too, and every kid on my block would love it as well.
It also struck me that these muscians all play several instruments, and that many artists do more than one thing. Tony Bennet is a respected painter, for example. Dennis Hopper was a marvelous photographer. Hedy Lamarr was an inventor whose frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention is used today in wi-fi technology. And so on. Just because you're legendary for something doesn't mean it's all you've got to offer.
Will Ryan and the Cactus County Cowboys have a new CD out called Here Come the Outlaws (the video is so charming I watched it twice). You can catch them next Thursday, January 12th at Viva Cantina in Burbank. They're working with Bob Stane of the Coffee Gallery Backstage on scheduling more gigs there, too. And there's a darned good chance they'll bring some multi-talented, famous friends along with them.