A lot can happen if a drinking hole manages to stay open 89 years. Tobacco Road started as a speakeasy and gambling den during Prohibition and would have been a strip club back in the Mariel days, but the crowd was so rough no woman, self-respecting or otherwise, would work there. Ambulances pulled up to the curb more frequently than cabs. Patrons had to step over passed-out bodies to get through the door. The bartender kept a shotgun handy behind the bar.
"We would set the drums up on the little strippers' stage," remembers Graham Drout of his first four-month stint at the rough riverside den in 1980 with his first group, the Fat Chance Blues Band. "We would play for a pretty bizarre crowd. Usually you got guys who would want to come up and start playing the drums -- and lots of hookers." Only after the Coconut Grove scene closed at 3:00 a.m. would music fans amble in to take advantage of the Road's 5:00 a.m. liquor license, but that was too little, too late. "Finally we quit," says Drout. Not long after, a drug raid shut down the joint.
Then along came Patrick Gleber and Kevin Rusk, two fresh-faced FIU hospitality graduates hired by the new owners to run the rambling establishment. The boys booked Drout's outfit for the opening-night party and began what the band leader considers an "artist in residency" for the group now known to blues lovers worldwide as Iko-Iko. "We couldn't believe we were still there," Drout laughs. "We were downstairs playing 45 minutes on and 45 off from 10:00 till 3:30 every weekend, from '82 until '94, then we got moved upstairs. I remember, because I wrote ... off the floor in '94.'" The Road's booking agent, Mark Weiser, started out as the band's manager. "When we were busy all the time at the Road, we really didn't need him," Drout points out. Iko-Iko still takes the floor a few Mondays a month and on special occasions, such as this weekend's 89th Anniversary Fest.
The Tobacco Road 89th Anniversary Festival
626 S Miami Ave.
Featuring Col. Bruce Hampton and the Code Talkers, the Kenny Neal Blues Band, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, and Iko-Iko runs Friday, November 16, and Saturday, November 17. Gates open at 8:00 p.m. Tickets cost $10, $15 in advance for two-day pass. Call 305-374-1198. The Argentine Passion Festival featuring La Mosca, Los Tulipanos, and Los Violadores takes place on Saturday, November 17, at Bayfront Park, 301 Biscayne Blvd. Doors open at 5:00 p.m. Tickets cost $10 in advance, $12 at the door. Children under age 12 and seniors over age 65 admitted free. Call 305-541-6911. Los Fakires perform at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, November 16, at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $20 and $30. Call 305-576-4350. Caribbean Bash featuring Beenie Man and Sweet Mickey takes place Sunday, November 18, at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd. Admission is $23. Call 954-986-0597.
The Road's musical glory days lasted throughout the Eighties. "The night we released our first album, December of '87, we had 600 paying customers. That was the height of Tobacco Road," recalls Drout. "There was no South Beach." Before Madonna and the models drained the life off the mainland, the biggest names in blues passed through, catching an earful of Iko-Iko on the way. "I got to meet everybody," gushes Drout.
One weekend David Bromberg hung around over the weekend after his Thursday-night gig and ended up sitting in with the band for four hours. During a Monday-night jam, Drout turned around and realized the guy tearing up the guitar was Stephen Stills. Another night David Lee Roth took the mike, exhorting customers to tip the waitresses in Vegas-lounge style. Iko-Iko gained national exposure without having to tour, lending the group the luxury of picking and choosing among invitations to play across the nation and beyond.
But most of all, Drout says he appreciates the Road's patrons. "You didn't get a lot of people requesting Mustang Sally,'" he beams. "I was very much influenced by what they responded to and also what Patrick and Kevin allowed me to do. They gave me carte blanche, and I ended up doing exactly what I want to do. Gee, I hope I can do my 20th anniversary -- their 90th."
With heavy rains keeping the Fourth Annual Argentine Festival to a scant 10,000 revelers this past April, promoter Enrique Kogan says he is responding to popular demand by offering the Argentine Passion Festival this weekend, featuring popular porteño rock act La Mosca and a reunion of legendary punks Los Violadores, whose guitarist Stuka currently resides in Miami. The event, coming a week after the international homage to soccer great Diego Maradona, will also serve as Little Buenos Aires's tribute to the man who was arguably the greatest futbolista of all time. Diego's brothers Hugo and Lalo have offered to screen never-before-seen family video, and a giant urn will be on the premises for well-wishers to send messages to the former superstar. Now Maradona is better known as a bloated rogue with a weakness for blow, but if the Argentine expats want to honor him, who cares?
Well, in recent years Diego has grown quite chummy with Castro, even checking into a Cuban sanitarium for his most recent round of rehab. Although this arguably does more to damage than enhance the socialist state's rep, the requisite denunciations already have been sounded. Kogan, who has lived in Miami for twenty years and claims to be "more Cuban than Argentine," has performed the ritual announcement that he feels the exiles' pain. Let's see if he has any better luck than those who stress the distinction between music and politics when he proclaims, "Every Argentine is going to pay tribute to the fútbol player, not to the Maradona of today."
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If you're still looking for something to protest this weekend, you might want to add the Miami Light Project's presentation of Los Fakires, a traditional son vocal ensemble from Santa Clara. Band leader and saxophonist José Bringues and wrinkly-faced lead singer Martin "Cascarita" Chavez have been engaged in a delightful counterpoint for longer than the bearded one has been in power, but this is the quintet's first tour outside the island. Less slick than Ry Cooder's Buena Vista and less frenetic than our own conservatory-trained, club son-purveyors, Los Fakires' sound is suitable for swaying, swooning, or leaning on your picket sign and listening to the reassuring strum of the tres.
If you're tired of ethnic strife, stop in at the Fourth Annual Pre-Thanksgiving Family Fun Day: The festival formerly known as Reggae Bash is now reaching out to the wider archipelago under the name Caribbean Bash. Reggae Bash was always something of a misnomer for a bill much heavier on dancehall than roots artists, but this year promoters AnchorMinott, Inc. (who asked to have their names withheld) say, "We wanted to get a more unified thing." Unity, the organizers hope, will add up to more corporate dollars: "We're always full, but the Caribbean Bash name is more marketable, even for sponsorship to jump on." Look for compas king Sweet Mickey alongside perennial dancehall headliner Beenie Man and for rasin rulers Boukman Eksperyans to alternate with the formidable Lady Saw and promoter favorite Red Rat. AnchorMinott has even booked the Virgin Islands soca sensation Jam Band to wine the party before crowd pleasers Tanto Metro and Devonte ("Everybody Falls in Love Sometime") and flava of the moment, T.O.K., the foursome responsible for the omnipresent "Chi-chi Man." Looks like my crew, my dawgs, and the lords of yards are ready to share their fiefdom.