B y J i m L i p s o n
IT'S 1984, AND the scene is Nino's, a defunct little club with a legend all its own. On-stage, hovering over what looks like a pedal steel guitar, except there are no pedals and the sound is anything but country, Tony Bruno quietly improvises on a melody line so familiar you can almost taste it. Eventually another guitar joins in and this tease begins to build. The sound is decidedly psychedelic, not unlike the Grateful Dead, and yet nothing like The Grateful Dead. In time, the meanderings of these two guitars, soon joined by bass and drums, become their own reward. Then, just when the song is all but forgotten, John Ziegler and Sally Stricker step up to their respective mikes:
Dear Prudence...Won't you come out to play?
When was the last time you heard that in a club?
Before this night is through Major Lingo will: turn a traditional Celtic ballad, "Maddy Groves," into a syncopated frenzy; take John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" and make it a powerful reggae anthem; pay homage to Ingmar Bergman with a composition of epic proportions (almost 10 minutes), entitled "Seventh Seal"; take original ska music to places it's never been before.
There are perhaps 50 people in the club. The music and the energy are overwhelming. Bruno's lap steel guitar is as tasteful as it is relentless. Few in attendance have ever heard this kind of sound from a band, "local" or otherwise, and several people can be found dancing.
It's 1987 and the scene is Gentle Ben's. Major Lingo has been back to Tucson two or three times since that night at Nino's. Up north they've built a strong all-ages following, drawing good crowds in Phoenix, Flagstaff and a home base of Clarkdale, Cottonwood and their native Jerome. Musically, the band is combining a sophisticated lyrical consciousness with an irresistible urge to dance. Their motto, and title of their second cassette, is Beat For Heads and Feet.
The band looks a bit different here. They're still led by Bruno's lap steel slide and singer/songwriter and rhythm guitarist Ziegler, whose persona is such that it matches the force of Bruno's guitar. But the drummer is new, and unbelievably, he keeps pace with the two guitars. (Within five years he'll be on the Lollapalooza tour with a band called Primus. But for now, Tim Alexander is all Lingo's.) By the middle of the second set there are close to 90 people in the club, at least half of whom are dancing, and there's more than a hint of tie-dye about the room.
It's 1990 and the scene is Mudbuggs. After a handful of gigs at Gentle Ben's, Lingo is trying to crack the Tucson market once again. They've recently released Wild Blue Yonder, their fourth recording of mostly original music, and there are 130 people in the club, many of whom have made the drive from Phoenix, Prescott and Jerome. Tie-dye and the scent of musk and patchouli are everywhere. The players, save for Ziegler and Bruno, have again been shuffled, but the sound, still defined by the lap steel guitar and Ziegler's vocals and stage presence--part shaman, part activist--is uniquely Lingo. "New" Beatles tunes include "He Said She Said," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Tomorrow Never Knows." Everyone is dancing.
By 1992, the scene was the Cushing St. Bar and Restaurant. Close to 300 people packed onto the patio. "Finally, we found our people and they found us," recalls Ziegler in a recent interview. And indeed, gigs, both communal and festive, were now marked by hundreds of free-form dancers and a relationship the band was now cultivating with an audience hungry to connect.
Ziegler and Bruno still fronted the band, but with a new rhythm section in place Lingo was propelled to a whole new level of performance. Darryl Icard on bass and Steve Botterweg on drums were somewhat familiar to Tucson audiences through their work with Phoenix's avante-gard fusion band Poet's Corner. They were joined by Stricker, now enjoying her third time around with the band, this time as a singer, songwriter and on-stage dancer.
Together, the collective chemistry and energy was infectious. And When Cushing St. closed, everyone involved simply packed up the scene and took it to the Fourth Avenue Social Club and The Rock, where Lingo would play to enthusiastic and packed houses two or three times a month until their recent summer break.
Throughout this time nary a word was written in the local press, despite the release of their fine six-song EP/CD, All Through My Body. But who needed the press? Thanks to a bi-monthly mailing list, put together and maintained by what Ziegler refers to as a "grass-roots network of friends," new initiates and the faithful alike were now on-line and committed to supporting the band.
As Lingo emerges from its two-month summer hiatus, it's again in a state of transition and evolution. At a September gig at The Rock, the sound was the "Lingo sound," but the look and feel were a bit different. Most noticeable on stage was the return of Stricker to bass. In the spring she played emergency bass when Icard was injured in a car accident. Although his recovery is complete and he remains friends with the band (he recently sat in at a Phoenix gig), "Darryl has gone on to pursue other excesses," says Ziegler with a wink. He's especially missed by Botterweg, with whom he's played the past 10 years.
For Stricker the move is a challenge. "Refocusing on the bass, I don't get to connect with the audience as much...and yet (as a writer and arranger) this is where I belong."
It's October 1995, and the scene is The Rock. Three of the last five tunes are new, with Botterweg's "No Time For Pottery," an uproarious ska-based romp being the best of the lot. Between songs people shout out requests, and Ziegler, not content to let the lyrics do all the work, is exhorting people to register and vote. Sally is looking more comfortable on the bass, and Bruno, as he's done all these years, continues to create new dimensions of sound through his trusty lap steel.
Most people are smiling. Everyone is still dancing.
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