CHICAGO — Paul Cebar has lived in Milwaukee most of his life, but his music has traveled the world: New Orleans, Jamaica, Cuba, Africa. They’re all in there, along with dashes of swing, soul, jazz and garage rock.
Cebar says his musical journey began when he was 11 years old back in the ’60s, at the Lakefront Festival of Art in Milwaukee. “The festival was a way for a city kid to see the North Shore girls, when you were too young to even know what you would do if you ever did meet one,” he says with a laugh. “It was a glorified craft fair, with music, and on that day I was completely hooked. There were the Wild Magnolias (from New Orleans) playing tambourines, singing these songs like ‘Big Chief Got a Golden Crown’ that you could internalize instantly. I followed them all over the grounds, then came back to see (Nigerian drummer Babatunde) Olatunji, with horns and backing singers and huge African carved-wood drums. Someone told me about jazz, and I thought what is that? And so I had to check out Art Blakey too. It was just magical. In recent years, I think about the imprint that day made.”
Cebar immersed himself in classic soul, R&B and jazz, and “learned how to interpret that music and bring it into a folk context.” He worked the folk circuit in the ’70s as a solo act and eventually ended up in New York for a few years. Amid a scene that included experimental bands such as Liquid Liquid and the Lounge Lizards, “I was the weirdo Midwestern guy in a suit playing Ellington tunes,” he says.
But in New York he could play only sporadic shows, and he knew the only way to get better was to play constantly. So he returned to Milwaukee, where he became a key player in the R&B Cadets, a superb band that injected roots music with dance-floor vibrancy. He then formed the Milwaukeeans three decades ago, which has since morphed into Tomorrow Sound. His albums are distinguished by strong songwriting, superb musicianship and a globe-trotting sense of groove. His latest lineup includes longtime saxophonist Bob Jennings and drummer Reggie Bordeaux, as well as bassist Mike Fredrickson and percussionist Mac Perkins.
“Fine Rude Thing,” the group’s latest album, touches on reggae (“The Whole Thing”), funk (“Might be Smiling”), girl-group harmonies (“Not Necessarily True”) and swamp-rock (“Baby Shake”). It’s a fine example of what Cebar does best, a genre-leaping gumbo that has drawn accolades from such high-profile fans as Bonnie Raitt, Nick Lowe and Los Lobos. The album benefits from collaborations with veteran songwriters and kindred spirits such as Chuck Mead, Cesar Rojas and Pat McLaughlin.
“Pat and I turned ‘Like Loving People Do’ into a ska tune,” Cebar says in explaining the benefits of sharing songwriting credits. “A few years ago, I saw the Skatalites with the Lloyds — Brevett and Knibb — and they were still like schoolboys up there near the end of their lives. I found so much joy in that. Pat was saying how much American music had that feel — the Skatalites had done a Beatles song, and I was thinking about beach music in the Carolinas like ‘May I,’ country music, even Sonny and Cher’s ‘Baby Don’t Go.’ That feel asserted itself.”
It helps to have a rhythm section like Tomorrow Sound to make a “feel” turn into a groove as sunny and irresistible as “Like Loving People Do.”
How does Cebar always manage to field such top-flight bands? “The short answer is you pay, sometimes at the expense of not paying yourself. We’ve always been a road band, but times were different when we started. People didn’t have the history of cinema to choose from every night in their homes, so going out to see a band was a standard social gesture. Our original fans have settled down and had children, so you have to find the next wave.”
Cebar never has had the benefit of big-label promotion for any of his recordings, and he says he would have struggled to self-release “Fine Rude Thing” without the help of a $19,000 crowd-funding campaign via Kickstarter. He has complex feelings about the direction the music industry has taken in recent years, but says that he’s not discouraged.
“I’ve had very good bands that could make a record every year or two, but we can only get records out every five or six years,” he says. “A lot of material is bottled up that way. I’ve completed records that never came out because I couldn’t afford to do it. But I can’t imagine myself ever not making albums. I fancied myself as a musician all these years, and my reason to be on earth is bound up in that.”
— Chicago Tribune