The affable quartet of musicians takes the stage at LunaPark sporting Four Freshmen smiles and Reservoir Dog suits. With a plunk of upright bass and a strum of guitars, they break into sparkling, pristine four-part harmonies that call to mind the achingly hopeful voices of such late-'50s folk music notables as the Weavers, the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio.
But this is fractured folk.
A song that begins by sweetly invoking a day when "the call of the dove can be heard 'cross the land" ends looking forward to a world where there are two phones in every car and "Kinko's and Starbucks wherever you are."
In "Hell Froze Over Today," condom dispensers are installed in the Vatican, a Congressional Medal of Honor is presented to Dr. Timothy Leary and rich folks beg to be heavily taxed.
In the dulcet tones and forthright manner of earnest pop troubadours, this L.A.-based bunch of good-natured folk satirists serves up political humor, social critique and a slightly bent vision of current events. With the recent release of a live album, "Sing It Loud!" and a running engagement Saturdays at LunaPark through Dec. 17, the 10-year-old group brings its message of faith, hope and comedy to the people.
"We're playing on the line between phony folk and sincere folk," says multi-instrumentalist Doug Whitney. "The Foremen is partly a goof on the lesser folk groups of the late '50s, but there's also a point of view in our material, and we take that seriously."
That pointed material springs from songwriter Roy Zimmerman, who came up with the concept of the Foremen in a record store bargain bin nearly 10 years ago. "I picked up an album by the Wayfarers," explains the Bay Area native, 37. "I found the album hysterically funny because they looked like five very white premed fraternity brothers in matching suits, who had decided to sing about how hard it is to be a Negro, and the perils of mining and whaling and all sorts of things they knew nothing about. The look stuck with me, and when I began to write songs in that style, the political satire came through."
That formula has led to such crowd-pleasers as "Peace Is Out," a Mamas and the Papas-style paean to ill will; "Don't Vote," a rockabilly plea to "put the 'mock' back in "democracy"; and the timely, rockin' carol "Buy War Toys for Christmas."
The current group of Foremen has been together for two years and includes bassist Andy Corwin and percussionist Kenny Rhodes. "We've got a low-tech, low-glamour appeal," says Zimmerman, "if 'appeal' is the right word."
He keeps material fresh for the group by keeping an eye on the headlines and building songs around the issues and characters that creep into the public consciousness. "Our Oliver North song was written when he wasn't much of a factor in his Senate race. We almost had to explain it to audiences. But as the race got weirder, the song got stronger. Now, after eight months, we have to retire it--but we can reactivate our Jesse Helms song because he's suddenly back to haunt us in a big way."
The sentiments that come through in the group's music are unabashedly liberal, but the members hope that partisans of any political stripe could get a chuckle from tunes like the danceable presidential dig "Do the Clinton" ("Slide over to the middle . . . lean to the left a little, now lean a lot to the right").
"We've gotten laughs from a crowd of Republicans in Newport Beach," Corwin says, "and we really do want to entertain those people too."
"We don't want to be a head-on confrontational group," Rhodes says. "There's no way you can get people to laugh when you're yelling at them. Then satire degenerates into ridicule."
Zimmerman also wants to avoid bringing the ugliness of the campaign trail onto a stage. "I think these last elections were a good example of a lot of people running for office by preying on the public's fears and angers," he says. "We don't want to use that approach in entertainment any more than we want to see it in politics."
Well, it's a little harder
Zimmerman feels the world-at-large is ready for the Foremen, adding that the group's philosophy can be boiled down to a few simple dictums. "Things matter. It's all right to care about stuff. And it's OK to think. What's good for the Foremen right now is that people are talking about politics and social issues more than before. Activism, which has had a bad name for the past 15 years, may be ready for a popular resurgence."
In a world where extremist expressions of fear and loathing are increasingly passing for political discourse, can the gentle pokes and prods of the Foremen's skewed folk make a difference?
Corwin gives voice to the group's modest goals. "There are what--5 billion people on the planet? If we can reach out to just, say, 4 1/2 billion of them, we'll have put in a good day's work."
* The Foremen appear Saturdays through Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. at LunaPark, 665 N. Robertson, West Hollywood, (310) 652-0611. $15 charge ($12 each for groups of six or more).