Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Soul Searching

By Rich Collins

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Nobody's going to accuse Paul Cebar of being ignorant of music tradition. For the better part of two decades, the Milwaukee resident has spent much of his time and money collecting records, CDs, books and anything that quenches his thirst for R&B, soul and other styles. The result is that Cebar has a music collection of more than 10,000 titles and an encyclopedic knowledge of the musicians who helped shape the sounds of the 20th century.

For Cebar, the "home schooling" was an uncontrollable impulse.

"When I come upon something that intrigues me, I want to find more of it and where it came from," he says. "I was starting this 22 years ago. It was a lot of fun to be on this hunt and looking under every rock. It opened all sorts of different connections -- which often pointed to New Orleans."

Cebar's musical hall of fame includes everybody from jump blues legends Louis Jordan and Buddy Johnson to New Orleans R&B pioneers Smiley Lewis, Lee Dorsey, Roy Brown and Chubby Newsome. He studied their work, and the accomplishments of so many others, by scouring used record stores and reading whatever he could find on the topic -- which wasn't much.

"1940s R&B was enormously obscure when we were growing up," says Cebar, a child of the '70s. "You might hear B.B. King on the radio, but you didn't know about Louis Jordan, a guy who recorded 400 to 500 sides and sold millions of records. You didn't see him on Johnny Carson."

Before he formed his own band, the Milwaukeeans, Cebar played with a group that charged him with finding the "obscure R&B cover" for each set. He'd dig around in his collection for a Lee Dorsey B-side or a track buried near the end of a Huey Smith record. It was by singing these tunes that he began wandering down his own musical path.

"Eventually, I started feeling more confident that I had something of my own to say and that I had digested enough of the tradition that I could try my own hand at it," says Cebar.

For the last decade, Cebar has channeled his love of soul, R&B, world music, jazz and rock into his own sound -- a satisfying brew that's earned him a loyal following on his own turf and roots music clubs around the country. (He comes to New Orleans to perform Friday at Howlin' Wolf and Saturday at the Maple Leaf.)

With the help of his crackerjack six-piece band, Cebar combines musical references, thoughtful lyrics and serious chops with booty-shaking groove and a freewheeling sensibility. And his best tunes offer something for the mind, for the heart and for the hips.

"Didn't Leave Me No Ladder," the single from 1995's Upstroke for the Downfolk is classic funk that combines a blistering rhythm track with punchy guitars, horns and vocals. "She Found Herself a Fool," the first single from Cebar's new disc, The Get-Go, is a swinging Motown tribute with a sweet-and-sour chorus. And the punchy "Bungalowing Big Time," another track from the new disc, is a happy chunk of a song that somehow combines the best of Eddie Cochran and Kurt Cobain.

These days, Cebar frequently is performing these songs around the country, and the task has been made easier since Upstroke won over programmers at some "triple-A" (adult album alternative) radio stations. The radio play led to attention from national press and bigger crowds in cities that had been slow to catch Cebar fever. Now, the Milwaukeans are enjoying crowds in important coastal cities, including New York and Seattle.

"She Found Herself a Fool" is already on about two dozen stations, and Cebar is cautiously optimistic that the radio has finally warmed up to him and his kind.

"Triple-A has been an interesting thing," he says. "Through the early part of my career, everybody would always be talking about radio, saying there's no place for anybody, and so it's been sort of gratifying to hear stations play the kind of music I enjoy, music from Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat. There's a place for that stuff, even though the jury's still out whether triple-A really does anything in terms of sales."

With or without radio support, Cebar can be certain that he'll get a warm reception when he comes to New Orleans this week. Cebar wears his love for the city on his sleeve, and local fans have returned the sentiment. He's been booked for the annual M.O.M.S. Halloween party for the last three years, and his drawing power at local venues has increased.

Perhaps most meaningful to Cebar, however, are the gigs he plays in town during Jazz Fest, which he has been attending religiously since 1981.

"[The Fest] really has been sort of Christmas and my holy days wrapped into one," says Cebar. "It was the way for me to see the music I loved on these records in context. It was a grand panorama of humanity down there and it still is, as much as something good can't be hidden, sort of like a city on a mountaintop."

Cebar bares his soul Friday at Howlin' Wolf (for the M.O.M.S. party) and Saturday at the Maple Leaf.


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