Milwaukee Talks: Paul Cebar

Born and raised on the northwest side of Milwaukee, Paul Cebar has played in over half of the United States and in London, England, singing his heart out for crowds ranging in size from four to tens of thousands, for dancers, diners, diplomats and drunks.

Cebar began his performing career as a teenager, playing coffeehouses, theaters and punk rock bars in Milwaukee and Florida, where he first dug the blues. His act grew from solo shows in which he'd cover Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Billie Holiday tunes into duo shows with estimable sax raconteur Rip Tenor, a scruffy, sardonic jazzer of high improvisational skill and expression.

Joining Cebar and Tenor were bassist Alan Anderson and the mysterious soprano Robyn Pluer, who helped Cebar realize his songwriting visions with the seven-piece Milwaukeeans. Pluer gave the band its critical momentum on "That Unhinged Thing" before she split to sing French cabaret songs, with great recorded results on the 1999 release "Les Chansons de Crepescule."

Cebar and Pluer were first bandmates in Midwestern songwriting hero John Sieger's R & B Cadets, an exciting sextet that mixed brilliant covers (like the Nick Lowe-produced recording of Rory Block's "Strong and Lasting Kind" and Cebar's prodigious take on Lee Dorsey's "Messed Around and Feel in Love") and whose one album for Twin/Tone was a sweet victory after years of swinging and suffering together. To coincide with this summer's recent reunion shows, the band recently reissued the album on CD.

When the R & B Cadets split, Sieger off selling his brilliant songs to a less-than-clued-in Warner Brothers, Cebar and the Milwaukeeans met Randy Baugher, the rosy-cheeked drummer of eternal funk. Anderson picked up an electric bass, turned up the volume and the Milwaukeeans were in it to win it, dazzling even their old fans with an eye-gougingly good opening set for the BoDeans at Milwaukee's art deco landmark, the Oriental Theatre, in the fall of 1986.

Paul Cebar is now the standard against which Milwaukee musicians measure themselves. Besides the Violent Femmes and BoDeans, Cebar and former labelmate Willy Porter are the city's only original musicians who don't hold "proper" jobs. His intelligence, style and facility on the mic and guitar are of the highest caliber. His literate, instinctively solid songs wield serious emotional and physical power.

Listen to "You Make Me Feel So," a chilling but ultimately exhilarating minor-key samba, centerpiece of Cebar's first album with the Milwaukeeans, "That Unhinged Thing." Cebar drops deadly social science: "We've got babies shooting babies/Zealots keeping the crosshairs clear/Fish are jumping on the banks to die/And you, you make me feel so," gets slightly louder and more insistent, "You make me feel so," and hits a vocal crescendo just before a stunning, tonically troubling saxophone break: "You make me feel so."

For his musical knowledge, Cebar has become a cultural spearhead. Every other week he hosts "Way Back Home," a weekly three-hour radio show on WMSE-FM, the pioneering format-free station launched 20 years ago at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The show exemplifies Cebar's commitment to a Milwaukee that decades of reactionary government and socially irresponsible business can never kill. Tune in on a Wednesday morning and you might hear coolly alluring weather reports over a dope, atmospheric Blue Note side or a bulging Randy Chin Loy reggae rhythm, the Cookies making way for Kanda Bongo Man.

On Christmas 1995, Cebar went international for two nights at London's Jazz Café, opening for Nick Lowe, with whom the Cadets had a brief fling. He tours the United States constantly, and still stays up long past everybody's bedtime. His new album, "Suchamuch," shows off Cebar's singing and the powerful Milwaukeeans' playing in front of a Chicago audience, with emphasis on cool cover versions -- Roaring Lion's "Jump in the Line," a truly funky version of Eddie Bo's "Check Your Bucket," a reggae remake of the Miracles' "I Second That Emotion," a beautiful solo rendition of Lil Green's "Romance in the Dark," and a samba arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love."

Co-author of "Shack and Shambles" on Los Lobos singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas's debut solo album, "Soul Disguise," Cebar is constantly throwing down great music with high energy and building it on up with more great songs every year. His current band is Cebar, guitarist/vocalist Terry Vittone, R & B Cadets alumnus organist/tenor saxophonist/vocalist Bob Jennings, bassist Pat Patterson, drummer/vocalist Reggie Bordeaux, and percussionist Romero Beverly.

A while back we embarked on the Definitive Paul Cebar Interview, an impossible bird, of course. Excerpted from the conversation, this is how the man thinks, how he sings, and how he can freak y'all with one steady roll:

OMC: What is the unifying thread that runs through the music that you write, the music that you love, the things you read, the clothes you wear, your style and your politics? You're a pretty complex cat.

PC: Yeah, complexity makes it difficult to find a unifying thread. I would say that I have a high regard for liveliness of language and rhythm. I try to incorporate tradition in some way that allows it to live and allows it to prop up a modern life, as opposed to some sort of ironic distancing from tradition.

I am trying to throw some kind of light on past artistic expression or even past social interaction, whether you want to talk about the dance hall of the sixties or the dance hall of Jamaica in the fifties.... I want to bring those kinds of situations into play. I guess there is a side of me that wants to carry that emotional situation forward into a time, maybe, that's thought of as old hat or as something that was "done before" but is not au courant.

OMC: New hat.

PC: Yeah. There you go.

OMC: A vital part of what you do is standing up and doing it lively.

PC: Well, I do have 10,000 albums in my room. I'm into records as well. I'm into some sort of pickled liveliness and all the attendant variables with pickling and the processes, plastic bags on up.

OMC: The emotional uplift is what seems to make people come to your shows.

PC: I'm trying to live up to certain standards or performance that I've enjoyed, whether it's Clifton Chenier or James Brown or Diblo and people like that from Zaire. Whether it's Eddie Palmieri or whoever the hell it is, it's just that there's a sense of bringing it to the party, like Celia Cruz, bringing it to the stage with an effortlessness that I'm not sure I've achieved yet. But I think that I'm aiming that way.

The greatest stuff that I've seen has that kind of giving spirit and has a warmth to it, even if it's a very cold expression, although I can't think of too many cold expressions that I've been running out of my way to see.

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