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Battle of the Beards

When I started writing about music in the Eighties, a prominent beard on a musician was often viewed as a sure sign that the performer was an out-of-touch hippie fossil, or barring that, a member of ZZ Top. That started to change during the goatee epidemic of the Nineties, which I was convinced would make facial hair disreputable for decades to come once the grunge bubble burst. But history has proven me wrong, because the late Zeroes have seen an outgrowth of musician facial hair worth of a post-Civil War presidential campaign, along with a revival of the hierarchy of beards. In what follows below, I’ll survey some of the notable beards of the moment, ranked from zero to ten on the Sanders-Hudson index. For the uninitiated, that index celebrates the beardly perfection of saxophone visionary Pharoah Sanders and Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, whose historic contributions have done for beards what Christopher Walken has done for the cowbell.

Facial outgrowth isn’t always a sign of greatness, or vice-versa. Patchy-faced Bob Dylan and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy have sometimes dabbled in facial hair, but these are not beardly men; you might as well put a spoiler on a Volvo station wagon. Nobody knows that better than Tweedy himself, the author of “Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard” (“things got pretty weird, and I grew Bob Dylan’s beard”). And gave a major thumbs down to Stuck Between Stations favorite Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), ranking him three points below the composite band score assigned to current beard icons the Fleet Foxes. Explaining the Captain’s lowly 5.9 ranking, the site noted: “His lip ferret was merely average. And his poet’s beard was never much more than the obligatory mark of a mad musical genius.”

At the outset, I have disqualified Devendra Banhart, because that would be too easy, like naming Jesus on a list of famous sandal-wearers. This list is for beard-growers, and I have it on good authority that Devendra was born bearded to traveling circus performers from Caracas. Here are my rankings in this year’s Battle of the Beards:

• Kyp Malone, TV on the Radio (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.5)

The guitarist-singer from Brooklyn’s innovative art rockers-turned-mutant funkateers had this year’s beard competition all sewn up. But, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Kyp has now trimmed his beard.

TV on the Radio, “Dancing Choose”

• Jim James, My Morning Jacket (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 7.0)

James’ Kentucky combo may well rank as the most hirsute band of the past decade. But he’s docked two notches here, because his Prince falsetto on this year’s Evil Urges is less convincing than that of Spoon‘s Britt Daniel, and worse, he has reportedly switched to a mustache.

My Morning Jacket, “Wordless Chorus”

More beards after the click-through

• Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 8.0)

He’s in his twenties, but looks and sounds like he woke up in a sleeping bag in Golden Gate Park in 1967. You could do far worse.

Fleet Foxes, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”

• Ben Bridwell, Band of Horses (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 8.3)

While nothing’s shocking here, he delivers reliably well-rounded whiskers and melodies.

Band of Horses, “Funeral”

• Will Oldham, Palace/ Palace Brothers/ Bonnie Prince Billy (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 9.0)

Finding religion in the palace of sin, he’s all shaggy perfection as he explores the missing link between Gram Parsons and Rasputin.

Palace Brothers, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn”

• Steve Earle (Sanders-Hudson Rating: 9.2)

A flowing beard, a good appetite and a strong sense of justice helped save the life of this former self-destructive gunslinger, and he’s been a national treasure ever since.

Steve Earle, “Christmastime in Washington”

From → Diatribes, Slow Jams

  1. shacker permalink

    In the current episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, the Modern Beards topic comes up, and Carrie Brownstein riffs about beard boys looking to Fleet Foxes for a sense of validation. Poetry.

    This appears not just to be the year of beards in alt.pop, but also the Year of Handmade Beards:

    But I’m sorry to report that not a soul on this list holds a candle to the serious beard farmers of the World Beard and Mustache Competition.

  2. Ben Blackburn permalink

    having once been aquanted with Garth and his lovely wife Maud, I am glad to see that he is the the co-torch bearer for musical beards. However……I feel that to leave the great bass player Lee Sklar out of this discussion was a big mistake.

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