Photos by Adam Ryan Morris It’s good to be Paul Cebar.Late last year, a video of a one-time-only super group featuring Wilco, Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples hit the Internet. Lowe had been opening for Wilco for months, including one night during the band’s five-night stand in Chicago, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had recently […]
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
It’s good to be Paul Cebar.Late last year, a video of a one-time-only super group featuring Wilco, Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples hit the Internet. Lowe had been opening for Wilco for months, including one night during the band’s five-night stand in Chicago, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy had recently produced Staples’ Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone. With Staples residing in Chicago, the stars aligned, and the handheld video captured the results – the musicians crammed into a backstage dressing room taking a run through the Band’s epic singalong “The Weight,” which would be performed as a surprise encore later that evening.
Knowing that I shared musical tastes with Cebar, I forwarded the video to him. His matter-of-fact reply shouldn’t have been a surprise: “I was standing behind the guy with the camera.”
Of course he was.
Cebar and Lowe have been friends since the early 1980s. That’s when the Englishman discovered Cebar’s band at the time, the R&B Cadets, while passing through Milwaukee, and he tried to godfather them to a record deal. When Wilco came through the area this past December, Cebar acted as Lowe’s Midwest ambassador, accompanying the revered performer/producer at stops in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago.
As events coalesced in that dressing room, Cebar had earned his way there over the course of a 30-year career that has yet to pay off in the fame-and-fortune department, but has won him the respect of A-list musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, T-Bone Burnett and Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas.
“Paul’s music is fascinating to me,” says Raitt, who eagerly took time away from promoting her new album and tour to sing her friend’s praises. “He’s a rare treasure because of his incredible passion for such a wide range of music that is too often overlooked.
“I salute him and admire him, and I love him.”
It has been 25 years since Cebar stepped into the role of frontman, taking on the creative satisfactions and business frustrations of being the guy whose name is on the marquee. In 1986, the R&B Cadets abruptly collapsed when Cadets leader John Sieger found a better deal with his side band, Semi-Twang. After years of pounding the pavement for a record contract, the Cadets had just put out their first disk, Top Happy, through the trend-shaping Twin/Tone label in Minneapolis. Semi-Twang, however, signed at the same time with powerhouse Warner Bros. Records.
Angry at investing in a band that had come apart at the worst possible moment, Twin/Tone gave up on Top Happy and washed its hands of Cebar. He resolved that in order to control his fate, he would make music under his own name from that point forward.
It was the decisive step in a musical apprenticeship that began with a young Cebar holed up in his home at 44th & Capitol, transfixed by mid-’60s radio on WOKY, WNOV and WRIT. His indoctrination into top 40 heaven took on a heavier texture when a chance encounter with a family friend’s extensive record collection introduced him to a rich mine of ’40s R&B and other treasures. Bawdy and urbane figures like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Louis Jordan and Big Maybelle sang to Cebar in one ear, while the Beatles, the Temptations and Dylan fomented revolution in the other. Add to that Milwaukee’s folk-infused coffeehouse scene, where Cebar began attending open mics in the mid-’70s, and Cebar headed toward adulthood with an unusually rich musical grounding.
“The week I turned 18 [in 1974], Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee played at Teddy’s [now Shank Hall] on Tuesday, Howlin’ Wolf was there on Wednesday, and Charles Mingus played on Thursday,” Cebar says, recalling that distant time when Milwaukee bars legally and happily served teenagers. “I only had enough money to see one show, so I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. They were magnificent!”
Within a few years, Cebar would be sharing a stage with the blues legends.
College took him down to Florida, where he earned a degree in humanities with an emphasis on musicology. He and like-minded classmates spent their off hours getting deep into such seminal figures as Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Jimmy Rogers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. They also liberally sampled the freshly minted Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, and the heady chaos being stirred by new wave and punk.
By the ’80s, Cebar was back in Milwaukee to stay. His immersion into American roots music and captivating world rhythms created a colorful new persona. The quiet, bookish Pius XI High School kid was now the hippest of hepcats, sporting Panama suits, saddle shoes and a closet full of threads of mysterious provenance. The look was capped off by a funky, laid-back manner that has taken on a fine burnish over the years.
“Let’s talk about the sartorial splendor of Paul Cebar,” says Raitt, who has been a friend and admirer since the late ’80s, when she came just short of recording one of Cebar’s songs for her career-making album Nick of Time. “There are cool guys, and then there are guys like Paul, who I imagine was cool even as a kid. He probably had a beard when he was 6.”
The music Cebar played and the character he forged could have likely flourished in a bigger, more musically eclectic city. But despite flirtations with New York and New Orleans, Cebar was determined to prove that Milwaukee had a musical diversity to be embraced rather than abandoned.
“My mom’s folks are from Slovakia; my dad’s folks are from Croatia. There is a world of people on my block who came from other places,” says Cebar, who lives on the outskirts of Downtown. “The American story is a story of mixture, and the story of American music is certainly that: country players singing on black records, black dudes singing country songs. Latin people moving into a community, their music playing in a grocery store, and some guy hears it and is inspired to find an instrument he had never heard before and learns to play it.
“There is a certain amount of stubborn pride” in staying here, Cebar says. “I want to prove that music with world ambitions can come from Milwaukee.”
When Cebar set out on his own in 1986, it was with the resplendently named Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans. He and his nattily attired band toured the country for years as ambassadors of this fair city, but Cebar quietly retired the name a few years ago. The tag began as what Cebar calls a “mock provincial moniker,” his attempt to defiantly slap back at the culturally unsophisticated perception of the city with his cool, cosmopolitan music. But over time, Cebar began to worry that the Milwaukee label could cause people in distant markets to reject them as a polka band. Or worse, a joke. The band’s current handle – Tomorrow Sound – reflects Cebar’s determination to be an active link in a living musical evolution rather than merely a relic of past genres.
“I don’t think the music we’ve done is rooted in any fads or bound by time,” Cebar says. “A lot of my work has intermingled eras, but I don’t think it sounds particularly dated.”
The move away from the Milwaukeeans name came with the release of 2008’s Tommorow Sound Now For Yes Music People, the twistedly titled (and yes, misspelled) disc that four years later remains the band’s most recent album. Finding the resources and industry connections to bring new music to market has exasperated Cebar for decades and across all formats, from vinyl to cassette to CD and now digital.
The Milwaukeeans’ first record (1993’s That Unhinged Thing) didn’t make it to stores until the band had been around seven years. From there, releases on a series of small labels have been infrequent. Upstroke for the Downfolk (1995), The Get-Go (1997), and the live Suchamuch (2001) complete the scant output of an artist who could easily fill an album a year with the original tunes and obscure covers he shares with his audience. (Also available are One Little Light On, featuring Cebar alone with an acoustic guitar, and a trio of spoken word albums on which Cebar and his band provide music in support of storyteller David Greenberger.)
True to form, Cebar and the band have been sitting on a completed album for going on two years as Cebar scours the fading record label landscape for a savior. Help seems to have arrived in the form of Rob Kos, an industry veteran who has managed the careers of artists ranging from the critically revered Lucinda Williams and John Hiatt to the lightweight – and astonishingly successful – Rick Springfield. Kos, an East Coast native, worked for decades in New York’s music industry before an engagement to a Menomonee Falls woman brought him here in 2010.
“For the size of the market, I have been amazed by what a vibrant music scene there is here,” Kos says. “There are a lot of great bands and great venues, and all the top acts come through. There is real opportunity here.”
Kos was knocked out by Cebar’s live show and recorded work, and the two have negotiated a deal for Kos to try to find a marketing partner for the new record, Fine Rude Thing. Despite the collapse of the 20th-century music industry model, Kos maintains that, in some ways, it’s easier to market an artist of Cebar’s vintage than a hot new act with no ties to how things used to be.
“Paul and I are about the same age,” Kos explains. “Even though we’re getting older, we are still moved by music.” He’s confident that a generation of music fans who desire their music rootsy and free-spirited remains. They might even maintain the quaint belief that music should be paid for.
But Kos isn’t under any delusions. “It used to be that artists sold albums to make up for the money they lost touring,” he says. “It is now completely the opposite. Albums are now loss-leaders you use to further your brand.”
Raitt has seen it herself. When the multiple Grammy-winner released her first new album in seven years this spring, she had no idea what its commercial prospects would be. (Cebar was one of the musicians with whom she shared early tracks for creative input.) She despairs at the challenges facing musicians like Cebar but admires the fact that his career struggles have never tainted his music.
“Paul’s ability to keep his perspective and not let it bleed over into his music is great,” she says. “I’d be much more pissed off than he is.”
With revenue from album sales reduced to a welcome but inconsistent supplement, Cebar and the band earn their money playing live. The current lineup, which has been rebuilt from the ground up a few times over the years, features Reggie Bordeaux (drums), Mac Perkins (percussion), Mike Fredrickson (bass) and Bob Jennings (keyboards/sax). Touring has fallen off significantly since the Milwaukeeans’ early-’90s heyday, but working with a booking agent on the West Coast, Cebar keeps his music alive beyond Milwaukee.
Wisconsin and the Midwest provide steady work for the band, but dates booked into 2013 include distant lands such as Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.
And every so often, friends in high places open their stages to Cebar. In April, Nick Lowe – enjoying a late-career renaissance – began his critically acclaimed U.S. tour with Cebar as his handpicked opener in Minneapolis, Chicago and at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall. Tomorrow Sound also received national exposure on NPR’s venerable “Prairie Home Companion” in March.
In May, Cebar traveled to Jazz Fest in New Orleans (as he has every year since 1980) and caught Raitt’s headlining show. Over dinner with her afterward, Cebar learned that her regular opener had a scheduling conflict for the next show two nights later in Mississippi. With Jazz Fest in town, Raitt had her choice of any number of compatible opening acts with name recognition. But instead, she asked Cebar. He jumped onto Raitt’s lavish bus caravan, charmed the 950-seat hall and flew out of Atlanta the next day on Raitt’s dime.
But the road life comes with consequences for the journeyman musician.
In January, Cebar was on his way to one of his most prestigious dates of the year, the Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., when his mother, Dorothy, fell gravely ill. Having encouraged her son to live as a traveling troubadour, it was ironic that he was far from home with his band when she needed him most. But it was the life she afforded him.
The support of Dorothy and Anthony Cebar allowed Paul to pursue his creative dreams when the marketplace failed to provide him the living that a conventional career would have. When the 22-year-old returned to Milwaukee with his college degree, wanting nothing but to follow the road of the musicians he revered, his folks never told him to get a “real” job. They provided him room and board well into adulthood, and their support never wavered. (“My father is still always asking me, ‘How’s business? Have you booked any more gigs?’” Cebar says.)
Dorothy died shortly after Paul returned to Milwaukee. He’d honored all but one of his commitments before racing home. Until he made it back, the stage provided solace.
“When I’m onstage and singing these songs, that’s what I know how to do best. My work in the world is that,” he says. “Rather than sitting and thinking [about my mother], it was much better to be engaged in my music.”
Paul Cebar stands before a summoning of spirits. Amassed in the apartment he shares with Cynthia Zarazua – his longtime girlfriend who teaches English as a second language at the International Learning Center – is a jaw-dropping collection of recorded music, somewhere north of 15,000. Stretching back at least seven decades, the library houses legends (Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, a whole shelf of nothing but Duke Ellington), but they are far outnumbered by the obscure. Present here is the fertile soil of American music and the joyous sounds of foreign lands. The soothing and inspiring and the discordant and damned strange. Superstars and modest dreamers who maybe stood just once before a microphone before giving up on music. Or before the music gave up on them.
Cebar earned his way into their ranks years ago. He communes with their spirits down at Shank Hall, where the ghosts of Wolf and Mingus might still haunt the dark corners. He frees them from their vinyl entombment on his WMSE radio show, where for three hours every other Wednesday morning Cebar spins a mind-bending mix from his library. Before the Internet made the show accessible beyond Milwaukee, Raitt – who has made the pilgrimage to behold Cebar’s record collection for herself – begged him to send her tapes of his broadcasts. She still has them on a special shelf.
And Cebar feeds into the continuum of authentic roots music by serving as a mentor and fan of young local musicians coming up behind him. He is 55 now; late nights, the wear and tear of the road, and a close-to-the-bone living without health insurance has him looking a few years older. But he remains a music fan who never stops discovering – and cheering on – young artists who are where he was 30 years ago.
“Paul will talk to you for hours about his life in music, the good and the bad, the frustrating and the rewarding,” says Ryan Schleicher, who works with Cebar at WMSE as the station’s promotions director but is also a peer in the band Juniper Tar. “He’s on a first-name basis with some of the world’s greatest musicians, but he still wants to talk to some bass player from some rock band that nobody outside of Milwaukee knows or cares about.”
Milwaukee singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, whose wry, smoky songs carry him to stages throughout the world, cut his teeth opening for Cebar decades ago and is now a friend and collaborator. He speaks of Cebar with an almost Yoda-like reverence, and he celebrates him as a link to a time before iPods turned music into a sterile, solitary experience, before “friends” were acquired with the click of a mouse.
“In a time of such shallowness and superficial connections, Paul is saying, ‘Remember what it was like when you actually left your house, and you and your friends went to the joint to hear the band, and you drank together and heard music in the air rather than in tiny ear buds, and you danced?
“‘Remember how good that felt? It was called living.’”