Leave ’em dancin’

Jam scene faves Swamp Zen release first album of funky originals

Swamp Zen prepares to bring the dance beat to the stage. From left: Chad Kelley, Steve Hoffman, guest bassist Troy Dye, Doug Stein and Noel Carvalho (not pictured, Jonathan Stoyanoff).

Swamp Zen prepares to bring the dance beat to the stage. From left: Chad Kelley, Steve Hoffman, guest bassist Troy Dye, Doug Stein and Noel Carvalho (not pictured, Jonathan Stoyanoff).

Photo By Jason Cassidy

Swamp Zen live: Two shows Friday, May 28: Friday Night Concert in Chico City Plaza at 7:30 p.m.; CD-release party at Lost on Main (Electric Circus opens) at 10 p.m.
Lost on Main, 319 Main St. 891-1853

At the same time as I was interviewing members of local jam band Swamp Zen at a jam-packed, noisy Woodstock’s Pizza last Thursday evening, Oroville’s Kent Family Magic Circus was wrapping up a show. “Jugglin’ Jim” Kent stood near our booth and balanced a Woodstock’s table on his chin for a crowd of people cheering him on from a window table, while his father Victor Kent turned his video camera toward us and did a short, impromptu interview with Swamp Zen lead guitarist/vocalist Chad Kelley for the Kent Circus video-blog.

It seemed like an appropriate amount of rollicking fun in which to conduct my interview with long-haired Swamp Zen founder/leader/vocalist/guitarist Doug Stein and two-fifths of his crew—Kelley, who has been with the group for a year, and Woodstock’s marketing rep Steve Hoffman, percussionist with the band.

As the three talked, laughed and drank big beers in the middle of the near-chaos, Stein announced himself as the band’s “ringleader” and offered with a hearty chuckle: “We put the funk in dysfunctional.”

Popular local bassist Jonathan Stoyanoff, the band’s new “bass magician,” as they referred to him (Stoyanoff replaced former bassist “Snake” Howe when he left the group 6 months ago), wasn’t there because he was at a gig, and Swamp Zen drummer Noel Carvalho popped in at the end of the interview, long enough to sing his praises for Stoyanoff with whom he also plays in local Latin-jazz jam band Los Papi Chulos.

One of the things we were at Woodstock’s to talk about was Swamp Zen’s first album, Falling With Style, which will be officially released on May 28 at Lost on Main. Recorded by in-demand sound-engineer (and Candy Apple vocalist/organist) Scott Barwick at his Origami Studios, the collection of eight of Stein’s originals features Kelley on cruising-yet-commanding guitar leads, former SZ member Rob Lamonica on retro-70s-style keyboard and Stein’s insistent vocals. The release comes at what looks like a high point for the group, which is just coming off its second CAMMIES nomination (for Best Funk/Jam Band) and an opening gig with guitarist Charlie Hunter at the El Rey Theatre on May 14. And the band has the additional feather in its cap of having the album’s colorful cover art done by famous Fillmore-concert-poster artist Frank Wiedemann.

“This is the first bit of recorded music I have put out since [I was in defunct local jam band] Puddle Junction in 1997,” said Stein excitedly, of the CD that took two years to make.

Stein shared the genesis of Swamp Zen, going back to about the year 2001, when Stein—with Howe, guitarist Brian “Gravy” Asher (of GravyBrain) and Electric Circus guitarist/vocalist Saul Henson—started the band, then called Swamp Zen Shotgun.

“[But] I was sitting there one day, thinking I should drop the ‘Shotgun,’” said Stein. “I was watching a western and right then the guy said, ‘Drop the shotgun.’ So we did.”

After a hiatus, a number of personnel changes and a name change to the unwieldy (or catchy, depending on whom you talk to) Waltz, Saul, Snake ’n’ Stein, when half the band consisted of members of Electric Circus, the band settled back into its identity as Swamp Zen in 2008, when Grateful Dead fan Hoffman was lured into the band by its Dead covers.

“I packed up my bongos and went to Mazatlán,” said a smiling Hoffman of his first gig with the band—in Mexico, where Lamonica now lives.

Falling With Style—that’s the process of our life,” offered Stein in a philosophical moment sandwiched in the middle of the raucous camaraderie. “To live with grace and fall with style.”