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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."
Over the last few years, Drout says, gigging conditions have changed north of the Road, and the boys in Iko-Iko have accordingly been playing Broward and Palm Beach counties more often. He says the crowds have become more receptive, and more venues have opened to allow them additional opportunities. They frequently traverse into Alligator Alley, Yellow Moon, the A Train, and the Back Room. But it wasn't always that way. Drout remembers when the venues and audiences in Broward and Palm Beach weren't as warm. "It was like if we didn't play Stevie Ray [Vaughan], we were offending them," he says. "And I think people are sick to death of this Stevie Ray thing. It's not the blues, it's Stevie Ray. If I walked into a club with a white jump suit and started singing 'Hound Dog,' people would think I'm some kind of idiot. But if I walk into a club with a flat hat and a Stratocaster and start playing 'Pride and Joy,' then I'm a blues fan? No. I'm Stevie Ray Vaughan, in drag."
Once you've seen Iko-Iko live, you will not mistake them for anyone in drag. The six-piece ensemble is led by the burly Drout, who has rusty hair and rosy cheeks that peek through a slovenly beard and who lops and sways around the mic when he's not playing the guitar. Conversely Williams is slight and gray-haired, smoothly working the strings on his ax. Dziubla is on the side, either blasting his sax or jumping between instruments. Likewise when Leibinger isn't happily behind his keyboard, he's looking for another instrument to play. Mennell is the scruffy one in the corner, taking care of business like a pro who doesn't care about anything except the song he's playing. His unison with Jean, who's pounding away in back of the ensemble, goes beyond rhythm and reaches into vocal harmonies, which mesh superbly with Drout's light baritone.
Drout has not only seen his band grow into a cohesive co-op, he's also experienced South Florida's music scene from its infancy. He says for rock and blues bands, it's better today than when he first started, and the scene in general isn't too bad. Of course that's coming from a fellow in a well-established band. But he also notes that "the music scene sucks everywhere. And down here everyone sits around saying it sucks, and no one goes out to support it. I just got back from Memphis, and I never saw [a bigger] bunch of crap than the bands up there. They're not doing anything musically, they're just hustling pandering to the tourist trade. I got a whole new appreciation for the stuff down here."
Although Drout says he hasn't learned any precious lesson in the last 20 years that he might not have learned if he had been doing something else, he has learned enough to know it's what's down the road that's most important. "After all this time," he says, "I don't know if there's anything that I wish I knew before I started. I think it's the next 20 years that I wish I knew what was going on. No insurance, not much retirement, none of that stuff, it's all me."
So what's his modus operandi? "The greatest thing about being in this band is that you never know what you're going to be doing next. Whether you're going to be on Broadway with Jimmy Buffett (Iko performed the score for the musical Don't Stop the Carnival in 1997) or in a movie with Robert De Niro (the band made a cameo appearance in Cape Fear in 1991). I can go to Memphis or New Orleans pretty much anytime I want to. I spend five weeks a year in Key West, where I have to work two and a half hours every night at Margaritaville, and they pay, feed, and house us. I like traveling and I like playing, so I get to travel and play when I get there, which is better than a vacation. Actually, if I went on vacation, I'd want to play when I got there."
Contact Larry Boytano at his e-mail address: