CAMBRIDGE - Before Peter Stampfel even took the stage at Club Passim, for the first time in 43 years, he was making a racket, as if to make up for lost time. Opening act Pokey LaFarge, a Kentucky-born throwback with greased hair and a penchant for the kazoo, had just launched into a ragtime number, when he got some unexpected help from a rhythm section in the audience: Stampfel, banging his spoon on his bowl of soup with gusto.
Like much of Stampfel's work with the Holy Modal Rounders, '60s folk insurgents who somehow managed to simultaneously embrace and explode tradition, the clatter was both silly, sincere, and full of life. Stampfel later joined pop-culture satirists the Fugs.
The time signatures and tempos got considerably looser when Stampfel's and multi-instrumentalist cohort Eli Smith's delightfully cracked, and frequently unhinged, set got underway. Incredibly, this was the first time since 1965 - that's eight presidents or about 40 Dylan albums, kids - that Stampfel had been back to the venue originally known as Club 47.
To mark the mirthful occasion, he licked his banjo in thanks and kicked things off with "Shombalor," a Sheriff & the Ravels tune he gleefully spiked with nonsense syllables and a voice that went from croak to creak to cackle.
From there it was onto cheerful, rambling digressions on his new, featherweight fiddle bow ("incredible - it's like power steering"); the term "freak-folk" (Stampfel may have helped unwittingly father the genre, but, for the record, he doesn't like the label); and reminiscences about taking angel dust to sound like Joseph Spence and Melanie ("I'd give anything to get that voice back").
Stampfel interspersed these discussions with drunken banjo waltzes and assorted ditties from the likes of Uncle Dave Macon, Hank Williams, and, uh, Gloria Gaynor (her kiss-off anthem, "I Will Survive," reimagined as self-empowerment barnyard sing-along). "Take Me Away" was a breeze-borne marvel of simple lines, seamlessly intersecting. Reveling in "Chevrolet Six" as if it were a naughty nursery rhyme, Stampfel (69 going on 16, or 6) delivered the lyrics as an orgiastic ode to American wheels and steel.
He was back on acoustic guitar by the time the encore requests rolled around: a zestful cover of the Fugs' "New Amphetamine Shriek" and the Robin Remaily-penned, Rounders-recorded "Euphoria." Words came, but they were really beside the point. With his grin, growls, and howls driving the melody, Stampfel was already there.
Somerville singer-guitarist Elizabeth Butters's 30-minute supporting set was a beautiful, if fragile, bird to behold. Alternating between acoustic guitar and dulcimer (and accompanied by David Goligorsky on musical saw), Butters was tentative yet beguiling as she sang a clutch of haunted murder ballads in a shy, formal voice that belied the death and despair at the dark heart of her material.