It’s all about the music, man

Musician and Spark & Cinder fan Peter Berkow digs the vibe, but loves the music

Years ago, a variation of Spark & Cinder played unplugged at a night of acoustic music in the Women’s Club. That evening it became apparent: Limit these guys to one mandolin plus standard kitchen utensils, and they’d still squeeze out an inspired performance of Jimmy Fay’s songs.

Much is made about the history of Spark & Cinder, as we count the decades they’ve survived. Still: There’d be no story without the musicianship and the songs.

Communicate the genius of Sparks in 500 words?

It starts with Jimmy Fay, of course. Catch him from six inches away, playing drums pressed up against the window at Stormy’s: You’ll first think of a human rhythm machine. Wrong metaphor. Though the tempo is metronomic, Fay’s pulse is as organic as the farmer’s market, blending a stew of calypso, funk, blues, reggae, and jazz all simmered with a scholar’s knowledge of percussion.

Come back when Fay is serenading a few Wednesday night fans with nothing but his upside down, left-handed mandolin. You’ll be stunned by the clarity of his Irish-tenor’s voice.

The songs, however, are the key. Fay writes lyrics and melodies that defy categorization. You’ll remember each, after one exposure; after decades of dances, they become ingrained in your DNA. The song “Looking Glass"–a minor-key Russian melody juxtaposed with a Jamaican beat–haunts anybody listening carefully. Jeff Daub’s signature trumpet licks on the song “Forest Child” (written, as legend would have it, on Fay’s mandolin and passed down from one generation of horn players to the next) can get an entire city park of Sparks fans dancing in ecstasy within 15 seconds.

That’s 300 words; it would take 200 more just to list Fay’s supporting cast.

Dana: After hearing his soaring solos, most guitar players grovel, and mutter, “I’m not worthy.” Not Ska-T. He’s a fine soloist, but his funky guitar rhythm is to Sparks what Steve Cropper was to the Memphis sound. Joe, Saul, Larry, Moe, Curly and Stevie all followed, adding a fresh touch with each incarnation of the band.

Of course, Jimmy is usually the voice of Spark ‘n’ Cinder, but Stevie has the VOICE. Some might say the band manifested a “multiple peronality” syndrome, when it was fronted by singers in different eras. But, Martha, Sam, Kim, Bob, and Gina each added a new spice to the Sparks soufflé. And, before him, Martha, Sam, Kim, Bob, and Gina all marked distinctive eras where the band was fronted by a talented singer.

Jerry: Without the counterpoint of his excellent hand drumming, Jimmy would have no foil.

Kim: He plays every instrument known to man (or woman), but he’s emerged over the years as a superb keyboardist who gives the band a full, contemporary sound.

Before him, John and Johnny took the band through entertaining, countrified side trips into pedal steel land–and though it’s rumored Sparks is an “accordion free” zone, Michael certainly contributed a wonderful texture in his day.

Billy: Jimmy’s drumming is totally Jersey funk with his fat bottom end. Luckily, Dan, Kim, and Paul have filled in his size 14 shoes admirably over the years.

Jim: Who would have thunk so much joy could be captured by a saxophone? He carried on the traditions started by Marilyn, Phil, and Kevin–all Chico legends. And then there’s Jeff, who played his solos on the Spark & Cinder CD, cradling his sleeping child up against his heart with one hand–holding his trumpet with the other.

That’s Sparks: Hugging this community to your heart.