Joshua Panda’s I-77 journey

by Jordan Green

A station wagon loaded down with music gear pulls up to the curb outside the Garage in Winston-Salem’s arts district. Members of the Brooklyn roots band pile out, and began unloading. Inside, Joshua Panda is surveying the scene. Dressed neatly in a pork-pie hat, a clean pressed dress shirt, suspenders, and cowboy boots, the Huntersvilleborn songwriter somewhat resembles the Chinese bear that is his namesake. After leaving the Charlotte area for a stint in of couch-surfing and musical prospecting in Brooklyn and then relocating to Burlington, Vt., where he spent a summer busking, Panda has achieved a dream of sorts. He’s on the road with a backing band on an official tour. “Pete, the accordion player, said, ‘Hey, you wanna book a tour of the South?’” Panda recalls. “We booked the Cave in Charlotte, the Evening Muse in Charlotte, the Garage…. I just wanted to get down to see my folks. I’ve been in Vermont a year just writing. I’ve got a new record coming out that’s in the mastering stages.” The new record is called What We Have Sewn. The tour is just a quick jaunt with a slot at the Crown Town Showdown, a showcase co-sponsored by Creative Loafing, at the Evening Muse the following night; then a bar gig in Huntersville; then a Saturday show back at the Evening Muse; and then Panda flies back to Vermont to open for British singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch. Panda and his cohorts share a love of high-spirited American folk music, the kind played by the Band when they picked up fiddles and mandolins. The A-OKs put out an album of the aforementioned Pete Weiss’ songs under the moniker of Okie Weiss & the Murder Ballads while they were based in Montreal. Since then, they have moved to Brooklyn, where they perform as the A-OKs — a more collaborative enterprise. As Panda’s backing band they revert to the name Murder Ballads. The majority of the set on this Tuesday night will be Pandas songs, but when they play a few of their own, their playing is clearly more cohesive and their fire is corralled more effectively into a locomotive thrust. Notwithstanding the kinks and imperfections of his live show, the 23year-old Panda has situated on a broad patch of the Americana soundscape in a long line of raconteurs and troubadours and his zeal for the job seems likely to fulfill his promise. He claims the Band, Gillian Welch, Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford, Dylan and “Blind” Willie McTell as influences. He reveres soul singers like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, but his high tenor comes closer to the early ’70s singer-songwriter sound of Pure Prairie League’s Craig Fuller. “One way or another I’m going to be playing music all my life, and I wanted to figure out what made me the happiest,” Panda says. “Eventually I went back to playing acoustic music with a little folk and country thrown in. What I want to do is blend folk/country with soul and gospel. Like, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard them, Delaney & Bonnie — that good stuff.” Opening duties tonight go to Chris Velan, a folksinger whose blend of West African guitar and pop sensibilities places him in a more eclectic sphere than Panda. And while the two acts have been brought together through circumstances of scheduling and venue owner the peculiarities of Richard Emmett’s genius, they do share some similarities. For one, Velan is based in Montreal, the A-OKs’ old stomping ground. Also, Velan, like Panda, hasdone his share of couch-surfing to sustain his creative vision in leantimes.

JoshuaPanda (right), a North Carolina entertainer who has relocated toVermont, returned with his Brooklyn backing band the Murder Ballads tothe Old North State with an April 14 show at the Garage inWinston-Salem. (photos by Quentin L. Richardson)

The number of people inthe room who aren’t musicians, employed in some capacity by the bar oron reporting assignment, can be easily counted on one hand, but Velanaccepts their applause with grace as he concludes his set, and Pandaand his band take the stage like pros. They open with “I-77 Blues, ” acelebratory Charlotte homecoming anthem (“Yeah, we were rockin’ anda-rollin’ down I-77 to a little piece of land that I call heaven”) thatnamedrops the Bojangles fried-chicken franchise. Panda urgesthe band through the set, shouting “hey-yeah” to prompt them to join inon harmony or take an instrumental break. He calls out in a jive comicvoice when the bass player takes a vocal turn. The band really rocks ona cover of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” with theaccordion wailing, the bass thumping and the mandolin trilling. Theyclose with a cover of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ & Slidin’” thatfeatures an exercised Panda singing with a lot of feeling and a bassgroove that is not aligned with the front man’s timing.

Pete Weiss (above) of Brooklyn’s A- OKs persuaded Joshua Panda (right) to undertake a tour of the Southland.