Musically, New Orleans is the northern tip of the Caribbean. That’s an idea Gumbo Diablo took to heart a few years back when the Boston-based band began to spice up its repertoire.
“We were a little tired of doing three to four hours of just Zydeco every night,” says accordion player Ken Hiatt. “So we began traveling south, with all kinds of music that really speaks to us.”
The first addition was “Cumbia,” a Los Lobos song drawn from traditional Brazilian roots; soon bits of reggae and soul found their way into the mix. The Gods We Were Before, the group’s debut album, melds these many elements into a heady brew it calls Pan Americana. Roots rock meets Forró rhythm on “Make Me Lose My Mind,” while “Silverfish” mixes growling blues with strains of edgy barrio guitar.
A definite bayou vibe is present throughout, beginning with the lead track, “Spirit of Louisian’” and continuing on “Do the Math” and “The Hard Sell,” two up-tempo numbers that bristle with energy. Some of the best material is also the moodiest, like the gypsy guitar flourishes stitched into the waltz progression of “My Only Request.”
The band’s members come from varied backgrounds. Hiatt is classically trained and a fan of Eastern European Klezmer bands. Singer/accordionist Wendy Kinal grew up dividing her time between South Florida and Brazil. Drummer Dave Langhoff has a jam band background, and guitar player Mike Crutcher has funk, jazz and rock experience.
“I got inspired by all the different styles,” says Kinal, “and yeah, it’s all connected — and we decided to explore those connections.”
A good example is “Building Altars,” a brooding jazz-inflected piece inspired by a trip she took to Central America. “The local buses are tricked out school buses and the drivers decorate the front in altar like fashion,” she says. “I got this line in my head — ‘We are all building altars to the gods that we were before’ — I had for three months, then I put into a whole song. It’s homage to where the music came from. We’re making stuff new while also looking to the past.”
As happens with most Gumbo Diablo songs, Hiatt built a musical structure and the rest of the band gave it texture — brush stroke drums from Langhoff frame an a cappella vocal, punctuated by an aching guitar that gives way to Hiatt’s smoky keyboard runs. The song builds to a roaring climax; it’s a high point on both the record and the band’s live sets.
This fearless genre-hopping leads the band down many paths. Hiatt uses his squeezebox in unexpected ways, like feeding it though wah-wah and reverb pedals to change the sound. He doubles up with Kinal, and frequently plays off the lead guitar.
“It’s really fun trading licks with an accordion player,” says Crutcher, joking, “at some point we’re going to set it on fire and smash it on stage.”
“People have called us a jam band with accordions,” Langhoff chimes in.
On a recent Friday night at the Metropolis Wine Bar in Brattleboro, the group launched into a percolating version of Patty Griffin’s “Trapeze.” The southern Vermont town felt like a hippie Music Row, with multiple clubs offering live bands, every door open to the street. Passers-by stopped to check them out; some came in and grabbed a seat as Gumbo Diablo toggled from modern folk and reggae to Latin-flavored numbers like “Cumbia Oscura” and of course, a few Cajun rave-ups.
“Right from the start playing Zydeco, the crazy idea was to play that music in places where they never hear that stuff and as we’ve branched out we’ve stuck with that,” Hiatt says. “It’s gone over very well — people like to hear something they haven’t heard before and it’s upbeat party music. Even if you don’t know the language you can enjoy it. The music itself is so positive it’s hard not to be caught up and have a good time with it.”
“That’s been our success going into odd venues and restaurants,” Crutcher echoes. “We can play pieces that people recognize, but we do it with an accordion theme. We’ll try almost anything.”