Much like Cleveland, Milwaukee gets a bad rap as a dying town that doesn't have much going for it. But for Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter Paul Cebar, the reality couldn't be further from the truth. He distinctly recalls attending an arts festival that left a huge impression.
"Somehow the booking agent was pretty hip," he says. "[He booked] the Wild Magnolias from New Orleans. They came as a small group and walked around the grounds. I was about 12 and followed them around all day. I had that song '(My Big Chief has a) Golden Crown' stuck in my head for 20 years. That day Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer, was booked and Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers were booked. It was this early imprinting. I missed by one year Bola Sete, the Brazilian guitarist who later has become one of my favorites."
Though the major labels never came courting, that doesn't diminish Cebar's significance. His oeuvre is every bit as impressive as that of more heralded singer-songwriters such as Nick Lowe and John Hiatt, and his brand new album, Fine Rude Thing, is one of the young year's best.
Initially, the Milwaukee native wasn't the musical encyclopedia that he now is. But he had an epiphany of sorts when he left town to study at New College in Sarasota, Fla.
"I was blind to [lots of] music at that point," he says. "I was studying jazz and getting into R&B. It was hard to find Louis Jordan or Buddy Johnson or any records that were '40s R&B. It became a detective action. I used to comb the record stores trying to find 78s of these guys so I could hear the stuff. New Orleans got me the same time when I was in school. I think the New Orleans sound and all the different sounds of New Orleans led me into different diasporal forms. I saw Cuban musicians in New Orleans."
He then began playing the coffeehouse circuit and regularly visited New York. He says that time period was "not all that far from Inside Llewyn Davis," the new Coen brothers movie that shows just how tough it was to make it as a folk singer. "I would go to New York and play Folk City and the Other End and all those places that were part of the scene way back when. People like Dave Von Ronk would come out. It was a heady time. You'd do these open mics and then get a gig every six weeks or so and play for whoever shows up. I got to open for Willie Dixon and Sonny & Brownie. It was a really nice way to cut your teeth."
But by the early '80s, Cebar gravitated toward a more eclectic sound with the R&B Cadets, a combo that delved deep into the American songbook of the mid-20th century.
"At that time, it was my chance to get involved with a band and be a guest and come up and sing a few Lee Dorsey B-sides and have a great time," he explains of his early days performing with the group.
He eventually became a full-time member of the band.
"In that band, I was the guy who would find the obscure B-side or whatever the cover song was that we were going to play," he explains.
During that time, Cebar kept up with another band that played a mix of music along the lines of quirky singer-songwriter Dan Hicks. Dubbed the Milwaukeeans, that group would embrace the world music that Cebar had come to love. About five years ago, he changed the name of the band to Tomorrow Sound to "freshen stuff up."
"I thought we were being taken for granted," he says. "I started seeing reviews that would refer to how we were interpreting older music. We had been playing original music for 20 years. I wanted to put the focus on the future. The marketers don't like you to break brand, but we're musicians."
Fittingly, Cebar's new album, Fine Rude Thing, features a bit of everything. "You Owe It to You" channels the Philly soul that he loves so much and other tracks on the eclectic album draw from Brazilian, Cuban and African music. The title track, in particular, is a great romp.
"I had an instrumental that my drummer and I had whipped up," Cebar says when asked about the song. "We were calling it 'Fine Rude Thing.' I thought, 'There are some lyrics in that title.' It was during the lovely Bush era that I started working on it. My records come out years later and I can never truly address political or topical concerns because by the time it's out, it's over with. But in that song, there's a bit of an indication that this was a rebuttal to their abysmal drag. It was as close as I could get to saying, 'I've had enough.' You want to encourage folks who have their eyes on fire. I was trying to conjure up somebody who was racing down the alley."
Cebar also hosts Way Back Home, a radio show on Milwaukee's WMSE that allows him to dig into his extensive vinyl collection and pontificate about his various influences.
"You keep plucking away and you keep following your nose and try to find out where that came from," he says of his wide range of interests. "I started out at a time when radio was pretty eclectic and I internalized that. Terry Adams from NRBQ often calls it 'omni-pop,' and I like that formulation. I think that is what the deal is. You hope the playing of your band unifies things in some way, shape or form."
In the eyes of Nick Lowe, who describes Cebar as "the real thing," the band's style certainly makes the music coherent.
"I have done a number of opening dates for him through the years," Cebar says of Lowe. "I met him a long time ago and he's a sweet, sweet man. He's hilarious. A few years ago, I asked him if he had it in him to weigh in on what I meant or what I was about. He was kind enough to come up with that. He's been a mentor and a real friend. The last record, he actually sang some background vocals on one of the songs. We have an ongoing appreciation of all kinds of arcane R&B and country records."
So what's it like trying to make a living as a musician in 2014? Cebar seems like the kind of guy who would live in a separate world unaffected by digital downloads and disinterest.
"I would like to say it's a separate world but in a way that I wouldn't wish on anyone," he says. "Since we didn't have the luxury of being on a major label, we were never subjected to the horror stories that everyone talks about.
"But we also failed to benefit from the publicity work that anyone who has been on a label receives," he continues. "In many ways, I'm 'indier than thou.' I'm probably deluded, but I think there's immediacy to the music that could have been marketed. I do love continuing on. We're driving vans from town to town but I get a big kick out of seeing the country and seeing the people who come out. I know that for myself I love live music and dancing to live music and I want to foster that for others. I trust there are still folks out there hankering to get out on the floor and get going."