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Victor and Penny

Victor and Penny Harness "Electricity"

(Photos by Chandra Ramey)
The Kansas City Jazz Duo Creates a New Spin From Classic Chemistry
Can music based on vintage tastes and ideals create something new? According to Victor & Penny, something as simple as a hook, a dress, or the right recording engineer creates a viable chance. When they planned to bring a specific genre of music into the Kansas City mainstream, they made sure it was based in craft, personality, and style. Against all odds it works and chances are, you'll love it.
You have most likely seen or heard their brand of ragtime jazz around town at several venues as diverse as recordBar, Hotel Phillips, Kauffman Center, and The Green Lady Lounge. Sometimes they play as a duo, sometimes they incorporate a full outfit known as The Loose Change Orchestra with trombone, upright bass, and clarinet.
Who are Victor & Penny?
In a word, they are “unique.” They create songs out of a time that harbors authentic musicianship and charm, yet the act telegraphs progressive idealism through virtuosity, fashion and playfulness. They find a joyous sound out of some of the darkest musical standards of the classic jazz age, as if blowing soap bubbles through a flophouse opium pipe. But it's not all fun and games. The duo creates music based in an era of serious songwriting skills. Watching them create tunes on stage prompts you to applaud time and time again before the song comes to a close because it's something made with love, humor, and blood.
“The way we present ourselves is vital to the way the audience perceives us,” says singer and ukulele player Penny (known locally as Erin McGrane). “We want to show respect for our audience by looking sharp. That also helps to set the stage and mood for our show.”
Victor (known around Kansas City as Jeff Freling) continues the thought. “The music and the presentation go hand-in-hand. As we continue to refine and expand our stage presence, we present a more sophisticated show.”
Sophisticated is a good description for this musical favorite about town. When you walk into a Victor & Penny showcase, the duo ushers you through classic jazz standards with the energy and vigor of a revival-era tent pastor, as they are unabashed converts to the art form. It's based in an honest love for the intricacies of the style.
“We offer the audience more than just a concert,” McGrane says. “We offer stories and a chance to get to know us as people, which is another way to connect to the audience and enrich the experience.“
Which is true: they're 100-percent show business, but their connection is real and based in the classic ideals of traveling theater. They parry corny jokes, natural chemistry, and undeniable musicianship out of quick scenarios in clubs, media appearances, and even impromptu videos in their car. Their semi-formal attire contrasts with the easygoing attitude on stage as they sway and jump between old standards and new treasures.
So it begs the question; in a town so focused on indie rock and stylized blues, how would they make an impact by focusing on early jazz standards? It's all about the lure of the common experience. McGrane says, ”In college, I got into 1930s vocal music from groups like the Boswell Sisters and the Mills Brothers. Jeff was listening to a lot of early guitarists like Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian when we reconnected, and we found a common pool of tunes that we loved.”
Recording Electricity
Victor & Penny recorded a new album titled Electricity in August of 2015 and the finished product will soon be available here. They made the journey to Nashville's Sputnik Sound to create it with producer Mitch Dane, who made his cake working up alt-country gold with acts as varied as Woody Pines and Jack White. Even though the producer's tastes were outside Victor & Penny's specific genre, the moment they met with Mitch, they knew it was a special match due to his musical taste for the eclectic side of early Americana and his impressive collection of classic recording gear in his inspiring studio.
Did the experience live up to expectations? According to Freling, yes. After speaking with Dane, they immediately hit it off and the day-to-day labors allowed the trio to create something truly special.
“Working in Nashville was a great experience and we had the opportunity to partner with a producer to help us rearrange some older tunes and bring a fresh perspective to our music,” Freling says.
How did Victor & Penny begin?
According to them, it all came together in Chicago.
“Jeff and I met during college years when our rock bands played together in the local KC scene,” says McGrane.
Freling adds, “We reconnected in Chicago a few years ago. Erin was working up there as a commercial actress and I had been playing strings on stage with Blue Man Group for many years. We hadn’t seen each other in almost 15 years.”
Playing the Circuit
This kind of authentic atmosphere means the world to this turn-of-the-century jazz duo because they rely on a certain balance of classic and contemporary to create their singular stage presence. They work hard to create a personable and accessible feel that draws both new and schooled fans of jazz history into their realm.
“The tunes that we’re drawn to are endlessly fun to sing and to improvise over musically,” says McGrane. “For example, the melody on ‘Lazy River’ by Hoagy Carmichael is instantly recognizable and much trickier to sing and play than it sounds. It’s just beautiful. ”
Freling finishes the thought. “We love to do what we call sonic archaeology and dig for lesser-known songs from the early part of the last century. Our original material combines all of our personal influences to create a modern sound with a vintage vibe.”
So yes, it's true. A partnership born from a shared love of musical history proves something new can come from it all. The unique voice Victor & Penny creates gives music lovers in Kansas City an opportunity to participate in a true love of the artform. Experience their brand of musical joy at the Folk Alliance International Conference from Wednesday through Sunday. Check out their schedule here.
--Andrew Schiller
Andrew Schiller has been playing music and writing features for a couple of decades. To earn gear and beer money, sometimes he wakes up and travels to an office of some sort inhabited by your garden-variety marketing types.


December 2012
Victor & Penny
"Side By Side

While mild thus far, winter is coming to Kansas City. But ‘lo, just in time for the holidays, the city’s favorite Antique Pop duo, Victor & Penny, dumps a treasure trove of cheery music along with deft guitar and lovely ukulele playing to warm cold and possibly bitter hearts.

Victor & Penny are back with more poppy pleasures and meandering melodies. Chalk full of twee goodness and charming renditions of old standards and a pleasing original, Side By Side: Songs for Kids of All Ages, is the second album for the merry twosome, which is made up of Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane.

Side By Side is truly a team effort comprised of not only the dynamic duo and other area musicians—including Kyle Dahlquist, Larry Garrett, Christian Hankel, James Isaac, Nate Hofer, Rick Willoughby—but also the band’s fans.  About 130 backers contributed to Victor & Penny’s Kickstarter campaign this fall to help push the album through the final stages of production.

I recommend putting on this album if you’re feeling blue. It is clear Freling and McGrane enjoy what they are doing and the feeling is contagious. The pair leads you through a pleasant journey kicking the tour off with simple and sprightly rendition of “A Smile Will Go a Long, Long Way.” I’ve heard various versions of this song, but I am supremely attracted to how Freling and McGrane arrange and perform it because of the uncomplicatedness.  

The second track, “Stomp, Stomp,” is certain to get people dancing, or at least chair dancing. It’s a little more of a laid-back cover in comparison to the original, but toe tapping all the same. Though his backing is great throughout the entire album, the use of Rick Willoughby on upright bass is especially helpful in this song.

“Slow Poke,” the third track, takes a trip on a winding road in the country. The blend of the old guitar and ukulele is especially nice on this track.

A cover of the Star Wars’ “Cantina Band” song shakes off the slowness. The reimagining of the song is very well done. I can’t help but think of the Star Wars scene set in the 1920s in a speakeasy during Prohibition. With contributions of Nate Hofer on lap steel guitar and James Isaac playing clarinet, this song is brilliant.

“Pork and Beans” is pretty much a song any kid should adore. The hook and chorus comes alive with the use of the Victor & Penny Pork and Beans Men’s Chorus, which is made up of Dahlquist, Hankel, Willoughby and Freling.

McGrane and Freling contribute an original song to the mix with “The Cat, She Played Piano.” The track has a slightly darker tone and sound to it in comparison to the other songs on the album, but delightfully dreary.  

The LP finishes off with a few more standards including “The Sheik of Araby” and “Up a Lazy River.” To sum up the journey, Freling and McGrane play the album’s title track “Side By Side.”

Victor & Penny met the goal of making an album people of all ages can appreciate.  In short, Side By Side is a great mix of songs that an entire family can enjoy. This album should be a go-to when you need a break from the all-holiday-music-all-the-time radio stations, which can make you wish you got that Red Ryder BB Gun so you could shoot your own eye out. It’s a family friendly and enchanting album!

--Alicia Houston



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