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Steve Weber, guitarist in oddball folk band, dies at 76
The Holy Modal Rounders emerged in New York in 1963 as a duo, with Weber on guitar and Peter Stampfel on fiddle and banjo.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Steve Weber, the guitarist of the Holy Modal Rounders, a cult psychedelic folk group that grazed the pop-culture mainstream with a song featured in the 1969 film “Easy Rider” and influenced generations of underground musicians, died on Feb. 7 at his home in Mount Clare, West Virginia. He was 76.

His death was announced by the Davis Funeral Home in nearby Clarksburg, which did not give a cause.

The Holy Modal Rounders emerged in New York in 1963 as a duo, with Weber on guitar and Peter Stampfel on fiddle and banjo. Like countless others swept up in the folk revival of the time, they were inspired by the traditional songs in the “Anthology of American Folk Music,” compiled by the filmmaker and historian Harry Smith in 1952.

But while most of their peers approached old material with reverence, Weber and Stampfel stood out with their spontaneity and almost boyish mischief. On their first two albums, released by the folk label Prestige in 1964 and 1965, they freely rewrote lyrics to 1920s songs like “Blues in the Bottle” and “Bully of the Town,” and sang gleefully with a peculiar kind of nasal harmony.

Their antics did not endear the band to folk purists, although Weber, who grew up in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was noted for his mastery of traditional guitar styles.

Weber developed a reputation as a charmed character. Tall, strapping and handsome, he would wander barefoot through the Lower East Side of Manhattan and never seem to step on a shard of glass, said Stampfel, who described Weber in those days as looking “like an idealized Li’l Abner.”

The two young men began to drift into ever more radical and warped forms of pop music. In 1965, they played on the first album by the Fugs, whose leaders, poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, relished the anarchic and puerile side of rock but had only the most rudimentary skills playing instruments. Weber wrote one of the group’s most popular numbers, “Boobs a Lot.”

By this time Stampfel and Weber had largely ceased playing as the Holy Modal Rounders; Stampfel said he had grown frustrated with Weber’s preference not to rehearse.

“I like to keep things fresh and natural,” Weber said in an interview in “Always in Trouble,” a 2012 book about the underground record label ESP Disk, by Jason Weiss.

The two men reunited for a 1967 album, “Indian War Whoop,” on ESP — this time with the playwright Sam Shepard as their drummer — and then for “The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders,” released by Elektra in 1968. The albums still stand as extreme examples of acid-tinged folk music. “Moray Eels” ends with “The Pledge,” in which Shepard tries to recite the Pledge of Allegiance but forgets it.

“Moray Eels” opens with “Bird Song,” written by the poet and songwriter known as Antonia; she was a longtime partner of Stampfel’s and had once dated Weber. A spacey waltz, the tune caught the ear of Dennis Hopper, who was directing “Easy Rider.” He used it in a scene in which he, on one motorcycle, and Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda on another, ride down the highway, flapping their arms in the wind. The song appeared on the soundtrack as “If You Want to Be a Bird.”

By this point the Rounders had made a television appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” and their work was admired by a small group of musicians who recognized them as innovators. The Lovin’ Spoonful and Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band, for example, recorded versions of the Rounders’ adaptation of “Blues in the Bottle.”

Shepard soon left the band, which grew to become a large ensemble. But with Weber and Stampfel often bickering, it failed to capitalize on the success of “Easy Rider.”

By the early 1970s the pair had parted ways, with Weber taking the group to Portland, Oregon, where it enjoyed years as a hard-rocking bar band. Stampfel remained in New York. But they gathered for occasional reunions.

Steven P. Weber was born in Philadelphia on June 22, 1943, and grew up with his mother in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. There he met Robin Remaily, who would become a longtime member of the Holy Modal Rounders, and Michael Hurley, a singer-songwriter and illustrator who would also have a long association with the group.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

“The Holy Modal Rounders … Bound to Lose,” a 2006 documentary by Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace, portrays Weber’s time on the West Coast, starting in the early 1970s, as being plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. By 1996, Weber said in the film, he had decided to return home to Pennsylvania after waking up to find himself cradling a half-gallon bottle of vodka.

Weber and Stampfel performed in 1996 at the Bottom Line in New York, which kicked off a series of reunion appearances and led to a new album, “Too Much Fun,” in 1999. But the film captures the two men still bickering onstage and in strained rehearsals, and it ends with Weber failing to appear at a 40th-anniversary show in 2003. Stampfel said he had not spoken to him since.

In “Always in Trouble,” the book about the ESP label, Weber said he had failed to appear because he had felt deceived by the filmmakers and disappointed that the film paid so little attention to the Portland incarnation of the Holy Modal Rounders that he led starting in the early 1970s.

He was asked what made the Holy Modal Rounders different from other folk groups. He noted that other musicians were interested in singing about social reform.

“We took more of a raucous and zany detour,” he said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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