David Wildman
Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE -- For 10 years, ringleader Max Azanow and the Bad Art Ensemble have wreaked havoc with crazy songs and outrageous on-the-edge antics every Wednesday night at the Plough and Stars.

"We have a game that we call `Let's Put an Eye Out'," says Azanow, with a wicked grin. "We have a theme song and a disclaimer, and then we start tossing things like nip bottles of vodka and Frisbees covered with Bad Art stickers into the audience. We've also had plastic fire hat night and nights where we've put bunny ears on everyone. It's a great social experiment. Azanow, 37, lives in Brighton and started the group in 1989 with sax player Dana Colley, who has gone on to do extensive touring with Morphine. Over the years, at least 100 musicians have participated in the ensemble's Wednesday night madness, including top-notch regular players like drummer Larry Dersch (of Roger Miller's Binary System), saxman Ken Field (of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic), drummer Terry Donohue (of Alloy Orchestra), trombonist Russell Jewell (of Either/Orchestra and Lars Vegas),drummer Ethan Meyer (of Sugar Twins), bassists Margaret Weigel and Chris Forkey, and one of the ensembles earliest members, Ken Winnoker of the Alloy Orchestra.

Musicians who normally are paid well for their services are willing to play free or at least for beer because of the fun Azanow creates. He also intentionally set it up so the band only plays Wednesdays, a night that is not usually a big money night for the other musicians.

"It is the high point of my week and has been for the last five years," says Field, who is well-known for showing up after the band has already started playing and having some food before calmly getting out his sax.

Azanow, who also works setting up stages for corporate events, writes and sings all the band's songs. He says he never knows before a show which musicians are going to arrive and with what instruments.

"I just need to know that there will be a drum kit there and a bass player," he says.

Azanow handles the lead vocal and front man chores, and is so comfortable slinging spontaneous one-liners in the tiny club after all these years that patrons get the feeling they are sitting in his living room. The relaxed mood seems to spread directly to the band members, who spontaneously break into background vocals during the middle of an instrumental solo, while Azanow balances an empty beer glass on his head to draw attention to the fact that he would like someone to buy him a drink.

The songs, which encompass a variety of styles, are full of twisted observations: "I Constantly Dream of Killing My Boss on Live TV," "Dumpster Man" (about a guy living in a dumpster whom Azanow says he nearly decapitated accidentally), and a slow reggae song contemplating what it might be like to be a lawn jockey. All are written by Azanow on cheesy keyboards, accordions, and guitars that he collects, explaining, "I figure there's probably got to be a song in each one."

Since the band never practices, new material is usually worked out with the bass player before a show and the rest of the musicians follow along, making up their own parts on the spot.

"It works because I make sure the songs are all really simple," says Azanow. He involves club patrons in the lunacy, and some are as much a part of the show as the musicians. John O'Brien Murphy, a regular at the club, organized and captains the Bad Art Dance Team.

A club patron who is also a scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been known to sit in with the band performing on his detachable wooden leg. Another regular was so moved by the ensemble that, despite no previous artistic experience whatsoever, he painted a full-color portrait of the group which hangs on the wall at the club.

Although, according to Winnoker, there exist hundreds of bootleg recordings of the group, Azanow is satisfied to keep the Wednesday night party going, and is uninterested in trying to get his music on a record label.

"We're just out of control here, and nobody from a record label could really do anything for us," he says. "It's nice to not have to think about those issues when you are just trying to have fun. I'll be happy to do this until I fall over."

The Bad Art Ensemble plays every Wednesday starting at 9:30 p.m. at the Plough and Stars, 912 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. Call 492-9653.