Mumbo Gumbo, one of Northern California's best-loved bands, has just released 'Wishbones,' it's eighth album, and first release in five years. Capturing this mature, formidable live band at the height of it's powers, 'Wishbones' shows Mumbo Gumbo to be the very opposite of the Latest Thing. With 16 years of gigging and recording under it's belt, Gumbo is the Real Thing: enduring, richly melodic, deeply emotional and funky as can be. 'Wishbones' is the sound of seven people unafraid to open their hearts, try something new, and do it with style. Recording at their new studio in Sacramento, the septet was able to approach their material on their own terms and on their own schedule, and the result is the band's most relaxed recording yet. It may also be their most creative. With songs that range from funny, funky story-songs like 'Opera Girl' and personal ruminations such as 'Woven into You,' to instrumental (or nearly-so) workouts like the Afrobeat-inflected 'Tofela Jam' and '60s soul-styled 'The Worm,' 'Wishbones' continues the band's tradition of playing these beautiful songs with a deep, supple groove. Though they can hold their own with any number of 'jam' and 'worldbeat' bands, Gumbo has two not-so-secret weapons that elevate them above any genre: singer/songwriters Chris Webster and Tracy Walton. Singing separately and together, Webster and Walton would (and have) done fine work with just acoustic guitars. But together, fronting Gumbo, they are simply dazzling, and never more so than on 'Wishbones.' Webster has recorded her own albums, but it is Gumbo that she calls home, and she contributes several of the album's most poignant songs. 'Walkin' My Shoes' takes it's time getting home, and the marvelous 'Anything,' which opens the album, finds the singer in a pensive mood but with her sense of humor intact. On 'Opera Girl,' written for her sister and sometime collaborator (in The Websters) Cassie Webster, she brings her wit and vulnerability together. But it is Webster's voice that has won her such passionate fans, whether she's plumbing emotional depths, cracking-wise or mimicking a muted trumpet on Walton's 'Jane' or 'The Match.' The latter song is classic Walton: Sunny and swinging, 'The Match' temporarily turns Gumbo into 'The Triplets of Belleville,' classic-sounding yet utterly unique. Walton also gives 'Wishbones' two of it's most rockin' tracks, 'Do Like We Do' (with a firey R&B groove that recalls classic Elvis Costello and the Attractions) and 'Count 'em All Up,' which revisits the band's zydeco roots. But she also goes sweet and poppy on the lush 'Bird Avenue' and the seductive rhumba, 'Jane.' While it is tempting to describe Mumbo Gumbo as Bonnie Raitt and k.d. lang fronting the funkiest band you've ever heard, the chemistry between Webster and Walton is deeper. These two have sung together for so long that they literally finish each others' musical sentences, the sort of chemistry that extends all the way through the band. So what about the band? Webster and Walton are part of - not just backed by - a group that doesn't just play their songs but creates them with the duo from start to finish. Individually, their chops are world-class. Drummer Rick Lotter, who also oversaw the album's recording, grew up on African rhythms and hasn't stopped expanding his palate through his years with jazz, rock and Latin bands. His sure hands (and feet) anchor the band and push it's members to new heights, both on stage and in the studio. Reggy Marks has led his own jazz groups and adds subtle colors on sax and flute (and occasionally, vocals) when he's not soaring in solo flight, and keyboard player Steve Stizzo, as comfortable with a Mozart piano concerto as he is with a zydeco accordion rave-up, chose to focus this time on the organ, a brilliant strategy that acts as another glue to fuse the group's eclectic sound together. Completing the band are bassist Lynn Michael Palmer and guitarist Jon Wood, each of whom shines on 'Wishbones' as never before. Palmer, who formed the band with Webster 20 years ago, has long been a solid anchor with Lotter, his sure, fat tones bridging the rhythms and melodies. But his melodic contributions are more apparent than ever on 'Wishbones'; in addition, he co-wrote three songs, two with Webster, as he has in the past. And guitarist Wood, who was new to the band when they recorded their last album, 2001's 'Seven,' has come into his own on the new album, with writing credits on five songs and understated but crucial guitar lines woven through every song. Such subtle treats as Wood's guitar playing give 'Wishbones' a depth that is remarkable even for Mumbo Gumbo's now-extensive body of recorded work. This is a band that rewards repeated listenings, as any number of devoted fans, many of whom have shown up to see the band for the better part of two decades, could tell you. But it's better that you listen for yourself. Start with 'Anything' and 'Opera Girl,' but don't stop there: the 15 songs on 'Wishbones' expand on a musical and personal vision that has survived the test of time - 16 years of hard work and dedication - and finds the band stronger, and better, than ever. And did we mention that you can dance to it?
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