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Hymn for Her duo relies on cigar box guitars, Airstream trailer and vintage slides

January 26, 2011 |  6:00 am

Hymn For Her-Jeff Fusco 
There’s a raw, almost primitive electricity that sizzles off “Lucy & Wayne and the Amairican Stream,” the new album from Philadelphia duo Hymn for Her.  The husband-wife team, who use the stage names Wayne Waxing and Lucy Tight, have drawn comparisons to the White Stripes for their powerfully stripped-down sound, but there’s a more rural, old-school feeling to the music they create together.

A big part of their sound comes from the three-string cigar-box guitar that Lucy plays, a throwback to the kind of instrument many old blues players built for themselves because they couldn’t afford a bona fide guitar.

Hymn for Her will have it along when the duo reach Southern California on their current tour for stops Friday at Molly Malone’s in Los Angeles and the Viento y Agua coffeehouse in Long Beach.  Tight explained by phone on the way to a show earlier this week in Lubbock, Texas, that the instrument she’s come to adore came to her through a chain of events worthy of a “Twilight Zone”-meets-“Jackass” episode.

Previously, she and Waxing played in a trio called the MPE band with a third musician known as EJ. While staying in Memphis with their friend, cigar box guitar make Johnny Lowe, EJ was helping clean up his property after a big storm ripped through the area when a chainsaw he was using to clear some downed trees bucked and struck him in the head. Lowe gave the group one of his Lowebow guitars as an apology gift. After leaving it in a closet for several months, unsure what to do with it, she and Waxing decided it was worth exploring.

(For the Record: An earlier version of this post stated that the chainsaw accident put EJ out of commission as a musician. He suffered minor injuries but remains active in his music career.)

Hers has one bass string and two guitar strings mounted to a broomstick. The cigar box body has two pickups, one for the bass string, the other for the guitar strings, which allows them to separately amplify them.  Before, they’d largely played acoustic folk music. The cigar box radically altered their sound.

“When we picked up the cigar box, it was electric again and we were ready to rock out,” she said. “It’s very simple, but simply complex.”

The ripsaw sounds that come from it led to edgier subject material, such as the George Thorogood-like electric blues of “Thursday,” a song about a flirtation with infidelity. Their dissonant harmonizing recalls both Jack and Meg White and the sideways collaborations of the first couple of punk rock, Exene Cervenka and John Doe.

“I found it intimidating at first," said Lucy, "because I’d never played slide before and this is all slide. Plus it’s a lot of lead playing. But I find it more liberating now that I’ve learned to play and get around on it.”

Another unusual element that contributes to Hymn for Her’s distinctive sound is their mode of transportation: a 50-year-old 16-foot aluminum Airstream trailer that they live in so that their toddler daughter, Diver (and their 90-pound black Labrador), can be with them on tour. They also recorded the entire album in the trailer while touring the country last year.

But don’t look for it outside Molly Malone’s. During the intense winter storms that have blanketed much of the Eastern Seaboard and the South in recent weeks, they parked the Airstream at a friend’s house in Philadelphia.

“We kept hitting ice and the weather was so crazy we decided it was too dangerous,” she said. They will, however, bring a collection of vintage slides from the '40s, '50s and '60s, mostly shot by Wayne’s artist-photographer father. Images are projected onto a screen behind them during performances.

“There’s something old-fashioned about the whole thing,” she said, “with the cigar box guitar, the old slides and everything."

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing of Hymn for Her, and their daughter, Diver. Credit: Jeff Fusco