Band on the long run

Mumbo Gumbo dishes up some of Sactown’s sweetest grooves. So are they upset that they never hit the big time nationally? Not one bit.

Chris Webster on the washboard: How to keep zydeco time.

Chris Webster on the washboard: How to keep zydeco time.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Seven can be a crowd.

Especially when you try to fit them all onto one stage—at least in most of the clubs and venues around Sacramento. And it had been quite some time since Mumbo Gumbo tried to shoehorn its membership into a space as tight as the stage at Harlow’s, a popular Midtown nightclub on the J Street strand.

In fact, it had been a long time—six years or so—since this musical melting pot of a septet had tried to blast its seductively tuneful stew of original numbers and choice cover versions at an audience from the stage of any nightclub.

Sometimes you forget why you stopped doing something—until you try it again.

No, it wasn’t Harlow’s occasionally serpentine regulars who scared the band away. Jam a bunch of people into a room who already are predisposed toward having a good time, add a few drinks and an irresistible beat, and you’ve got an exchange of energy between band and audience that—for most musicians, anyway—cannot be denied.

So, if the band was playing well, and the music was flowing and the crowd was lapping it up, well, what was the problem?

“I don’t care if we ever play that place again,” Tracy Walton, one of the two female singer-songwriters who front Mumbo Gumbo, commented later. “It was so loud that my ears were ringing.”

Chalk it up to age, or perhaps experience. When your band’s played well over a hundred gigs each year for over a decade, eventually you reach a place where some aspects of the job become downright uncomfortable. And when you venture back into a nightclub for the first time in years, where tight confines, uneven acoustics, and someone at the sound board may be pushing the faders up a bit too far, it’s easy to forget how those events can conspire to make for a difficult experience.

Still, when you’ve experienced that unique feeling when everything is clicking, and the band just fell into a liquid groove behind you, and that groove swells and hurtles you toward shore like a wave underneath your surfboard, and your voice is riding that groove right into the crowd, which responds by giving up love that flows right back to you and splashes you in the face, well, it’s going to take a lot of discomfort to keep you off that stage.

And Mumbo Gumbo has experienced plenty of what guitarist and musicologist Ry Cooder might call “chicken-skin moments” in its eleven years—times where the juju is flowing so nicely you get goose bumps.

Take a recent rainy Saturday evening, when Mumbo Gumbo played a benefit inside a Unitarian Universalist church that had some sort of Gilligan’s Island theme: Hawaiian shirts, sailor hats. The band locked into some major percolation right away—even though later, on a between-set announce-the-lottery-winners break, a few band members apologized for playing behind a nasty case of the flu.

Six Gumbos lined up across the stage at the front of the church, with drummer Rick Lotter stirring up the beat behind them: accordionist Steve Stizzo, who doubled on electric piano; guitarist Jon Wood on a Fender Strat; saxophonist Reggy Marks, who alternated on tenor and a soprano sax untainted by any Kenny G damage; straw cowboy-hatted singer Chris Webster, who played guitar, alto sax and washboard, depending on the song; singer Tracy Walton, who also played guitar; and bassist Mike Palmer, who spent much of the time beaming beatifically from the stage. The music the band played was, like the metaphor adopted for a name, a gumbo: Louisiana zydeco meets Memphis soul stew meets Tex-Mex meets Andrews Sisters-style World War II pretty harmony pop by way of Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks. Nevertheless, it worked.

And the verdict was on the dance floor: It was packed. All ages, too, from blue-rinse seniors to kids who won’t be getting their driver’s licenses any time soon, all shaking it down with the kind of abandon and precious little self-conscious restraint that you don’t see too often these days—especially at church socials.

But it’s a safe bet that Mumbo Gumbo could get the most resolute hard-shelled Baptist to get up and shake a leg.

• • •

Before Mumbo Gumbo, there was a local band in the mid-’80s called the Spydels. Nostalgia for Motown Records’ classic 45s was beginning to recapture the affections of adult “baby boomers,” people who were kids or teenagers when those records were originally released in the 1960s.

Across the Atlantic, a similar phenomenon had been happening for a few years—bands like the Specials, the (English) Beat and Madness were getting the Brits dancing by tapping into a Jamaican pop-music style called ska, mostly nicked from a rich vein of semi-obscure singles.

According to founding member Billy Fairfield, the name and style evolved when the band took “spy,” a reference to the visual motif that ska artists appropriated from James Bond movies, and combined it with “del,” a common prefix or suffix in the names of doo-wop and surf-instrumental acts. The band figured, correctly, that some people tired of rock music that appealed more to the head than the booty, might be ready for a danceable, party-music alternative.

Mike Palmer, a veteran of such stellar local new-wave combos from the late-’70s as the Mumbles and Permanent Wave, knew that the prevailing post-Lennon-McCartney-Dylan ethos—at least among rock bands and their fans—was that original songs were cool, and cover versions were not. But as a bass player who sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Motown session bassist James Jamerson’s work, Palmer had also figured out what gets a crowd dancing.

Palmer had been recruited into the Spydels in the fall of 1983 by Fairfield, a keyboard-playing native of Dixon who had returned to the Sacramento area after living in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz. He and Palmer had played together in Lautrec, a “longhair” band circa-1976 that originated what would become a template for Mumbo Gumbo—seven members, with two women up front on vocals. The Spydels also included Frank French, a veteran of innumerable Sacramento skinny-tie bands, on drums. (French would later play in the original incarnation of Cake.) The soul-style buttshakers made for a good time onstage—eventually attracting Chris Webster, a saxophone-playing singer who joined in the spring of 1985.

Eventually, though, playing R&B covers night after night got old.

“We worked a lot,” Palmer says. “But we got real tired of it.”

While the Spydels’ fortunes didn’t go too far south, a few members began referring to the band—among themselves—as “the Lame-dells.” When that sort of thing happens, it’s usually only a matter of time before people start pursuing solo projects.

Fairfield, however, had other ideas.

Like the mountain climber who ascends that Himalayan peak “because it is there,” the keyboard player had become entranced by the challenge of squeezing soulful music out of a piano accordion. And when Fairfield found out that there was more to accordion music than the Lawrence Welk-approved schmaltz of Myron Floren, that players such as Louisiana zydeco master Clifton Chenier and Mexican norteño accordionist Flaco Jimenez could actually rock the squeezebox and make great-sounding music, he was sold on the idea of learning how to perform with the instrument.

Mike Palmer on bass: This has five strings, but it goes to “11.”

Photo by Jill Wagner

Fairfield had stumbled across Chenier, Jimenez and others while spinning platters on KDVS, where he had a weekly show—first on weekends, later on Monday afternoons. It was a great place to hunt for new songs his band could cover. And once Webster joined the group, Fairfield figured out a nifty method of auditioning potential material for her.

“I’d have her tune in,” Fairfield recalls. “I’d purposefully play songs to have her check out. I’d do a whole set of tunes; I knew she’d be home listening, so I’d say, ‘Check out this next set; listen from 2 to 2:30 and I’ll play a bunch of songs that I think would be good.’ ”

Fairfield’s custom playlist for Webster included soul belters like Etta James and some of the lesser-known acts on Motown, along with more current artists such as Texas singer Marcia Ball—whose piano style was influenced by one of Fairfield’s favorites, Professor Longhair from New Orleans. It was a short hop from Longhair to zydeco, but KDVS only had two records in that genre: one by Chenier and one by Buckwheat Zydeco. Despite such a limited selection, Fairfield was smitten.

“I always liked blues and boogie-woogie piano,” he says. Add the accordion riffs and Webster on a rub board, a standard rhythm instrument in zydeco bands, and by the end of the decade, the Spydels—or Spydelz, as the band had decided to spell its name by then—and the band’s musical direction had unquestionably swerved southward, from Motown to deep Louisiana. “The ‘z’ stood for ‘zydeco,’ ” Fairfield explains.

Then Rick Lotter and Joe Craven joined. Lotter, a jazz drummer, brought an affinity for the polyrhythmic music of the African diaspora—sounds like West African soukous and South African highlife. Craven’s background was more aligned with the mutant bluegrass-jazz aesthetic of fellow mandolinist David Grisman (since his stint with the group, he’s played in Grisman’s bands).

The disparate influences of incoming band members changed the Spydelz from what Fairfield describes as a U.C. Davis party band into something much thicker—and more tasty. “I have a poster here for a gig from 1989,” he says, “and they actually call the Spydelz ‘a spicy-hot gumbo of rock, soul and zydeco.’ ”

On Earth Day, 1990, the Spydelz officially dumped their name in favor of one that more accurately reflected what was happening in the band’s music: Mumbo Gumbo.

Over the decade that followed, Mumbo Gumbo would evolve into a powerful live act, a seamless multi-genre vehicle for two very talented songwriters. It would become somewhat of a Yolo County cottage industry, providing a decent living for its members so they wouldn’t have to schedule gigs around day jobs. It would bypass the big-record-company rocket to stardom, instead choosing to release its five CDs and one live cassette-only album on its own independent label, Ruby Records. (Mumbo Gumbo’s next album, tentatively titled Seven, is forthcoming in late May.) If your measure of success is the quality of life provided to its members, Mumbo Gumbo would no doubt be considered successful. Hey, the band’s even won five SAMMIES.

Success, however, usually doesn’t come without a struggle.

• • •

There are a lot of bands that can play the Kerrville Folk Festival, an annual affair held every June in the Texas hill country west of Austin. It’s a can’t-miss booking on the itinerary of any serious singer-songwriter. However, not many of those bands are equally at home onstage in the Celebrity Showroom at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, Nevada.

Mumbo Gumbo is.

The band’s singer-songwriter credentials are cemented by the presence of Chris Webster and Tracy Walton. Either of them have the goods to be Mumbo Gumbo’s main attraction. Webster’s music has a breezy feel not unlike the word-jazz of the better Joni Mitchell songs—albeit with an earthier, more gritty quality. Walton, who’d played in a Dan Hicks-style hillbilly-jazz combo with Joe Craven called Way Out West before joining Mumbo Gumbo, is the more versatile songwriter of the two; her songs can range from comfortably pedestrian to the sublime. Combine the two, and allow them to sing harmony on each other’s songs, and you’ve got a whole that’s clearly greater than the sum of its parts.

The “gumbo” metaphor in the band’s name is no mistake—a lot of ingredients may go into the mix, but they’ve all simmered long enough that an overall bouquet emerges before individual flavors make themselves known. Take “Wild Ride,” a Webster composition that opens the band’s most recent CD, Potluck. Lotter opens with a fluidly rhythmic drum beat with a distinct N’awlins feel. Then the band comes in: Stizzo’s electric piano thickens the stew, Palmer’s consistent, Memphis-soul-style bass line fattens it, a short but curling electric guitar figure from Wood dances in and out of the mix; the overall effect sounds like something the great ’70s groove band Little Feat might’ve come up with. Webster’s vocal has a grainy edge; think long-distance phone call, or Alanis Morissette on “You Oughta Know.” Indeed, Webster sounds like the missing link between Morissette and tougher blues-seasoned singers like Bonnie Raitt. “Turn off the TV, get out of bed,” she sings. “This is my one big chance / I’m always talking circles in my head / Tonight I’m gonna shut up and dance.”

In contrast, Walton’s “Carol Is Raining,” from the same album, has the feel of a Tex-Mex corrida, with its atmospheric accordion and sensitively expressed guitar riffs. With Walton and Webster singing in harmony, the song’s dreamy feel unfolds like something from k.d. lang by way of Roy Orbison: “Off in the corner / a bowed silhouette/ Carol is raining / Regret.”

Like many local music fans, songwriter and record producer David Houston, who helped Webster edit a trove of live recordings into the live anthology The Adventures of Mumbo Gumbo, has charted the band’s musical growth over the last decade. Houston figured they were a pretty good party band—until Lotter and Walton joined. “I thought it was odd at first,” he says, recalling Walton from her Way Out West days. “But then the band’s sound became much more focused, and Chris and Tracy vibe so well together.” Houston has watched Mumbo Gumbo progress as recording artists from duplicating its live show on record—the band still cuts its basic tracks live, then re-records various parts as needed—to using the studio to fashion something else entirely. “They made a great leap forward with the last two albums,” he opines.

Mumbo Gumbo’s showroom credentials are cemented by the remainder of the ensemble’s solidity: Lotter on drums and Palmer on bass are joined by Steve Stizzo on keys and accordion, Reggy Marks on saxes and Jon Wood on guitar. These guys may know how to go on a Phishing expedition if the material demands it, but they also can deliver the kind of drop-dead second-line rhythm that might make the Meters envious. If their music performance looks effortless, however, it isn’t. Nothing in the business is.

At one point in the mid-’90s, Mumbo Gumbo’s members debated the possibilities of signing with a major record label or continuing on its do-it-yourself path. A band member had sent a tape to someone he knew at Warner Bros., and an L.A.-based talent agent met with the band and was willing to take it to people he knew at Warners. “But it would have meant doing a five-year commitment,” Fairfield says. “At the time, we were doing well on our own, and didn’t want to be told where to go and all that.”

The band ultimately voted against looking for that big-label deal. Even though a major has affiliates worldwide, which can help break a band in Asia or Europe, it loses control over its material. By remaining independent, Mumbo Gumbo would retain 100 percent ownership of its music.

So Mumbo Gumbo could continue to put out discs on Ruby without having to explain its complex culinary chemistry to the marketing department at some big, impersonal record label. By mid-decade, it already had released a cassette-only album Live at the Palms, a self-titled debut CD in 1992 and Deep Soup in 1994. Big Smiley was released in 1996, Adventures in 1997 and Potluck in 1998. While Mumbo Gumbo may not have a platinum album-foisting major-label machine behind it, the band still sells from 4,000 to 10,000 copies per release. Which may not sound like much, until you realize that the only bottom line being fattened is the band’s. “At the very least, the records pay for themselves,” Lotter says proudly.

And even though Mumbo Gumbo opted not to pursue the typical avenue to success in show business, it’s been the beneficiary of a fluke or two—like the times in the early ’90s when David E. Kelley’s CBS television series Northern Exposure featured some of the band’s songs. “The Ring Waltz” and “Dreams” from the first album were heard in one episode, “Love Birds” from Deep Soup in another—emanating from a jukebox in The Brick, the local watering hole, as incidental music behind conversation. No one’s sure how the band’s music got on the show; they think an agent they’d come into contact with played it for the show’s producers. “They wanted to have a little Podunk feel to it,” Lotter says. “We fit right into that.”

The process of learning to make adult decisions—while pursuing a career choice that often leads to prolonged adolescence—forced the members of Mumbo Gumbo to take a long, hard look at what they really wanted.

Playing in a band is often compared to being in a marriage, except that instead of two egos, you have four. Or, in Mumbo Gumbo’s case, seven. And just as some marriages deepen over time, while others erupt into wake-the-neighbors pyrotechnics, some bands manage to get through the initial difficulties. Most don’t.

Consider the parallel career trajectory of one local musician, Chris Woodhouse. Asked how many bands he’s played in since 1990, Woodhouse can remember at least 22, including Sir & the Young Men, Los Huevos, the Pretty Girls, the Shitty Things, Caboose, Tru Valu, a Milli Vanilli cover band whose name he refuses to mention, the Surprise Package, the Nine-to-Fives, Karate Party, the Dreaded Question, Cheesefish, Babelfish, the Lizards, Pounded Clown, Thermüs, the Horny Mormons, Pollution Circus, Laughing Jesus. “I’m drawing the line at bands that have played a gig,” he says laughing.

Lotter has seen the arc of that particular narrative. “You get a pattern in bands where, as soon as someone starts showing extra initiative and getting some extra stuff done, a couple of things happen,” he explains. “That person generally starts feeling resentful, because they’re not being recognized or paid for what they’re doing. And the others feel resentful, because that person is perceived to be doing a power grab. And that’s when the band is done. That’s when it’s over—or at least the trouble has really begun.”

Mumbo Gumbo could have fallen into that trap, too. Somehow it avoided the pitfalls, though, perhaps because the band’s members had been through the process before and knew what to watch for. Like the martyr syndrome.

Tracy Walton on guitar: “This is an oldie off <i>Master of Puppets</i>.”

Photo by Jill Wagner

“One of the periods that I can think of when it started emerging a lot was when we started the label,” Lotter explains, “and we were working on our second record and somebody had to be in charge of getting this label stuff going. Tracy started taking a whole lot of that work on, and then I started taking some of it on. And then we started saying, OK, let’s just make this person in charge of this. You know, I’ll be in charge of Ruby Records. And somebody’s got to be in charge of gig sales.”

The band had already watched a former guitarist, Brian Rivers, burn out from taking on too many responsibilities. “But then we started paying him for what he was doing,” Lotter says. “And we started seeing that, oh, that really works—you know, it clears the air.”

After deciding to remunerate band members for their contributions, Mumbo Gumbo found itself on more solid ground.

Another bridge to cross came as the result of too many meaningless band meetings. “We all have a pretty democratic way of doing things, but it’s not pure consensus anymore on every decision,” Lotter explains. “It used to be that we would sit down and—on every little decision—we would have to talk through it and get bogged down. We’ve moved into a way where we know each other well enough that we trust each other with decisions. Like, ‘Whatever you think makes sense.’

“And,” he adds, “if it really stinks, you’ll hear about it.”

What the band did was figure out what the various members excelled at, then deputized them to take care of those areas. Webster, for example, is a graphic artist, so she designs, or functions as art director for the band’s CD packaging and concert handbills. Lotter takes care of the business side—he and Walton run the record label, and Lotter takes care of the band’s Web site ( Palmer handles all the band’s merchandising. Fairfield, although he no longer performs live, still takes care of all the concert booking.

He’d probably still be playing, too—if it weren’t for that damned ringing in his ears.

• • •

For a working musician, being forced to stop playing music with a band you love, a band whose musical direction you’d helped shape, a band you’d been playing with for years, would amount to a horrible fate. Only going completely deaf and not being able to hear music at all might be worse.

“I can’t play with Gumbo,” Fairfield says. “I stopped playing with Gumbo a couple of years ago. My ears are, uh, fried.”

You can hear the weariness in his voice. Then he laughs nervously.

“Too many years. I got pretty good tinnitus,” he says. “You know—ringing. Besides that, I’m just real sensitive to drums and bass, at any kind of volume.”

According to the American Tinnitus Association, an estimated 12 million people in this country suffer from the problem to the extent that it causes major distress. Many of them are musicians. So many, in fact, that an organization called Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers, or H.E.A.R. for short, was founded in 1988 to help deal with what was and remains a growing problem among people who work around amplified music. The privately funded nonprofit’s informational Web site,, contains a motherlode of information for anyone afflicted with tinnitus.

Fairfield is definitely one of them. All those years of playing night after night in the tight confines of some of this town’s now-defunct watering holes—Harry’s Bar & Grill, Melarkey’s—left him with the human-body equivalent of a blown set of woofers and tweeters. Except that he can’t run down to Radio Shack for a replacement set.

“It hurts to play. I’m up there playing this happy, festive music, and it’s killing me. I had to stop playing live,” he says. Luckily, the band had a simpatico keyboardist/accordionist on tap in Stizzo, who did step into Fairfield’s shoes without altering the band’s style much.

Fairfield still plays with Mumbo Gumbo on record occasionally, although these days he spends more time playing with his decidedly more low-key swing trio, Dog With a Bone.

• • •

What is success?

It’s a perfect spring day in the backyard garden behind Lotter and Walton’s house in Curtis Park. Lotter, Walton, Webster and Palmer had just spent the better part of the morning listening to rough mixes of tracks, slated for the band’s forthcoming album in Lotter’s home studio. Decisions had to be made—which songs needed more work, which songs were close to being finished, which songs didn’t fit in with the other songs and should be scrapped.

They lounge in chairs around a table; Walton periodically listens in on a radio device that monitors the nap that Emma, their 14-month-old daughter, is taking. Around the table, Webster sits in the shade of the fence next to Lotter; Palmer, on the other side of her, catches a few rays. Planes buzz overhead, and a neighbor is dragging a bow across a violin’s strings.

“The quality of life has always been important to the members of Gumbo,” Fairfield will say later, over the phone from his home in Davis.

The result of a conscious choice the members of Mumbo Gumbo made some time ago is that they work when they want to work. They don’t have to blow their ears out while playing nightclub gigs anymore; mostly the band now plays festivals, parties and corporate events—which are usually staged outdoors or in larger halls. And most of their shows are within a two-hour radius by car.

Mumbo Gumbo can also choose to play benefits and raise money. “Our songs aren’t political, but we support the causes we believe in,” Lotter says, mentioning a recent show to aid the sanctuary movement, a faith-based effort to help dispossessed Guatemalans and Salvadorans find political asylum in the United States. Lotter’s parents and other members of Davis’ religious community are longtime supporters of the movement.

The group can even play the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, which has made a shift in the past few years from straw-boatered accountants and dentists playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” to the addition of blues and zydeco bands. This year, Mumbo Gumbo will be there. So will Fairfield and Dog With a Bone.

And even on days when things aren’t going perfectly, it’s still a pretty good life. “I think we all realize how valuable it is,” Webster says. “To the point of, even if we have moments where we feel that way—a moment, a day, what have you—we all recognize the value in being grown-up about it and thinking about what we really have.”

Oh, and they can pursue side projects. Like Webster, who recorded a solo album titled Drive in 1995, sold it at gigs and passed it around. Someone at Compass Records, a Nashville-based independent run by folkie Alison Brown, heard it, loved it and got the rights to reissue it.

Or Lotter, who—with pianist Joe Gilman, guitarist Henry Robinett, bassist Kerry Kashiwagi and others—stages concerts organized around a theme at the Capitol Jazz Project.

“There aren’t too many bands I can think of that play their own music the way they want to play it and make their records when they want to and how they want to,” Lotter says. “And take time off—we take every January off, just because we want to do it. Nobody says, ‘Sorry, you can’t.’”

The band may never find its name following the prefix “major-label recording artist.” It may not play Royal Albert or Carnegie Hall anytime soon. But Mumbo Gumbo has found its own measure of success right here in the valley.