It’s the first Thursday night in December. The streets of downtown Milwaukee are virtually empty, and the temperature is brutally cold. But inside the Globe
East on North Avenue it is hot and smoky. The Mighty Blue Kings are lounging backstage on various rickety leather couches and chairs and chatting about their tour and new album.
The band will take the stage shortly, and when they do, their seven piece, suit-clad group will be a veritable time machine of music. The band will kick out a jumping, jiving swing number followed by a slow, sultry blues song, book-ended with a rousing soul jam with obvious jazz influences. But these guys are no ghosts of a bygone era. Their sound may be a grab bag of historical influences like Ray Charles and John Coltrane, but their music is fresh and enticing.
It is not an uncommon sight at an MBK show to see Ross Bon, the band’s velvet-voiced frontman, singing a playful little jazz ditty to an assembled group of girls in vintage 40s dresses. Lined up in front of him, they sing along and sway in rapture. Meanwhile, on stage right, Scott Burns and John Sandfort, both on saxophone, always add that rustic and gritty sound that only a horn section can.
During the interview backstage, Sandfort comments “having horns on a tune can add a lot of different elements.”
When the band goes onstage tonight fans will see Pete Benson laying down a rich and funky layer on his Hammond B3 organ, while drummer Jerry Devivo makes an extremely complicated beat look effortless.
On the other side of the stage, there will be an interesting interplay going on between talented bassist Matt Thompson and the wailing lead guitar gymnastics of Gareth Best. Even with all these coexisting musical levels, The Mighty Blue Kings’ music is surprisingly simple and clean.
The group could be called “counter-pop” in their celebration of the simple un-digitized sounds of old. Which is, of course, what makes them so cool. Bon offers, “There’s a rooted background in what we do of traditional styles of American music, which sometimes comes to the foreground but is always evident in our sound.”
With an eclectic and devoted following, the band hopes to win new fans with their latest CD Alive in the City.
“Sometimes I think the music is almost secondary. What we do is create a moment–an energy and a spirit that people recognize and enjoy,” Bon said.
Thompson, who co-produced the new album, is equally excited about the power of performance. Jumping up from his chair and pacing the tiny backstage space he effuses, “This band is hot! Right now it’s time to come see the Mighty Blue Kings.”
MBK are just returning to the Midwest after a month-long stint on the West Coast. But these guys are not rookies to the road. The Chicago based Mighty Blue Kings formed back in 1995. Since then they have done several national tours, released five independent records, broke the Billboard Top Ten Blues Chart and appeared in a movie (“Kissing a Fool” w/ David Schwimmer). The New York Daily News recently described the band as, “sometimes dirty, sometimes martini-smooth, sometimes rural, sometimes cosmopolitan R&B.”
Alive in the City is a departure from their more jazzy, swing-based prior discs.
This one is a driving blues and soul montage that is seductive in places and raucous in others. “Well, a real fan will allow a band to grow,” Bon offered. “The new album may turn off a few people, but I think that it will turn on a lot more.”
It’s hard to listen to this album while sitting still, and there are a few tracks that will surely have you dancing around your apartment or dorm room. “Call Me Honey” is a bouncy horn- and organ-driven party song. The energy of the song just keeps building, and it’s nearly impossible not to get caught up in the band’s infectious enthusiasm. “How Long, How long” is a seedy blues lament that drives in like a slow train. Almost evoking Led Zeppelin’s gritty “When the Levee Breaks,” the number is decadently sinful. Gareth Best has been playing guitar for sixteen years and, “took lessons by sitting in front of a stereo,” he says. His moody and impressive licks are the perfect sexy complement to Ross Bon’s vocals and blues harmonica on “How Long, How Long.”
Overall, Alive in the City is one of the most energetic and interesting departures from the static pop/alt rock norm this year.
Describing Mighty Blue Kings is difficult as they defy and bend every genre. But just before climbing the stairs to take the stage, Ross Bon turns around, flashes a hepcat grin and says, “Yeah, we’re the soul
of jazz, blues and everything in between.” Indeed.