River of Sorrow

The West Palm alt-rock scene mourns one of its favorite sons

 Rob Hutson, singer for Palm Beach County band Black River Circus, died July 19. He apparently suffered a seizure and drowned in a swimming pool. He was 28 years old.

"Rob was one of my best friends," says Ray Carbone, owner of Ray's Downtown on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. "It's terrible." The band's ex-manager as well as one of its first fans and champions, Carbone says Hutson's family has given him the go-ahead to reissue some of BRC's long-lost local releases, such as 1996's 11-track album Yinger's Madness.

"Black River Circus, Doorway 27, and Boxelder were the three big ones," Carbone remembers of the mid-'90s West Palm alt-rock scene. "They were the very first band at the first Buzz Bake Sale in 1996." The next year, he adds, was Black River's zenith, when the group blew the Wallflowers off the stage (admittedly, not tough to do) at SunFest on May 1, 1997.

Charles Passy, the Palm Beach Post's music critic at the time, wrote an impressive account under the banner, "Riviera Beach Band Upstages Wallflowers." He heaped much of his praise upon "charismatic lead singer" Hutson.

Black River Circus broke up in the summer of 2000, but Carbone's memories of the band's playing his room remain vivid. He seems particularly pleased when recalling Ralph and Steve Yulo, the band's twin guitarists. "They'd play with their backs against each other, flip 'em over each other's backs and play each other's guitars -- almost every night, at least once a night. When was the last time you saw someone do that?"

Nearly as impressive as Spinal Tap, Carbone says, BRC actually boasted 13 different drummers in its six years of performing, including Tim Lawson and Tony "T-Bone" Tomasino.

Pat Boggs, now drumming for Boxelder, sat behind the throne for Black River Circus from 1995 until 1997. "Rob was a helluva frontman, kind of like the Jim Morrisson vibe -- not really arrogant, but out there. He was difficult sometimes, but deep down he was a really great guy to be around. He was really smart, always asking questions, pretty open to the answers, and he liked to argue a lot. I think that explains the multiple drummers, 'cause drummers also tend to be headstrong. He was a brilliant businessman, too. He did a hell of a job running the band."

In fact, after the SunFest showing-up, the Wallflowers' Jakob Dylan convinced his label, Interscope, to take a close look at Black River Circus. Ultimately, however, nothing came of it.

On July 25, Doorway 27 dedicated its set at Ray's to BRC; nearly everyone in the room had been to the funeral the day before, Carbone reports. "It was really sad." Says Doorway bassist Max Fraser, "Everybody was hanging out, having drinks, telling stories about Rob, just remembering him."

Hutson was studying music at Palm Beach Atlantic College and reportedly looking into putting the band back together with a new roster earlier this summer. "But they never ended up gigging or anything, unfortunately," says Boggs.

"Slip," a tasty slice of Black River Circus circa 1999, is available as an MP3 or RealAudio download at http://artists2.iuma.com/IUMA/Bands/Black_ River_ Circus/. "It was just modern rock, man," Boggs summarizes, "before it all blew up."

These days, Carbone says he thinks he's found the reincarnation of Miles Davis, the Band, and Rage Against the Machine all wrapped up in one magical Miami-Dade five-piece, and Bandwidth, for one, tends to agree with him. Pygmy performed June 27 with Maypop, Pivot, and Faller at Ray's. Kris, Pygmy's lefty guitarist, wore a manic, glazed-over stare that became positively feral as several of his bandmates let their shoes fly off their feet into the ceiling or against the walls, and singer Edward Adames dived off the stage to feign death on the floor for a few minutes. "We have fun moving like idiots," Adames says. "It gives us pleasure." None of the show seemed the least bit contrived; it all almost appeared a perfectly natural byproduct of such demonic music, like radioactive tailings left behind after mining a motherlode of ore. I can honestly report that this is by far the most exciting South Florida live act I have yet encountered.

"I am totally impressed with this band. They're amazing to me," raves Carbone. "As a musician, they blow me away. They're geeky-smart, very musically astute, professional kids. But I really think that, like Primus, unless they've got a hit, most people won't get it. You just can't categorize them."

Comparisons frequently floated include At the Drive In ("That's completely fine," says Adames. "I'm not scared to admit they're one of our biggest influences") and Mr. Bungle ("Grrrr," he disagrees). "Our tendency is to stray into areas where it's a bit stranger, with crazy, changing time signatures and progressive avant-crap, I guess you can call it," he continues, citing Rush as a guilty pleasure and John Zorn as an artist Pygmy aspires to emulate. "We merge tradition with a good amount of fun," Adames says.

It's more than 100 miles for Pygmy (with members spread throughout North Miami, Kendall, and Westchester) to make the round-trip to Ray's, but it's a perfect marriage.

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