The Gamlin' Blues

When you think about it, blues cruises are a natural. Blow a few sawbucks at the tables, get trashed on complimentary booze while you pour laundry money into the gaping, insatiable maws of the one-armed bandits, and then try to figure out if you've got enough change rattling around in the glove compartment of your car to pay the parking garage when the ship returns to port. The cruise line hires a couple of R&B acts with music to contemplate pawning the Seiko by, and a fine time is had by all.

At least one passenger (guess who) was prepared for just such an evening on October 15 when the Discovery set sail from Port Everglades for an evening of blackjack and blues on the high seas. After a record-breaking pit stop in the dining room to plunder the buffet, the passenger still had a few minutes to kill before the ship made it into international waters and the casino opened.

A band called Little Nicky and the Slicks was about to launch a set in one of the mid-deck lounges, and the passenger, who had caught their act many times before in places like the Cactus Cantina, Tobacco Road, and Tropics, figured it couldn't hurt to pass the while waiting for the gates of heaven to part by listening to a song or two. After all, vocalist/violinist Nicole Yarling ("Little Nicky") and her traps-bashing husband, John Yarling ("Slick"), were the same engine that had powered the band for nearly five years. John's virtuoso drumming and Nicole's riveting vocals and strings had become cherished and familiar elements of the SoFlo blues scene since the days when John took a fat chance on Iko-Iko and Nicole sat in with the band frequently enough to become reigning queen of the Ms. Pac-Man machine gracing Tobacco Road's entranceway.

The passenger glanced out a window as the lights of Port Everglades faded to black. The Slicks were set up in a room that one can safely assume was not designed with a live blues-rock band in mind, but once they started jamming, it wouldn't have mattered if they were playing inside a broom closet or on an oil tanker. They gave the phrase "rock the boat" a whole new meaning. The guy with the two-digit bankroll burning a hole in his pocket was caught completely off guard. He watched in amazement as a roomful of degenerate gamblers tapped their toes and stiffly bobbed their heads in that funny way that white people do, momentarily forgetting about pair splitting, doubling down, or running field bets with a hot shooter. A few even danced.

Nicole hit her stride early on, mixing up sexy, throaty vocals with melodic violin solos over original songs that strutted their rock-and-roll with an R&B attitude. The passenger was not the only one who ignored the PA announcement of the casino's opening in favor of catching the band's entire set, which, if you know anything about the mindset of serious gamblers, was a feat something akin to the time they stopped a war in Africa for a few days to watch Pele play soccer. It was a sight and a sound to behold - Little Nicky fronting a rock band. The Slicks raved on with an easygoing, confident air, as though they'd been playing the devil's music all their lives. Come to think of it, they have.

The Yarlings are better known for their jazz and blues work, but both grew up with a wealth of musical influences, John cutting his teeth drumming for rock bands in and around Detroit and Nicole soaking up everything from B.B. King to Z.Z. Hill, with doses of the Rolling Stones, Motown - you name it - during her Brooklyn youth. The two newest Slicks, guitarist Jack Shawde and bassist Roberto Pin

The band is one of those Fat Chance/ Iko-Iko offshoots that seem to have evolved into a blues mini-Mafia. Iko-Iko godfather Graham Drout gave the Slicks their name. Bassist Jeff Sanchez and guitarist John Wenzel left Iko-Iko and joined the Yarlings in molding Little Nicky and the Slicks into one of the area's premier soul/blues/R&B bands, with emphasis on the R&B. Sanchez jumped ship in 1990 and was replaced by Randy Ward, who, in turn, gave way to Pin

"I guess I always kind of felt that Nicky should have been more of the focus of the band," admits her stick-wielding hubby. "The blues are great for soloing, but when I think of blues, I don't necessarily think of great, original songwriting. Now we put more emphasis on the vocals, and we play to serve the song, as opposed to focusing on the solos."

A quick listen to their four-song demo tape confirms this. The band is the model of restraint as they bring Nicole's vocals to the fore and give her original compositions, as well as covers of time-honored blues standards like "Spoonful," a rock makeover. There are a few solos, but by and large the emphasis is on solid songwriting and stellar vocals.

"Nicky has a lower range than most female singers and that lower register sometimes has a tendency to meld with the rest of the instruments, but it's a very distinctive sound," John explains. "It doesn't hurt that she has perfect pitch and was a musician before she was a singer. In fact, she didn't start singing until about ten or eleven years ago when I overheard her singing along to some records at home. She didn't have any confidence in her voice and I kind of helped convince her that she was a good singer."

Ironically, it is that singular voice, along with Nicole's melodic, idiosyncratic violin phrasing, that caught the ear of a certain parrothead troubadour who holes up in the Conch Republic from time to time. "To tell you the truth," confesses Nicky, "I had never seen Jimmy Buffett work until I was on-stage playing with him."

Buffett ran into the Slicks four years ago when they were playing in Key West at the Reach, and later caught their act in his own club, Margaritaville. He sat in with them at one of their gigs, and offered Nicky a spot with his touring band this past June. The defender of manatees and margaritas gave Nicole a crash course in Caribbean soul, and Yarling is currently in the midst of her second tour as a member of the Buffett juggernaut, singing back-up and playing violin, including a nice solo turn on "A1A."

"That [summer, 1991] tour was like summer camp. We played the Walden Pond benefit at Madison Square Garden with Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt, went sailing with Ted Kennedy, sat in with the Memphis Horns, ate a lot.... I met Black Elvis in New York and I was Black Priscilla. The music has been updated a lot, although we managed to avoid a close call when they wanted to do a rap version of the `Who's going to steal the peanut butter' song," she laughs.

Meanwhile, the Slicks hone their chops and bide their time. An opportunity to tour with Mr. Zevon fell apart at the last minute. The band is wildly popular in Denmark, and would like to mount a short tour this summer, depending on Nicole's availability/Buffett tour plans. The Slicks came close to signing a big international record deal with EMI in Copenhagen, but that collapsed when the German rep inexplicably vetoed the deal, to the consternation of his French, Danish, and Swedish counterparts, and contingency plans would have called for the Slicks to relocate semi-permanently on the other side of the pond in order to save the deal.

"We really enjoy playing in Denmark," says John Yarling. "They're not as jaded about music in general over there. They're still not inundated with hundreds of bad commercial radio stations, they only recently got MTV - it's still special for them to go out to hear music. Here in the States, and particularly Miami, it's like, `Okay, I'm 30 now. I can listen to oldies on the radio, but no more live music.'"

Yarling allows as how that reluctance to support high-quality live music has helped shape the Slicks' approach to music in general and to earning a living as a South Florida band in particular. "The money down here seems low, but it's not as bad as a lot of other places. The big problem here is that too many club owners take the attitude that the quality of the band really doesn't matter, and unfortunately the people who go to clubs prove them right. There's not much band loyalty, either from the owners or the customers."

Little Nicky and the Slicks' response, therefore, is to work toward landing more festival and large-venue gigs, and to de-emphasize club work as much as possible. And what about blues cruises? John Yarling takes a diplomatic stance: "The good thing about this band is that we have a lot of experience playing all kinds of styles in all kinds of venues."

"I think I won ten dollars," adds Nicole Yarling.
The passenger who happened upon them that October night in the mid-deck lounge wasn't complaining, either. He went home a hundred bucks richer and got to hear a surprisingly entertaining rock band in the bargain. The blues would just have to wait.

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