The Proof Is In the Gumbo
|Philly Gumbo plays World Cafe Live tonight.
It's way past 10 p.m. when Randall Grass answers his extension at Shanachie Entertainment, the indie label that champions reggae and celtic with a soupÃ§on of traditional country and jazz, a touch of world and blues. Grass is Delaware Valley-based, but he lives and breathes music, so his decades with Shanachie way up in Newton NJ still find him at his desk till the job gets done. This time the call wasn't about Shanachie projects, however. Rather he took some time to reflect on Philly Gumbo, with whom he's played keyboards in since Gig One. That first show was an impromptu event about 30 years back which gelled so well that four of the founders Pete Eshelman plays guitar, Tim Hayes drums and Bert Harris handles the bass are still holding the core together. Clearly Grass has some stories to tell.
Musing over how they have stayed friends and colleagues for this length of time Grass offers, "Maybe it's because all of us were teachers or counselors at one time or another. ..." fading off as he starts to evaluate his accuracy. Multiple friendships of over 30 years each leave many details to mull over, so we'll cut to the important thing: These guys still love making music together at the dawn of a fourth decade.
Readers from Paoli who are mumbling "Randall Grass" repeatedly, trying to remember if they went to Conestoga with him, or perhaps he taught them English there, both guesses are correct. He laughs recalling the family's move from California to a hillside overlooking the sprawl that is now King of Prussia. "I felt I'd been living in technicolor and suddenly we switched to black and white!" Not settling for the politely subdued life Grass went on to explore his encyclopedic interests. After finishing college he taught wards of the state weekdays in upstate New York then passed his weekends soaking up the bellydance scene in New York City. With intentions of writing a book he spent time reading in the Lincoln Center dance archives. One article lead to another, reading about Ginger Baker's studio, jamming in Lagos, belly dance on the edge of the Mediterranean everything seemed possible to a twenty-something. When a job was advertised for someone to train teachers to go out into the countryside in Nigeria, it seemed perfect. "I looked at a map, it didn't look far from North Nigeria to [the belly dance capitals]," he remembers laughing at himself.
The book never did get written [but this book did, much later: Great Spirits Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Artists]
, but Grass did spend three years in Nigeria, where he played with a local pop band and apprenticed with a traditional goge fiddle player. "That means I got to follow him around, be the only foreigner in the club." Oral tradition was the the instruction method, take it or leave it.
|The band in 1983.
When Grass finally made it back to Philly it wasn't long before he was hosting "Roots, Rock, Reggae" on 'XPN. Thinking of the late 70s he recalls, "it was a very vibrant music scene. The Cherry Tree was hosting shows every week, International House had concerts, punk was everywhere. JC Dobbs was in full swing. Dobbs was so musician friendly, the rare club that treated local musicians well along with cool up and coming touring bands. [At other spots] you could see live reggae from local bands." He notes sadly, "Today clubs won't even book them."
Reggae was a strong base for Philly Gumbo, the core members have been playing it for years. Grass recalls with pride that drummer Hayes was the only non-Jamaican in the Rock Stones, quite a compliment to how well he'd assimilated the groove. "Kingston Jamaica to New Orleans to Memphis, that triangle, that's the emphasis for Philly Gumbo." Having that solid base let the band host a world of guests during their ten year run ("every Saturday night!") at the late, lamented Bacchanal. "That was a dream gig, everybody from Byard Lancaster to the Lijadu Sisters sat in with us." The crowd reflected the breadth of Philly, downtown professionals to folks who strolled in from the projects around the corner, everybody there to dance.
How does he perceive the scene today? "Look at the listings in the paper for clubs? Compared to other cities, it's pretty slim," he says. "When I started playing in bands in 1965-66, $25 a player was common. Now almost 40 years later they are offering the same thing! So we play lots of special events."
"If we have a legacy, it's the awareness of New Orleans culture. What we do is what the Nevilles did, and the Meters before them."
Guitarist Pete Eshelman's other groups, Zydeco A Go Go and the Wild Bohemians, have also been instrumental in seeing to it that the crowds know the response to the band's call of "Hey Pocky Way!" The real secret to Philly Gumbo's longevity may be this, "We have no strong desire to tour, just a desire to play the music as we feel it should be played."
Philly Gumbo plays Fri., April 9, 9:30 p.m., $13, World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com.