If life was fair, Paul Cebar would have been at the Grammys last week, getting shout-outs from young colleagues for his rich body of work, hanging with illustrious friends like Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Los Lobos, dropping wry comments while handing out awards, maybe collecting some hardware himself.
Instead Cebar was on an East Coast swing with his seasoned quintet, Tomorrow Sound, in support of their sparkling new album, “Fine Rude Thing,” hoping to generate a buzz and maybe reap a little of the fame and fortune that has proven all too elusive during his 57 years.
“I have this kind of wild position here where I’m 10 years younger than all these luminaries that I’ve come to know pretty well,” Cebar said by phone from New York, where his band was preparing to play for the first time in six years. “It’s mind boggling to think about the difference in scale between someone that’s actually made it. At this point I’m hoping that I can be a footnote to some sort of cultural idea of what American music is.”
Despite his relative anonymity, Cebar is a highly respected songwriter and bandleader with an encyclopedic knowledge of intriguing musical phenomena ranging from jump blues to his beloved New Orleansiana to the shimmering grooves of the Caribbean and far beyond. Through relentless touring, first with the R&B Cadets, then the Milwaukeeans, now Tomorrow Sound, Cebar has cultivated a dedicated following in select spots, especially the Midwest — his native Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and the Twin Cities, where he’ll pull into the Cedar Thursday night.
“We’ve consistently sold the most records of anywhere in the Twin Cities,” he said. “I think actually the Electric Fetus itself has sold more of my records than any other place. I treasure my fans up there. Through all of these years I think there’s always been a group that includes us in their essentials. I hope to grow the core.”
The new seedling is “Fine Rude Thing,” the band’s first album since 2007. It’s rife with Cebar’s potent trademark synthesis of scintillating rhythms and steamy melodies, mostly from global tropical zones, laced with tasty slabs of American R&B, soul and blues. After the rambunctious title track, the disc slips down Beale and Bourbon, along Havana’s Malecón, around Corcovado, across the Mersey and into the Sahara, winding up with the ska workout “Like Loving People Do.”
You can pick out Beatles harmonies, Motown riffs, Cuban son, Al Green or Lee Dorsey references, but the joyous alchemist in Cebar has spun it all into timeless, genre-defying gold.
An inveterate musicological Indiana Jones excavating dusty vinyl bins for forgotten gems from Sierra Leone or Bahia, Cebar has been obsessed with discovering the sources of his obscure musical threads since he was a kid.
“Dad was an AV man at the school where he taught and he would bring home these little turntables,” he recalled. “And on Grandma’s corner there was a jukebox supply store so you could buy the records they’d taken off the jukeboxes for like ten for a dollar.”
He also remembers one prophetic day when he went to the downtown lakefront and the musical world opened up to him.
“There was an art festival in Milwaukee which for some uncanny reason was booked by a very hip and very elderly jazz fan back when I was about 10 or 11,” he said. New Orleans’ Wild Magnolias were there, parading around the grounds in their full feathered Mardi Gras Indians regalia. “ ‘Big Chief’s Got a Golden Crown’ — the way they did it a cappella, I had that completely imprinted. I walked around with ’em all day except when I went to the stage where [Babatunde] Olatunji played and he had probably an eight-piece African band. Then when Olatunji’s done, they bring up [jazz great] Art Blakey and his Messengers.
“I remember taking this all in and just coming home completely buzzing. Then years and years and years later I think, holy cow, I was completely sold at 11.”
All that eclecticism, fueling Cebar’s imagination and pervading his music, continues to both surprise him and cause no end of difficulties. “It actually comes still as startling to me that people do think it’s that radically eclectic,” he said. And, as Cebar has painfully discovered, artistic ingenuity isn’t necessarily easily marketable.
“I can’t say that it’s not been a problem. I looked for about a year and a half to find a label to put this out.” He said the typical response was: “I forgot how creative Mr. Cebar is… but I think my lawyers would laugh me out of the room if I suggested doing this at this point.”
The result is that Fine Rude Thing by necessity is on Cebar’s own Groovesburg Joys label, saddling him with such burdens as marketing and distribution.
“If you ask me, do I want to be a record company head, the answer would be no, I don’t. But I’ve had to take it on myself. If we had some kind of support I think we could have put out twice as many records in the time I’ve been doing this. But you can’t really think about that at this point, so I’m trying to put the best foot forward, trying to wear all the hats well or hire people that can actually wear the hat well as long as it holds out. But ya know, I’m swingin’ pretty hard on this one.”
A Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $20,000 last year enabled Cebar to get some help from Shore Fire, a major league Brooklyn public relations outfit, and Distiller, a radio promotion company. So far, he’s pleased with the results, unleashing his eternal enthusiasm for the music end of things.
“I’m still very jazzed to be doin’ it,” he said. “I love playin’ with the band. I think we’re very, very good in a very offhand way now. So it’s a pleasure to be playin’ gigs. I’m hoping we can open up some new doors with this and reopen some of the ones that have slowly closed.
“So tell the children that Uncle Paul is comin’.”