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Everyone knows that South Florida is an abnormal place, with anomalies galore. Every crackpot east of the Mississippi passes through the region at least once, and many stay. But without the dark energies that South Florida's strangeness produces, there wouldn't be bands such as Iko-Iko. At least that's how Iko's singer, songwriter, and guitarist Graham Wood Drout explains the nearly 20-year life span of the longest-running band in the land.
"Look at the bands from the area that have had any type of success -- they're always the weirdoes," Drout says with a wry grin. "The Mavericks, they're country, but they have a weird take on it. Iko-Iko is bluesy, like something that grows under the refrigerator. South Florida has an attitude more than a particular sound, and it takes from everywhere. We have all these influences we get secondhand. And we don't realize how odd we are until we go to Smallville, USA, and people are, like, 'Where'd that come from?' The one thing South Florida does have is that you can take any musical genre and just totally weird it out. Look at Marilyn Manson."
Iko-Iko has not so much weirded-out the blues -- the genre with which the group is most associated -- as it has lengthened its tether. The band is on the verge of releasing its fourth full-length recording, Shine. The disc is bluesy, yet taunts the rock 'n' roll fringe, falling somewhere between the dirt of Jon Spencer and the polish of Robert Cray. Shine builds on the foundations of its predecessors, 1996's Protected by Voodoo and 1992's Riding on the Rims, which steadily rocked away from the traditional blues of Iko-Iko's first release, 1988's Snowstorm in the Jungle. And while the new album rocks, it wouldn't be an Iko-Iko release without a sprinkle of New Orleans. In the end Shineowes as much to Dr. John, Clifton Chenier, and the Rolling Stones as it does to Howlin' Wolf.
No doubt the early Iko-Iko was so blues-oriented because the band evolved from one of South Florida's first blues outfits, the Fat Chance Blues Band. Drout became a permanent member of Fat Chance by replacing the bassist, whose wife wouldn't let him play a gig in a shady club. Drout reminisces about how the band "asked if I could stay out all night and play in bad neighborhoods. I said 'Oh, yeah!' We did a rehearsal, and it went horrible. I couldn't sing, and it wasn't working. They wanted to break up, but we did the gig anyway. Halfway through the show I said, 'I'm staying.' That was at Tobacco Road in 1980. It was all Mariel refugees, a shotgun behind the bar, and just hard-core bad stuff. It was really dangerous and weird, so it was just as cool as can be," he says laughing.
Drout remembers playing gigs frequently with Fat Chance all over South Florida. "When I first started," he recalls, "there were no gigs. We had to invent gigs. We were the only blues band. We were the most low-class, bottom-feeder bunch of lowlifes anyone would want to meet, and we loved it."
The Fat Chance Blues Band changed its name to Iko-Iko in late 1983. Drout is the only original member still in the band. The rest of the current lineup, which was built throughout the '90s, is drummer Stewart Jean; guitarist Larry Williams; bassist Mike Mennell; Doug Leibinger on keyboards, accordion, trombone, and saxophone; and Ronald James Dziubla on sax, guitar, and keyboards.
Over the years Drout has had the good fortune to see and hear some formidable players pass through the Iko-Iko regime. The most notable musician was Nick Kane, a current and founding member of the Mavericks. Kane spent two years as Iko's guitarist and recorded on its debut. Other former Iko members include the Weld's drummer John Yarling, the Big City Blues Band's guitarist John Wenzel, and James Brown's sax man, Jeff Watkins. The list goes on and on.
Drout says that the present version of Iko-Iko is so good, it's a luxury. "This group is all professional and goal motivated," he says happily. "We own things as a group: the van, trailer, the new CD. It's all of us together, it's really rare." Furthermore, he adds, "You can actually make some decent money around here."
Iko generally gigs at least three times a week in South Florida and sometimes works every day for two or three weeks straight. On any given weekend, you can usually catch the band at a gin mill somewhere in the area. The group, however, is best known as the unofficial house band at Tobacco Road in Miami, where it's performed most every Monday night for the last 13 years. Drout says the Road is a South Florida peculiarity that rubbed off on the band: "The crowd would be Brazilian, Cuban, German, black, white, redneck, and professional. It was really weird company to grow up with. And they sort of molded the band. So we became an unusual thing. And then we'd go up to Broward, and it was a really different crew."