Things are heating up for jam-band Barbara Cue | AspenTimes.com
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Things are heating up for jam-band Barbara Cue

Stewart Oksenhorn

Driving near his home on the outskirts of Athens, Ga., Todd Nance is talking a mile a minute, and thinking just as fast. Barbara Cue, the Athens-based quintet for which he drums, sings, writes and even plays a bit of guitar, is getting set to travel to Colorado for a short run of shows. “Rhythm Oil,” the third CD by Barbara Cue, is being mixed that day in New York, and the rush to get the songs written and the album recorded has left him noticeably frantic.Not that Nance is complaining. As he says, “I’m not very good at sitting around.” Still, it’s not exactly what he imagined when his main band, Widespread Panic, announced it would be taking 2004 off.For nearly 20 years, Widespread Panic had been, as much as anyone, the definition of a jam band. Beginning in the mid-’80s as a group of students at the University of Georgia in Athens, Panic grew from a local trio to a sextet with a rabid national following. In the transition, they never seemed to lose their drive to connect with audiences and jam with one another. They maintained a heavy tour schedule right up through New Year’s Eve 200304; 2003 saw Widespread play an impressive 83 dates.When the band decided to take a leave of absence, Nance, who has occupied the drummer’s seat from the day Widespread was transformed from an acoustic trio to a full-on rock band, didn’t aim just to sit around. But he did figure on taking things a little easier. Nance rounded up the Athens friends and players who made up Barbara Cue, a combo that had no particular ambitions beyond jamming, and even recording, when schedules permitted.Then reality set in, in the form of a recording contract. Sanctuary Records, Widespread Panic’s label, signed Barbara Cue to a record deal. The band was asked to perform at last month’s massive Bonnaroo Music Festival, which they did. And the laidback aggregation of players was instantly turned into a bunch of go-getters.”I’m pretty much putting every waking moment into it right now,” said Nance, who appears with the group when it makes its valley debut Saturday, July 17, on a bill with acid jazz band Liquid Soul, on Snowmass Village’s Fanny Hill. The record deal “put a lot of pressure on us to get the songs written and the record made. We were already all pretty busy guys, so we really had to hustle.”Barbara Cue wasn’t new to the studio. It had released two previous CDs: 1999’s “Louisiana Truckstop” and 2002’s “Ditch Lily.” Both, like the forthcoming “Rhythm Oil,” were co-produced by Dave Barbe and recorded at his Chase Park Transduction studio in Athens. But where the band took a relaxed approach to the first two CDs, “Rhythm Oil,” due out in October, had a different way of entering the world. “We were planning on taking our sweet time, doing one song at a time,” said Nance. “Then it got turbocharged. We’ve been busy little boys.”Nance said “Rhythm Oil” will also have a different sound than Barbara Cue’s two earlier CDs. The band has had more of a country flavor than Widespread Panic. Some of that can be attributed to frontman William Tonks, who plays some dobro in the band, and John Neff, who plays some pedal steel. On songs like “Back to Town” from “Louisiana Truckstop,” there is a country-rock feel to the harmony vocals and a twang in the guitars. But Nance says the new album is toned down in the country department, and he places the blame largely on himself.”It’s got a lot of moody stuff and a lot of rocking stuff,” he said, “but there just isn’t the country stuff. Usually, if there is country in there, it’s mostly my doing. I don’t know why that is – I grew up on Led Zeppelin, and I guess they had a little country-music background. And where I grew up, in Tennessee, you can’t get away from it. So it’s a natural thing.””Rhythm Oil” still features the country instrumentation. “But we used those instruments to a different effect,” said Nance. “We tried to come up with something of our own, our own tone, not so much saying, ‘OK, what are the sounds people are listening to today?'”One Barbara Cue staple that remains is the load of guitars. All five members of the band play guitar. Paul “Crumpy” Edwards and Jon Mills alternate between bass and acoustic rhythm guitar; Tonks and Neff both play lead guitar in addition to their other instruments. Even Nance plays guitar on the record, though he says he doesn’t feel much need – or, presumably, room – to play guitar onstage.”We call it ‘the guitar-me’ band,” said Nance, “because we have so many of them. We have no shortage of guitar players. With people sitting in, we’ve sometimes had 10 guitarists onstage.”Nance and his mates are now looking at a 2004 full of dates and a new record. But Barbara Cue was never meant to be a hard-touring band. In fact, it was never meant to last more than one night.Barbara Cue was set up as a one-night stand among a group of Athens players who wanted to play a tribute to one of their favorite bands, NRBQ. After one 1997 gig at Athens music club the High Hat, they fully expected to set Barbara down. But they ended up meeting NRBQ soon after, and Barbara Cue was asked to tour as an opening act for NRBQ. Since then, the quintet has reassembled whenever it had the chance.Which wasn’t very often. All the band members were part of various full-time and part-time projects, and Nance was occupied with Widespread Panic. Now that Panic is out of the way for a while, the rest of the band has fallen in behind Nance, and Barbara Cue looks to have a busy future.That is, until April – when Widespread Panic’s hiatus is scheduled to end. Until then, Nance is committed to Barbara Cue. And he is making the most of the fling, which takes him back to the old days.”It’s kind of a throwback,” he said. “It reminds me of why I do it and that I love to do it. I can get in a van and drive hundreds of miles and enjoy myself.”It makes me appreciate Widespread Panic, too. It makes me appreciate what we have, how easy it is to play music with those guys. If you don’t get away from it sometimes, you never know what you’ve got.” Fanny Hill, which has already had its share of hot nights this summer, including the massive Fourth of July weekend gig by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, heats up even more this weekend.The Massive Music & Movies event opens Thursday, July 15, with Jackie Greene (see story on page 1 of this section), continues Friday, July 16, with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and closes Saturday, July 17, with a double bill of Barbara Cue and Liquid Soul. Each concert is followed by a rocking film: “The Blues Brothers” on Thursday, “Almost Famous” on Friday, and “Pulp Fiction” on Saturday. If that were not enough, it’s all free.Meanwhile, the Snowmass Free Summer of Music Series carries on and should get steaming. New Orleans trumpeter-singer Kermit Ruffins plays Thursday, July 22, followed by r & b singer-guitarist Eric Lindell (July 29), boogie pianist-singer Marcia Ball (Aug. 5), outstanding Irish-American band Solas (Aug. 12), remix outfit M.E.K.A. 54 (Aug. 14, a Saturday). San Francisco Latin funk group Los Mocosos (Aug. 19) and Colorado bluesman Otis Taylor (Aug. 26).And when the music on the hill cools down, the clubs start hopping. Local rockers Take the Wheel play every Thursday night at the Cirque; fellow local rockers Seventh Hour play most Thursdays at the Mountain Dragon. On Thursday, July 22, Houston jam-band Moses Guest fills in for Seventh Hour with a party for the release of their new CD, “Guest Hotel.”Then there is the little matter of Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival, which is shaping up as, yet again, another blockbuster. Recently added are Robert Randolph & the Family Band, a little gospel act from New Jersey – who just happened to be spending the summer opening for Eric Clapton – and Grammy-winning country-rock singer Lucinda Williams. The main-stage lineup already included Sheryl Crow, Lyle Lovett, the Steve Miller Band, Jack Johnson, and David Byrne who, by several accounts, was the surprise hit at this year’s Bonnaroo.Playing in the late-night JAS After Dark series during Labor Day are the subdudes, a reunited Deep Banana Blackout, Soulive, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen and more.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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