The Long Road

It may seem as though Iko-Iko has been playing at Tobacco Road since the venerable nightspot secured Miami liquor license #001 back in 1912, but the truth is they've only been there a decade or so. By the standards of Miami nightclub longevity (a system of measurement not unlike dog years), they ought to be collecting a pension and relaxing in Century Village by now.

The problem (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) is that Iko-Iko, specifically bassist/vocalist/spiritual leader Graham Wood Drout, refuse to go gentle into that good night. Drout is the only holdover from the days of the seminal Fat Chance Blues Band, whose alumni now lead or support several of the area's premier R&B acts. Drout is something of an anachronism in the era of attitude over substance - a guy who actually enjoys playing the music and singing the songs without a whit of trend-consciousness. He unabashedly admits to liking his "job," and his self-effacing wit and good humor are ingratiating. He's like a big kid who got locked inside the proverbial candy store. He's been chewing the blues confections for ten years now, with no signs of having sated his sweet tooth.

What a long, strange trip it's been. A partial list of the acts Drout and company have opened for includes Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Muddy Waters, George Thorogood, John Lee Hooker, Sam and Dave, B.B. King, Jaco Pastorius, and Delbert McClinton. They've jammed with Ron Wood, Bobby Keys, and legendary bluesman Willie Dixon. Super-guitarist David Bromberg sat in with them for a blistering set at the Road. They've graced a baker's dozen festivals, a national Coors Light radio spot, and the movie Cape Fear (in a cameo). Perhaps their greatest claim to fame is the fact that they were the first people in Buffalo, New York, to buy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures after reading about the shelled crusaders on their way to a gig.

"I can still remember the sales clerk," smiles Drout. "`Turtles? Never heard of 'em.' He didn't have a clue. We had to show him the magazine."

Drout has been singing the blues since the days when elephant bells (note to under-30 readers: elephant bells were a bizarre legwear permutation popular in the Seventies that nobody with an ounce of self-respect admits to ever having worn) and Donna Summer were all the rage, and, in Drout's words, " couldn't give the blues away."

Who would have thought back then that the boys from Iko-Iko would be hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite? What was it like to work with Bobby De Niro? Did he tell any Belushi stories?

"Yeah, right," laughs Drout. "We appeared in one scene [in Cape Fear] as shadows on the bar. They bought the rights to one of our songs - Scorcese [Martin, the director] really liked our record - and then they used it for about a second in a scene where someone's playing with a car radio. I think they only used the song so we could get paid for it."

While the band no doubt appreciates the financial benefits of their brush with celluloid heroism, not to mention the publicity value, they do not appear to be grooming themselves for careers as matinee idols. Instead they have gone about the business of fashioning a refreshingly original body of work with its feet planted in Chicago blues, its belly full of Cajun spice and syncopation, and a rock and roll heart. Two current band members, percussionist Glen Caruba and guitarist/vocalist Mike Bauer, were literally not yet out of diapers when the band's other three players - drummer Danny Swetland, guitarist Larry Williams, and Drout - were already cutting their musical teeth. The differences in age and backgrounds help keep the band's music fresh. Some of Iko-Iko's best material results from the give and take between veteran stick man Swetland and the skin-popping, bell-ringing, shaker-shagging kid Caruba, or the interplay between baby-faced Bauer's chunky rhythm patterns and old man Williams's piercing slide runs.

A recent Saturday sojourn to the Road provided ample proof that Iko-Iko has lost none of its ability to generate musical heat, even on a night when outdoor temperatures plunged into the mid-50s. As an added treat, Iko-Iko cofounder John Wenzel, he of the sublime blues guitar wizardry, and bassist Jeff Sanchez, another Iko alumnus, were upstairs blowing the roof off with their new band, Good Rockin' Johnny and the Wiseguys, featuring the irrepressible Lynne Noble on vocals. While Drout and Wenzel remain fast friends - Drout credits Wenzel with being the "instigator of the whole [Miami blues] scene" - there was no doubt an element of pride at work, neither band wanting to be blown out by the other. Neither was. The night was a winner for blues fans in general, and in particular for those who can remember when Drout, Wenzel, and Sanchez shared a stage as the Fat Chance Blues Band.

Reviews of Iko-Iko's first album, Snowstorm in the Jungle, attempted to describe their sound as "power-boogie," "loose, funky swamp music," a "lowdown, gators-and-gumbo hybrid," "laid-back Southern," "get-down raw," and "a fine redneck and swamp rock." On this night at Tobacco Road they lived up to all those descriptions and more, which is the essence of their appeal. Back in the days when it was Drout, Wenzel, and harmonica player Bob Hemphill, the band was unmistakably and unrepentantly about hard-core blues. And make no mistake about it, Iko-Iko can still trot out the Willie Dixon or Robert Johnson warhorses if the need arises. But a cupboardful of new ingredients has been added to the stew, and the resultant flavor is subtler and richer for it.

The key, as it is in so many of the better rock and blues bands, is the rhythm section. Drout and Swetland sound as if they've been playing together since birth. "Being in a band is like going into combat," says Drout, "if you're always worried about someone else screwing up, you're going to screw up. With Danny, I can relax, because I just know that's not gonna happen. It's like you walk in and you've known the person all your life. He's a pro. He's played with the Amboy Dukes, the MC5. You know Bob Seger's `Ramblin', Gamblin' Man'? That was Danny on traps. He's great."

Drout, a self-taught guitarist who learned the bass-ics (sorry) from another local blues luminary, Fleet Starbuck, when the two decided to perform as a duo for awhile, has evolved into a pretty fair four-string player himself. Nobody's going to confuse his instrumental work with Jaco's, but he's always in the pocket and he makes it look easy. Come to think of it, that description applies to his vocals as well. He is the polar opposite of an R&B poseur like Michael Bolton. Drout's seemingly effortless singing and bass playing have carried the band through myriad personnel changes over the years, and in all likelihood will continue to stoke the Iko-Iko engine for many to come.

There was some apprehension among blues insiders that the departure of guitar-god Julian Kasper would leave Iko-Iko with a void too large to fill. After all, the band has always been a showcase for killer axe men, with Wenzel and Nick Kane preceding Kasper in the glamor position. While neither Williams nor Bauer is from the grandstanding Hendrix-Stevie Ray school of blues guitar, their taste and flexibility serve the band in good stead. There are no holes in the sound.

The only question now appears to be whether Iko-Iko will still be the house band when the Road celebrates its centennial.

IKO-IKO performs with Los Lobos, NRBQ, Marcia Ball, Lester Chambers Blues Band featuring Bobby Keys, Kenny Neal, and Guardians of the Flame after 2:00 p.m. Saturday at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, 301 Biscayne Blvd, 374-1198. Tickets cost $12.


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