When locals talk about gumbo, they're not always referring to the Louisiana stew laced with meat and veggies. They're talking about Philly Gumbo, the area's tastiest musical ragout of New Orleans parish-based soul, blues, reggae, and dense funk. After 31 years and running, they have finally made a CD, titled
Come and Get It
- but the fact is, adventurous listeners have made Philly Gumbo a topic of conversation for all of those 31 years, possibly a record when it comes to local bands.
"We have never stopped playing," says keyboardist Randall Grass, a respected roots reggae expert (his radio show Roots, Rock, Reggae on WXPN-FM was a godsend) and label boss whose tenure at Shanachie Records rivals his time with the Gumbo. "Philly Gumbo has been playing together for 31 continuous years, which I think makes us the longest-running Philly-area band now that Nate Wiley & the Crowd Pleasers are gone."
Grass and the guys made their bones playing on South Street at the original JC Dobbs (before it became the Legendary Dobbs in 2010), as well as rocking their famed decade-long residency at the long-shuttered, recently demolished Bacchanal club space. When Philly Gumbo commenced, the legendary traditions of New Orleans R&B, zydeco, and other Louisiana-tinged sounds wasn't as well known or honored as it is right now. Neither was deep-roots reggae. People knew Dr. John and Fats Domino but understood them as part of the rock-and-roll idiom. Reggae was known mainly for Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. The indigenous musics of New Orleans and Jamaica were as much underground rarities as were early punk or avant-garde loft jazz.
"Three decades of jazz fests, the Neville Brothers, and Treme changed that," says Grass. "We played a role in popularizing New Orleans music and culture in the Philadelphia area." Evolution has helped keep Philly Gumbo's gears greased. When it had Richard Johnson as its lead guitarist, P-Gumbo was rife with extended jams ("we're talking 10- or 15-minute long," says Grass). At present, Philly Gumbo is tighter and more song-oriented, with a greater emphasis on the funk-soul vibe with no solos.
"We have so many streams to draw on," says Grass. "The New Orleans spectrum, reggae, blues, soul, funk, jazz, and even Afrobeat. For years we used do a version of Fela Kuti's 'Shuffering and Shmiling.' Nothing ever gets dull. The elements of the mix always shift, but the Gumbo concept is always there."
Another shifting element is the Gumbo singer. In the band's long life, there have been six vocalists, each one electrifying, who have contributed their skills to Gumbo's buoyant blend. India Rex is the newest, a dynamic singer who brings to the table a feel for Southern R&B. "The Memphis soul aspect of the Gumbo mix has been a little more present since she joined," says Grass. "Check out her vocal on 'Slipped Tripped (and Fell in Love)' from the CD, you see what I mean. She nailed that in one take."
It's amazing that Philly Gumbo has never recorded a CD until now with Come and Get It. "The best answer is that we never had recording as a goal," Grass says. "Our goals were to be the best live groove band in the region and to present New Orleans R&B, soul, blues, and reggae with authenticity. It was all about what happened live, spontaneous creativity." What changed is that their spontaneity finally got too hot to keep to themselves: "The mood just hit us."