What’s Cooking?Gunnison band concocts an earthy blend
Zeb Early is sort of amazed at the crowd reaction to his band, the Gunnison County-based Mama’s Cookin’. He feels like a rock star when young kids ask for his autograph; he feels like an old-timer when he sells band T-shirts to 50-year-old fans. But that’s what happens when you mix up styles the way Mama’s Cookin’ does.”We bridge the generation gap because we do a lot of old music, and we have a lot of older tones in our sound” said the 26-year-old singer-guitarist Early, who is joined in the band by keyboardist Todd Holway, bassist Steve LaBella and drummer Mike Adamo, all of whom are in their early to mid-20s. “We do the Delta blues stuff; we do hip-hop.”On their new CD “Let the Record Ride,” their third recording and second studio creation, it’s impossible to categorize Mama’s Cookin’. The CD opens with “The Call,” a mix of Early’s Delta slide guitar, driving rhythms, and hip-hop-influenced vocals. The title track and “Just Cruise” have soul-jazz grooves that split the difference old-school (say, the Meters) and new (G. Love maybe). Elsewhere there are further nods to the past (Steely Dan, P-Funk) and the recent (samples, synthesizers, rap). And the title itself – combined with the cover art of a very retro-looking turntable – hints at the throwback elements of the band’s sound.”In the van, we’re listening to reggae and hip-hop and blues and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Early. “We started as a blues/hip-hop thing, and then we went into a world kind of route and you hear that. I’ve never sat down and tried to do what we do; it just sort of happens. It mixes up and forms one sound. Then we throw the lyrics on top of it and hope it comes out as something original.”
Part of the diversity likely stems from the geographic mix of the band. Early was raised in Memphis, Holway in Alaska, Adamo in New Jersey and LaBella in Connecticut. But the range of sounds also comes from the multitude of styles the members were exposed to, and had an opportunity to play. Early, for instance, grew up listening to his parents’ record collection, heavy on Steely Dan and CSN. During his college years, he would return to Memphis, where he waited tables at a fried catfish joint, where the native Delta blues were a constant reminder of his roots. And as a child of the ’80s and ’90s, hip-hop was a natural influence.At Western State College the influences only expanded. The members of Mama’s Cookin’ came together in the small but vital jazz program at Western State, where Early was delighted to discover he could participate in the Dixieland band, the big band and various smaller combos. Early quickly fell in with Holway, and the two formed the Better Days Blues Band; they also had a sharp eye on Adamo, who kept the beat for the big band.”The year we started, we wanted to form a band,” said Early, from a tour stop in Missoula. “We saw the drummer and knew he was our man. We saw him play a concert with the big band and he was just awesome. I met him in a parking lot and told him we were forming a band.”One of the things that makes Mama’s Cookin’ worth keeping an eye on is how little experience they have. Early, for instance, didn’t even own a guitar till his 18th birthday, and spent a few years playing solo, acoustic, folk-oriented gigs around Memphis and then Alaska, where he hitchhiked for six months. Not until he went to Western State did he begin learning to play lead guitar. But he has immersed himself in music since.
“I’m making up for lost time,” said Early, who writes a music column for the Crested Butte News. “If I’m not playing, I’m writing or listening or singing to myself.” Early is also a radio DJ, and the work there has helped him learn to make the disparate elements of Mama’s Cookin’ mesh seamlessly. “Every night when we write a set list, we try to make the songs flow smoothly. I use the same technique as I do with a radio show. We wouldn’t do a hip-hop song right into rock ‘n’ roll; we wouldn’t do a smooth song right into a Delta blues.” For the moment, the Gunnison County base makes sense, as they build a core following in southern Colorado. The band, together less than four years, has played a Halloween gig for 700 at the Telluride Conference Center and opened for acts like Ozomatli. But they are also making in-roads on the Front Range and in the northern Rockies.Mama’s Cookin’ plays the Carbondale Mountain Fair Saturday, July 24, at 7:15 p.m.Early says the band has thought about relocating to a more central place. But for now, the mountains are too inviting.
“When we’re on tour, it doesn’t matter where we’re based out of – because we’re based out of our van,” he said. “But trying to break into the Front Range is tough. But we’re slowly catching on. None of us are city dwellers. We’ve thought about moving to the city, but it hasn’t happened.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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