Jack Rentfro says his band's name "The Apocalypso Quartet" is almost self-explanatory.
"It's happy, party dance music to go with the apocalypse," he says.
The band's performances (some captured on the group's new album, "Damascus by Sundown)" bear that out. On stage, Rentfro is a peculiar frontman — his stance askew, holding sheets of paper and reciting poetry filled with double entendres and little word bombs just waiting to hit the right ears to detonate. Behind him is a group of skilled musicians filling the room with mixture of styles that includes Middle Eastern, funk, folk and rock 'n' roll.
The band's lineup fluctuates, but regular members include Laith Keilany, Nate Barrett, Mike Murphy, Sonja Spell and Ben Maney.
Rentfro says the idea is to make his spoken word have the same quality as the instrumentalists.
"I freaking love words. There oughta be a name for that perversion, but I don't know what it is ... I'm really striving for magic. I try to make the words like music — make them something to relieve the pain of this world."
Rentfro actually probably read a little earlier than most.
"I remember in the late 1950s when I was in the single digits (age-wise) being able to read the headline in the newspaper when the guy who played Superman committed suicide and it said 'Superman kills self,'" says Rentfro. "That shook me to the core. To me, Superman was a real guy. I was 5 or 6 and that really resonated. I guess you could say that's when I started reading."
In the 1970s, Rentfro was headed for a writing career earning a journalism degree at the University of Tennessee, albeit somewhat slowly.
"I was on the 10-year bachelor plan," he jokes.
He also took up bass guitar and played with the groups Pot Luck and Cheap Shoes. The latter played some reggae and brought the bass up in the mix. Being up front, says Rentfro, was not something he was particularly comfortable with.
Rentfro was nudged into performing his poetry back in the 1980s when RB Morris and Rus Harper would set up poetry readings.
After earning his degree, Rentfro stopped making music to make a living as a journalist, first at the Oak Ridger and then at the Knoxville Journal. He moved from writing for the weekend section to editing it, but an automobile accident in 1991 waylaid his career.
"I was basically a shut-in for about 10 years," says Rentfro. "I freelanced a little bit and I was always working on my own poetry. A lot of the stuff that I'm doing now, the kernels of it, were written then. I'll use couplets or quatrains that I wrote back then, then I'd flesh it out. Of course I have hundreds of pages of (junk), probably thousands ..."
In 2003, Rentfro co-wrote and edited the book "Cumberland Avenue Revisted," which enlisted local musicians and writers to chronicle the local music history. The book brought him back into the music scene.
The genesis of the Apocalypso Quartet occurred a couple of years later when Rentfro participated in a group reading of Jack Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues," organized by RB Morris and Greg Congleton, that featured musicians playing along with the narrative. It was there he met Phil Pollard, who was playing drums. When Rentfro later saw Pollard's group The Band of Humans he felt like he'd met a kindred spirit. Pollard and Band of Humans-members Geol Greenlee and Chris Zuhr decided to back Rentfro up for some poetry readings.
Pollard (who died in 2011) moved to Richmond, Va. And Rentfro carried on with other well-respected players, including Tim Lee, Dave Nichols and Greg Horne, before recruiting Laith Keilany as a bandleader. The first show with Keilany leading a new group of players was a WDVX "Blue Plate Special" show on Halloween 2010.
Rentfro says while most of the material is written down, there is plenty of spontaneity in the show.
"What I would love is if the crowd got up and started dancing. I'd love it if belly dancers and fire eaters were up in front of the stage doing their thing while I was doing mine."
Jack Rentfro and the Apocalypso Quartet CD release show
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Preservation Pub (Speakeasy), 28 Market Square
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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