Across time and space with the East-West Transcendental Spark & Cinder Band
Members, family and friends reflect on 30 years of Chico musical history
There is no way to tell the story of a band that has been steadily gigging for 30 years in a few tidy pages. Especially a band with as large and fluid a cast of musicians as Spark & Cinder. No two people remember things the same way, and events have different meaning to different people at different times in their lives. With this in mind we have lovingly assembled, blended, and occasionally just crammed in as many tidbits of recorded interviews, e-mailed reminisences, hand-written notes and phoned-in memories, interpretations and revelations as we can fit into the allotted space with hopes that the facets as presented through different eyes will form a vision of the whole.For the linear minded and chronologically obsessed, the bare-bones story is that in the early ‘70s there was a large community of California hippies living east of town in Butte Creek Canyon and playing music under the name the Butte Creek Family Band, led by Michael Cannon. And at the same time there was a small community of East Coast/Jersey City musicians living in a sprawling farmhouse northwest of town in what were then the walnut orchards along Lassen Avenue. The Jersey contingent called their band Supa Nova, a band that eventually splintered and reformed as Jackstraw, led by drummer/mandolinist Jimmy Fay. The two musical communities circled around and interacted with each other, playing the same venues in and around Chico, and eventually intertwined to the point of combining forces and resources and appearing as what is now simply called Spark & Cinder.
Having been acquainted with many of these musicians for more than the 30 years that encompass the history of Spark & Cinder, this writer can attest to the fact that I have never encountered as diverse a group of such talented and skilled musicians who have remained a functioning musical entity for so long. It’s a tribute to their character as people and as a band that members have come, gone, quit, rejoined, feuded, made up and kept going to the point that, 30 years on, any combination of about two dozen veteran players can get together under the Spark & Cinder moniker and immediately generate a sound that is unmistakably, and inimitably theirs (and ours) alone.
One thing we can all agree on is that the heart and foundation of Spark & Cinder is the drumming and personality of its only constant member, Jimmy Fay, a plain-spoken, rough-hewn Jersey City Irishman who minces no words, plays brilliant left-handed drums and upside-down mandolin, and writes songs that have kept people all over the West dancing from the moment the band first hit a stage.
What is was & what it is
Jimmy Fay: Well, it started out as the East-West Transcendental Spark & Cinder Band. Mikey [Cannon] made it up with [John] Glick. You know, it was half back-east guys and half out-west guys. Glick came up with the Spark & Cinder part, and Mikey added the East-West Transcendental. We figured as strong as everybody’s personalities were in the band, we thought it would last about three days. Or maybe three weeks. But nobody figured it would still be going on after 30 years. So it’s actually more funny now than it was back then, because that was obviously an incorrect assumption [laughter all around].
Michael Cannon: It started with Jimmy’s band Jackstraw, who were doing a sort of toned-down, bluegrass-rock thing, and the Butte Creek band. We both played at the Odyssey [long defunct rock ‘n’ roll bar on Humboldt Ave.], and one day me and John Glick were havin’ a beer at the Odyssey and John said we really ought to get the Jackstraw guys and our band and do a gig together. So we went and got the gig for Friday and Saturday night and then we called everybody and told ’em we had a gig. Then we needed to come up with a name, so Glick came up with the Spark & Cinder Band and I added the East-West Transcendental, because we were joining the groups from the East Coast and the West Coast. We might have had one, maybe two, rehearsals before the shows, and then we were there the next week and the next week …
As far as Butte Creek goes, we were good melody players, but we were a little weaker on rhythm. But when we synced up with that Jersey rhythm section you could just tell, ‘This is happenin'. [Laughs.]
Stevie Cook (guitar and vocals): Spark & Cinder in its many variations is really like a big extended musical family. The chemistry and magic that happens is a spiritual and cultural phenomenon. Like any family there are different personalities and egos, but the music is always bigger and greater than all that. And it keeps us coming back to do it again and again. Different members have joined, quit, moved away, returned, joined again—on and on. But family is family. Sometimes I think it’s like one of those things where a bunch of us souls were getting ready to incarnate on this planet and we made some kind of agreement that we would come here and do this. Like, “See you on earth. We’ll make some magic with music and use it to uplift, have fun, heal and make people happy.”
Jerry Morano (congas, percussion): One of my favorite memories is when we all first started the band, all the new musicians together. The music sounded great. It was all new and fresh. Anything was possible. Michael and Jimmy were the defacto leaders and songwriters. Then [came] our first gig when the crowd loved it and we knew we were on to something. We are a dance band; that’s why people seem to like our sound—our mission is to make the crowd shake it. Rhythm has been our ally.
Jim Hall (saxophone): Since 1988, when I originally joined the band, our meeting place the morning after a gig was and still is The Kalico Kitchen on The Esplanade. There, the band families are able to spend time together laughing and enjoying each other. The breakfast has always been the best, and the service has for years been fast, fast, fast.
It’s not just the guys and girls on stage who are the Spark & Cinder, but the extended family, including wives and sons and daughters, ex-wives and girlfriends, that have helped to keep this group of wonderful and talented musicians together for 30 years.
Jimmy: The last 10 years there hasn’t been the same band two times in a row once.
Jimmy: Our first real lead singer was Kim.
Jerry Morano (congas, percussion): Yeah. Kim Cataluna.
[The CN&R recently spoke with Cataluna, who has made a career as a vocalist, including touring with Van Morrison, from her Bay Area home. the writer remembers her as a tall, slender, very pretty young lady with a great smile whom he met when she picked him up hitchhiking back to Chico from Butte College in about 1974. Her voice is still rich, vivacious and warmly rough, and her sentences are often punctuated by what can only be termed a heartfelt and exuberant laugh.]
Oh, one thing I will never forget about the shows was that nobody ever sat still. At Ray’s Rendezvous [a long-defunct Paradise hotspot] it was like seeing through a psychedelic haze [the laugh], and people would dance until they were just soaked with sweat.
But my favorite memory of Spark & Cinder is the night the whole band showed up on my porch and knocked on my door to ask me to sing for their band. It was so sweet. It was almost like being proposed to. It felt sort of romantic, in a way. I didn’t really realize till years later that having Jimmy Fay come to your door to ask you to be the singer in his band was a very exceptional thing.
Bob Wallen (original member & band manager): Ray’s Rendezvous in Paradise was where the band really took off. It held about 400 people, a huge place with a hovering parachute and a spring-loaded dance floor. As well as a big carpeted stage. It was heaven. Plus we made big money back then, charged a dollar originally and then had to jack it up to $1.25 because the club owner [Ray] wanted a piece of the action. His reasoning being that the crowd didn’t drink much. He was probably right about that but I reminded him that on a typical Saturday night he might see 10 people nursing a few Budweisers and shooting pool. To no avail. We did OK, made $400-$500 a night, maybe $30-$40 each, which back then wasn’t too bad when rent was only $75.
One night on the way home from Ray’s some kid driving a stolen semi truck rolled the damn thing right in front of Phil O’Neill and a bunch of us in O’Neill’s van. We gave the kid a ride into Chico and told him that the next time he stole a truck to slow down.
Scott Pressman [Ska-T, guitar]: Here we go … stream of conscience kicking in … In the beginning I was a “student” at Chico State, and my friend Kim Gimbal took me to see the East-West Transcendental Spark & Cinder Band, as they were called. This must have been circa (as seen thru a cloud) 1977, maybe? I soon realized that this music, reggae, salsa, soul, funk, jazz and country was a very special blend, with no peer anywhere. I went to all their gigs, which culminated one night at a venue in Paradise called Ray’s Rendezvous. Being a broke college student-musician-hippie, I tried to sneak in the back, and got caught by Billy Baxmeyer, supreme bass player for Spark. I will never forget his larger-than-life persona, huge beard. huge long hair, giant long legs, torso, and long, strong hands! I believe they called him Treemon, he was like a human sycamore tree come to life. He was very stern with me; we didn’t know each other from Adam. “DOn’t YAS KNOW WE GOT KIDS TO FEED,THIS IS HOW WE EARN OUR LIVING!!!” I was scared beyond words. “YOUS ARE GONNA HAVE TA GO ROUND FRONT AND PAY!” This was my first encounter one-on-one with a band member, and one of the “East” people, from New Jersey, very imposing to a young California hippie. This was just the start of getting to know Billy Bax, as we grew together for the next 20-plus years thru name changes, haircuts, band deviations, etc. I can see now that , during and after all these years, he was and is a gentle pussycat, and I now understand about families, and raising kids, and a little more about rocknreggaenfunknsoulnjazzncountrynsalsanroll! Wow,did I say all that?
One more note from the road … playing the Ashkenaz in Berkeley-late ‘70s,early ‘80s. The owner of the club was under the impression we were a reggae band, but said our singer had an Irish inflection … how can that be? Jimmy Fay’s roots have traveled deep, and far…
Steve Schuman (concert producer, North Valley Productions): I loved this small town, hip band and it seemed you could almost find them weekly performing somewhere in Chico. You were guaranteed to meet some very hip and cool folks there. What a nice family time it was. If you followed Sparks, your circle of friends just got wider. I have met life-time friends at these dances.
Regarding racial tension (Jimmy): “We used to play in Washington in this one place in Ellensburg, and the black guys would come to dance, because they liked the music, and the owner didn’t even want ’em coming to his place. We were supposed to have a four-night gig, and we got fired after a night and a half because the owner said, ‘You’re playin’ too much of that nigger music.’ Can you fuckin’ believe that?”
Jimmy: We played for every organization, every political cause. We played benefits for [Sierra Nevada Brewing founder] Ken Grossman when he was making beer in his basement. We did tons of benefits for Jane Dolan when she was just starting. For BEC [Butte Environmental Council], and the Wildcat when they wanted to move it off campus and became the Chico News & Review, or whatever they called it first. And KZFR and the hippie co-op, you know the food co-op [Chico Natural Foods]. And the Concow school. And we played for Tom Hayden …” Fay related how Hayden’s message of forsaking the trappings of the counter-culture to “put on a suit and register as a Democrat” was not exactly his cup of tea, so to speak, boiling the anedcdote down to, “He’s gonna ask us to play for him, and then tell us not to be who we are? I don’t need that shit.”
Peter Berkow (journalist, videographer and longtime Chico musician): This band has provided a soundtrack for the progressive community for three decades, and their generosity is unmatched. Sparks has played benefits for just about every liberal politician, green organization, or open-minded institution in town—and that includes a struggling News & Review, back in the day when banks wouldn’t float a loan to keep the fledgling publication in business. Butte Environmental Council, Chico Natural Foods, Jane Dolan—you name it: You’d have to dedicate an entire issue to listing everybody who should shout out a thanks.
Alan Ginter (bassist in many Chico jazz ensembles): In the Spring of 1983, our son, Mark, suffered a terrible accident. We were in the direst straits possible since I had just recovered from lung surgery. A benefit concert was arranged at the old Wall St. Dance Academy [by Donna Garrison], and so many friends showed up and supported us financially and emotionally. But it was our friends from Spark ‘n’ Cinder who graciously headlined the show and brought in so many more people by their presence. We were then and are still so grateful that it is difficult to put into words, even so many years later. Mark is still struggling but our entire family remains grateful to Spark ‘n’ Cinder for helping us through that most difficult of times. This is who they are and who they have always been. It is comforting to know that musicians like these still exist in today’s world and are still doing what they do—creating exciting music and helping people and the community at the same time. We love them all and remember them fondly. The Ginter family.
Defining the sound
Jimmy: A lot of guys’ll be like, [in sarcastically fawning voice] “What do you call the kind of music you guys play?” And they’ll try to trick me, “Oh, you guys play reggae.” And I used to tell ’em, “It’s whatever the hell we feel like playin'.” That’s what I call it, “Whatever the hell I feel like playin.'” I still call it that. I grew up in the ‘60s playin’ all that Impressions stuff, that little quick Caribbean Afro-beat with a little funk, that’s what I grew up playin'. And like the first Bob Marley record, he was on the cover dressed inna suit and stuff, trying to look like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. And Curtis Mayfield was an actual mentor of Bob Marley, not an influence like he listened to his records, but they actually did seminars together and shit.”
Jimmy on composing: I give ’em the chords and go, ‘there ya go.’ [Laughs.]
To which Gimbal added, “On the most recent recordings I’d be at the studio with my keyboard and Jimmy would play me the chords on the mandolin, and I’d get my part from there. And that’s actually a real cool way to do it. Of course two years from now we’ll be playing these same songs and they’ll be totally different.”
Jerry Morano: From the very beginning that’s one thing that made us a little different. We always played original music. We’re weren’t just a bar band that only played cover songs. And people were interested in hearing our music.
Gimball: I was one of Sparks biggest fans for 11 years before I was in it. And I couldn’t believe when I first heard Spark & Cinder that these were original songs. Jimmy was always really the lead singer even though they had Kim Cataluna and Sam [Yarborough]. I was a drummer and I’d see this guy sittin’ back there playing left handed and singing these original tunes and I’d be like, Wow! This is like our own local—on our level—like the Grateful Dead, or something. Cause the music was definitely that good. The stuff at Ray’s Rendezvous was just, “Wow!” And I wondered, why aren’t these guys as famous as the Grateful Dead?
Jimmy: But [to make it] you had to have Peter Frampton hair or somethin'.
Sylvia Wallace Youngren (fan): The first time I saw Spark was at a fund-raiser in the canyon—I think Jane Dolan was running in her first term. I was visiting from southern Cal, before I even moved to Chico. Unbeknownst to me that I would raise my kids in that very canyon. I thought it was so cool, a 12-piece/10-piece/however-many-musicians-were-on-the-stage-at-the-time-piece band. The most fascinating thing happened when the second band got up to play—it had the same members as Spark but maybe five piece. Every time a new band played the style was different but the players were the same. It was plain that the musicians were versatile and talented and totally into their music. Spark is the base of Chico world beat music.
But the thing that stuck out in my mind to this day is the shadow of a skinny hippie girl—skinny as a rail and there were puffs in her shadow where her armpit hair extruded. Sorry to say I missed the reunion, I caught the last one and it was unbelievable. I miss dancing all night and not worrying about a partner and never missing a beat. I still think that “Looking Glass” is the best song ever.
Michael Cannon on East meets West: The thing about the original lineup of the band was you had all real good players. Our set lists were unbelievable. In one set we might play jazz, like a McCoy Tyner thing, some Bob Wills western swing, and I’d just gotten back from the Caribbean and was interested in that Caribbean sound, and I knew Jimmy was the only guy in town who could play that stuff. The influences just mixed up everything.
Joe Hammons (guitar): I think I played one gig with them as Jackstraw. One day we were either rehearsing or hanging out at a house at 19th and Hemlock where another group, The Rubber Brain Boogie Band (with the late Roger Sheldon, Steve Silberman, Denver, Sue Poe, Kim Cataluna, and later, Sam Yarbrough) had members living and there was a rehearsal/informal acoustic jam. I remember playing “Boogie On Reggae Woman” among other tunes. Michael Cannon was among those present. I’d also met Michael prior to that point and had heard the Butte Creek Family Band and was also familiar with much of their material. A week, maybe two, later I got a call to come down to the Odyssey to play with the newly formed East West Transcendental Spark & Cinder Band and played with them until 1979, rejoining mid-'90s after getting off the road with Merle Haggard.
Dan McLaughlin (current bassist): I saw Spark & Cinder when I first came to town in ‘84, moving up from L.A., and I thought they were as great as the Neville Brothers and the Meters and all these big names I’d seen in concert.
Cannon on Fay: One thing I’ll say about Jimmy, and this is an honest statement from me, and I’ve been in this town for 40 years playing music—I started playing piano at Nashville West when I was 18—in my opinion, Jimmy has more music in him than anybody. Every fiber of his being is music. And he knows all kinds of music. He might not be a technically perfect mandolin player, but he is certainly a technical drummer. He just emanates music. If Jimmy was born a couple of hundred years ago in Ireland, he’d be one of those traveling bards, that moved from town to town, and house to house, who just stayed for a few weeks and then moved on to the next town. But it’s hard to do that in this culture.
God love him. He’s at the place that I’d like to get to. A total musician. With Jimmy you never worry about the rhythm, because you know its going to be focused.
John Lapado (pedal steel, rhythm guitar): I can remember standing on stage while Jimmy would be doing some amazing drum solo, and his playing was so phenomenal, so technically beautiful and musical, that I’d just look around and wonder, “Is anybody else here noticing how great this is?”
Jerry: Jimmy is a water sign with fire rising, so he’s like steam in a lot of ways. He is really a nice guy under all the hubris.
Back to the beginning
Kim Gimbal (keyboards and occasional bass): Anyway, about the time I moved back down to the Bay, my old Piedmont chum, Scott Pressman moved to Chico from Quincy, where he’d gone to Jr. College.
On one of my visits during that time I hung out with him and his girlfriend, Alyce. One night we went down to what became Nellie’s [Hey Juans, Juanita’s] etc. … There was this great band playing. They played mostly bluegrass and sort of Grateful Dead/Byrds country. Scott, Alyce, and I were getting fairly well plied with beer and were really enjoying the music. The band took a break and disappeared outside. After a few minutes, a few of them began to trickle back onto the stage and began to jam. The drummer and mandolin players were still outside. The drums really only consisted of a snare drum being played with brushes. I, being a schooled percussionist and by now drunk, thought it would be fine to just hop up on the stage and jam along on the drum, which I did. A few minutes later the drummer and mandolin player came back in.
The drummer didn’t mind that I was playing and the mando player started playing along too. So I’m feelin pretty groovy about all of this, jamming away with this very cool band in Chico. Suddenly the snare drum begins to slip out of its stand. I kind of clutched at it with my thighs and attempted to keep on playing, but ultimately, the drum fell away and banged onto floor, which caused the song to fall apart. At that point the mando player stops playing, turns around and yells at me to “GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE!!!” I tucked my tail between my legs and rejoined Scott and Alyce at our table and we probably left quickly thereafter.
Years later, at some gig somewhere with Jimmy, the story came up … I think Jimmy was telling the story, about some unknown guy who broke his drum one night years before…. This all began to sound more and more familiar to me. Then we all realized … it was me … it was them! The band was Jackstraw, the drummer was Jerry Morano, and the mando player was Jimmy Fay. The drums were Jimmy’s. He didn’t know me from Adam and when the drum hit the floor his patience with this unknown yahoo had come to and end and I was promptly ejected.
This from the guy who would become one of my closest musical partners; I’m sure I’ve spent more time playing music with Jimmy Fay than any single other musician It’s been pretty constant for about 22 years. From Road Raisin, through the Blues Movers, The Steve Cook Band, and all the permutations of Spark and Cinder, it’s been a hell of ride playing with Jimmy. There’s really nothing else like it. I’ve always said that to watch and listen to Jimmy Fay play and sing is to truly witness pure poetry in motion. And for me it all started with “GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE!!!”
Jimmy: About two years into Supa Nova there’s a photo of both these bands, Butte Creek Family and Supa Nova, playin’ in front of the Supa Nova bus. And eventually it gets like this: There was the Ska-T era, and the Dana Olsen era, and all the different sax players. And alla them people had like people that followed them around. So there’d be people that came to see Dana Olsen or Jim Hall or whatever. And then when Stevie started the Stevie Cook Band he always hired the Spark rhythm section, so we started usin’ him ‘cause after a while he knew a lot of our songs and we knew a bunch of his.
Kim Gimball interjects: “And back then we had Prairie Biscuit, and we had Road Raisin with Stevie. And Billy Councilman was our drummer. But when Billy left, we got Jimmy to play drums and that’s when things really started to get intermixed.”
“But what it was, was that by the late ‘70s you could see fire trucks goin’ down the road, one of ’em Spark and the other Cinder. That’s how it was in the late ‘70s. Spark & Cinder was so pervasive in the culture you know, with the fire guys namin’ there trucks after us and all that shit.”
Kathleen Faith (mother of John LaPado’s daughter, Jana): We continue to forge change and question the status quo. And those wonderful musicians in Spark & Cinder just keep coming together through it all to offer us their life-giving sounds.
Halleluiah. So be it. Yippee and yea!!!
The writer wishes to thank the members, family and friends of Spark & Cinder for the hours of interviews, e-mails and scanning of archival photos that went into this story.