“I think we’ve entered a new era.”
Talking after Dr. Mambo’s Combo usual first-of-two weekly gigs last Sunday at Bunker’s Music Bar & Grill, Michael Bland wasn’t referring to any changes in music direction or venue. Those two facets of the most legendary jam session in Minneapolis remain remarkably unchanged over 30 years.
No, the mighty drummer and Prince alumnus was referencing the fact that a pair of young, neatly trimmed gentlemen showed up to their show wearing man rompers — ultra-trendy jumpsuits cut above the knees, a reminder of at least one major change during the Combo’s tenure.
“The first time I came down here, I got off the bus and saw a long row of Harley-Davidsons parked out front and thought, ‘This can’t be the place!’” recalled Bland, who was only 16 when he joined the all-star ensemble.
“Back then, it was this almost-secret part of downtown where the streetlights grew faint, and the parking was free. It was cool, but also very blue-collar.”
Today, Bunker’s is one of the last vestiges of blue-collar attitude in the flourishing corner of downtown Minneapolis now known to condo developers and foodie bloggers as the North Loop. The century-old brick bar still has a disco ball above the dance floor, a popcorn maker in the back and no hard-to-pronounce cocktails on its menu.
Like the venue itself, Mambo’s Combo has stood up to the changing tide by mostly staying the same, aside from updating its song repertoire and welcoming new members or subs here and there. There’ve been 54 “members” total, by guitarist Billy Franze’s count.
“The band really has a life of its own beyond any one of us,” Franze said.
To be clear, though, the core Combo players — also including bassist and fellow Prince cohort Sonny Thompson and singers Margaret Cox and Julius Collins — aren’t unwelcoming when it comes to the new wave of neighbors surrounding their host venue.
In fact, the Combo’s members are quite thrilled to see young trendsetters and college kids joining their usual crowd of middle- and even senior-aged regulars for the weekly mix of R&B, funk and soul classics and deep cuts. The musicians hope to see more newcomers turn out for their official 30th anniversary party Monday with ample guests (Sunday’s regular show should be quite a warmup, too).
“I really think it’s the one party in downtown Minneapolis where people of all ages and walks of life can always feel comfortable, whether they’re black, white, gay, straight, whatever,” Bland said
“This music is so universal and so full of joy, it brings out all kinds of people,” added Collins, the former Greazy Meal singer who’s been a part of the Combo off and on since the early ’90s.
The royal booth
One reason the Combo’s weekly jams are bringing in a new wave of fans was evidenced last Sunday by Shawn Linda Brown, who lit up when the band tore into Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thang.”
“I was told this is the place to come if I wanted to hear some good music at night,” said Brown, who flew in from Pittsburgh for the weekend just to visit Paisley Park. “They said he used to come here a lot.”
It’s true: Prince was a regular at the Combo gigs. Going back to the late ’80s, he would show up every few months if he wasn’t on tour.
Usually, he’d be ushered in the back door and sit at his favorite booth in the back corner. Sometimes he’d get up and perform, too. Bland essentially got his audition to join the New Power Generation when Prince crashed the stage during a Combo gig in 1989.
“I was just trying not to look at him and stay laser-focused, and he was testing me, for sure,” recalled the drummer, who also remembered a night Prince brought hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh to the show for another test.
“We had a battle: Doug E. on beatbox and me on drums.”
Collins happened to witness both Prince and Sheila E. sit in with the Combo on his first visit to Minneapolis from his native Atlanta in 1991. “I’m like, ‘Wow, Minneapolis has got it going on!’ ” said the singer, who not surprisingly decided to move to town after that.
More often than not, though, Prince would simply stay put in his booth at Bunker’s like a good little audience member. There’s probably no higher praise that can be made of the Combo than that.
“He stole half the band for his own band, so that tells you something,” said Franze, one of only two remaining members from the group’s original 1987 lineup, along with Cox. Original bandleader Tim “Dr. Mambo” Emerson was ousted in a dispute in the mid-’90s but has returned to sit in a few times.
Queen of the Combo
Bland thinks Prince most enjoyed listening to Cox, whom the late legend would eventually bring to Paisley Park to record (an album was never released).
“He liked coming down and watching the rest of us do our thing,” he said, “but really I think he was mostly coming to hear Margaret. He had so much respect for her as a singer.”
While Collins certainly sang with gusto and served the party-leader role well during last Sunday’s set, the most searing moments were indeed when Cox let loose. She looks like a sweet, unassuming Minnesota woman you might run into at the Michael’s checkout line, but she sang classics like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” like a long-lost soul great.
“She’s the greatest singer in Minneapolis, maybe the world,” Collins flat-out declared.
“I’ve been listening to her sing every week for 30 years,” said Franze, “and I can honestly say she hasn’t slipped one bit. She’s as great as she’s ever been.”
For regular Bunker’s patrons like St. Paul native Kevin Galligan, the continued appeal of attending a Combo gig every few months is “just knowing you’re going to see world-class musicians deliver.” The newest core member, keyboardist Kevin Gastonguay (Nooky Jones, New Sound Underground), certainly fits that description, too.
“I’ve never seen them phone it in,” said Galligan. “And it seems like they’re always having fun on stage, which is pretty remarkable after all these years.”
It helps that the band has many talented friends ready to sit in on a few hours’ notice — like when Bland is on tour with Soul Asylum, or when someone gets sick or simply wants a week off. Usually, though, the Combo members said they are eager and willing to make the Sunday and Monday gigs — which sometimes surprises even them.
“I still learn from them every week, and never take that for granted,” said Collins.
Bland was a little less mushy about it: “They’re probably the only people I can stand enough to do this every week, and can stand me that much, too,” he blurted.
Friendship and musicianship rarely balance out so well in a band.