Crazy from the Beat

The singer is perplexed. "I don't know what we're doing at a blues festival," says Todd Duncan, with sax in hand. It's the end of the 1989 Riverwalk Blues Fest and the Crazy 8s, from Portland, Oregon, have taken the stage at the Musicians Exchange (then at its ill-fated downtown location). The crowd is sparse, mostly drunken blues fans who haven't yet passed out and a few others who may know what's coming.

What comes is a blistering show that cleans out every twelve-bar shuffle lodged between the ears of the terminally blues stricken. It's probably the best performance of the entire event. Original razor-tight horn lines ride upon endless clots of tropical polyrhythms ranging from ska and reggae to harder funk fusions. Duncan's alto along with Tim Tubb's bone (trom, that is) form a horn section to rival any. Drummer Rick Washington's cannonball foot and cracking snare hang tight with Mike Regan's muscular bass. Guitarist Mark Wanaka overlays the proceedings with effected textures and leads that opt for the abstract as opposed to the cliche. Punctuating the whole mess with precision timbale fills and percolating congas is percussionist Carl Smith, who, gypsylike in bandanna, could pass for a Neville brother. The entire ensemble functions like a single organism bent on occupying your body with various dancing diseases. Call it out-of-this-world beat.

That an outstanding yet-unsigned band from the cold, soggy, upper-left-hand corner of this country could find itself in the land's warm, sullen, lower- right-hand corner was a gift for which this writer will always be thankful. That the 8s are returning, under the exact same circumstances (they close this year's Blues Fest at the Exchange) is a cosmic coincidence not to be overlooked by any music fan, blues or otherwise.

Showing up and blowing minds is a way of life the Crazy 8s are currently celebrating ten years of. Self-sufficient and fiercely independent, their popularity flies in the face of the major-label mindset. Sparked by the same two-tone ska movement that inspired bands such as Fishbone (the 8s are contemporaneous to the noble Fish faces and any similarities should not be confused with cloning), the band conquered the Northwest with an awesome live rep and a series of self-released albums on their own Red Rum label. (An appearance on Star Search early in their career was an amusing treat but one they, like any self-respecting band, are loathe to mention.) Evidenced in their work is not only a command of the down-yard style, but plenty of angular vectors ranging from Clinton to Beefheart, not to mention technical skills that smack of jazz familiarity. It is all, in a word, funke. A good document is their 1988 live double-LP Big Live Nut Pack, which displays a band-audience lovefest that never lets up for a second.

Like many bands that employ a fusing of various ethno-grooves, the joyous, unrelenting beats of Crazy 8s are often vehicles for more poignant lyrical concerns. Life's negativities are not avoided, but most of their songs reek of hope. One such tune is "The Key," a twelve-inch single off their current Doggapotamus World album. "People of power/People of love/We can live in harmony," it states simply. That is indeed the key, and the 8s drive home the sentiment with an energy that could convert even the most pessimistic. While not overly melodic in the Top 40 and hummable sense, this outfit has hooks aplenty. Every jam is memorable, with an overall diversity that makes for a stupendous live show. Like any seasoned club band, the Crazies also pepper their live sets with the odd musical quote and occasional cover. (Last time around they threw in ska perennial "Message to Rudy," and honked out the theme to the Spider-Man cartoon show.)

For a band this cool to survive for this long shows a healthy indifference to the vagaries of the corporate music machine, plus a constant state of evolution. Jay Collins and Ron Regan, tenor sax and keyboards respectively, have been added to the line-up, bringing the group to a mathematically correct sum of 8. Surely this will result in even more dynamic sound craft. The music changes pace. Ska is still a bit in evidence (a sound that has never been completely in style and thus will probably never go completely out, especially with die-hard skankers such as the 8s), but the hard-edged funk always present in their sonic mix has come to the fore. Look forward to the instrumentals "Bootyopolis" and "The Doggapotamus," said to be manic funkathons. The term "thrash" flits about their press kit, and one wonders if that means full-speed mosh or just an overall upping of the guitar quotient. Savor the delicious anticipation. Then find out at the gig.

Crazy 8s need not wonder what they're doing at the fringes of a blues festival. They're there to do what they've been doing for ten years - transcend genres and kick righteous booty. Where the blues go, funk is sure to follow; and the Exchange must be commended for adding this special icing to an already rich cake. Crazy 8s are returning to the scene of a crime, the crime being that you weren't there the first time.

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