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Dance party with Mumbo Gumbo at The Center

Special to The Union

It’s time to dance at The Center for the Arts with a pull-out-the-stops dance party with one of Northern California’s favorite dance bands, Mumbo Gumbo.

Mumbo Gumbo blends many genres, from rock to soul, Afropop to lush balladry, zydeco to country, into a celebratory, danceable noise. Over nearly 20 years and eight albums, Mumbo Gumbo has created something that is less style-specific than a particular feeling: The sound of sheer joy. Or, as one of the band’s songs puts it, “That big life feeling.”

Fronted by two first-rate singer/songwriters, Chris Webster and Tracy Walton, the band is anchored and driven by one of the longest-lived rhythm sections in Northern California: drummer Rick Lotter and bassist Lynn Michael Palmer. With Reggy Marks’ sax, Jon Wood’s guitar, and Steve Stizzo’s keyboards fleshing out the band’s expansive sound, Gumbo has built a reputation not just for danceability, but for creative depth.

It starts with the songs. Moving back and forth between Webster’s sly, sometimes melancholy explorations of romance and individuality and Walton’s ebullient, unabashed celebrations of family and commitment, Gumbo weaves a rich tapestry that transcends genre.

Songs that started in Webster or Walton’s straight-forward, acoustic-guitar-based style become something more in the hands of the band. Lotter and Palmer’s rhythms add new dimensions that inspire the singers, whose voices blend at many points, then soar solo at others. And since both Walton and Webster play (guitar,

saxophone, recorder and even washboard,) the synergy quickly takes songs into broader, more complex arrangements. Unlike bands that strive for danceability, Mumbo Gumbo’s songs always retain their uniqueness.

Songs like Webster’s “Love Makes Me Stupid” and “Opera Girl” or Walton’s “Original You” and “Stuck On You,” or such collaborations between the two as “Wonder of It All,” stand on their own melodic and lyrical merits.

Coloring the space between the kinetic rhythm section and the intertwined singers are three veteran musicians: Marks, whose saxophone, flute, percussion and soulful harmonies add a third voice to the sound; Stizzo, whose exquisite work on organ, piano, and accordion add character as well as color; and Wood, whose guitar playing weaves in and out, shading the rhythms and occasionally lending a sharp, melodic solo. The result can be positively relentless, as the band’s extended jams drive dancers wild while giving non-dancers plenty to listen to.

Over the years, the band has also provided the springboard for several other careers, both by band members and by former members. Multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven was a member of the band when it recorded its first album, and other successful alumni include guitarist Michael Gregory. Of current band members, Lotter has played with a variety of performers, from Maria Muldaur to avant jazz composer Jessica Williams. Marks has played with a host of names, from soul stars Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave to jazz giants George Benson to Cal Tjader. Stizzo has played with Freddy Fender and Percy Sledge, and appeared on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Walton still performs occasionally with Craven and Bill Edwards in Way Out West. Wood, who joined in 1999, had previously toured with Eric Lindell.

Singer Webster, who was a founding member of the band along with Palmer, has released four albums under her own name, as well as an album of duets with her sister Cassie, recording and performing as The Websters and Scott Nygaard. She has also collaborated with Matt Rollings, Nina Gerber, Jennifer Berezan and Jackie Greene.

Mumbo Gumbo’s music has been used in the hit TV show “Northern Exposure” and in director Charlie Matthau’s 2005 movie “Her Minor Thing” in which the band appears on screen.

But despite their other ventures, the band is the thing, and at this point, Mumbo Gumbo is both an institution on the “NorCal” concert scene and an ever-evolving collective that can fill listeners with joy and longing – and always makes sure to leave its audiences dancing their hearts out.


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