The seven-piece from Rochester, New York was led by James “Chuck” Cuminale, aka Colorblind James (guitar, vibraphone, vocals), who saw nearly two dozen players pass through the band’s friendly gates. The alumni association includes eight bassists, five guitarists, three trombonists and a host of others. Throughout it all, however, the Experience’s sound remained incredibly stable, which is, of course, a testament to the clearly defined character and easy command of its namesake’s songs and musical vision. Elements of string-band music, honkytonk, country blues, polkas and more invite hybrid descriptive handles like Nino Rota Jug Band or Memphis Slim Cabaret Orchestra.
On the self-titled debut, the Experience is a quartet led by the estimable Mr. James, who sings, talks and plays a mean vibraphone (and some guitar to boot). The album pretty much lays the groundwork for everything to come, as Colorblind delivers his story-songs over repetitious-but- very-sprightly figures, containing hints of country, blues, lounge jazz, polka and Tex-Mex in assorted permutations and combinations. The whole enterprise reaches its pinnacle on “Considering a Move to Memphis,” wherein James ponders the consequences of relocation (“I’m considering a move to Memphis / That’s Memphis, Tennessee / It worked for Elvis Presley / Why can’t it work for me?”). “Dance Critters” and “Gravel Roads” explore the group’s country side and “A Different Bob” is a comically deadpan song of loss and betrayal. Other numbers concern a visit by some German girls, camel walking and an inept circus attendant.
British airplay for the debut led to a number of tours there and on the continent, where they quickly amassed a following far in excess of any response back home. The band’s next two records were released first in England and then licensed to an American outlet. While adding two horn players, Why Should I Stand Up? takes a mild spin in country and contains the defensive “Rockin’ as Fast as I Can,” about a confrontation with angry fans shouting “let’s rock!”
The Peel session, recorded in ’88, features two songs from Why Should I Stand Up? and a couple of non- album tracks. Easy to skip.
The all-acoustic Strange Sounds From the Basement finds Colorblind and crew (now dubbed the Death Valley Boys, even though the only personnel change from the last Experience album is one trombonist) delving further into the country side of things, and relying more on traditional verse-chorus song structures rather than on ad infinitum repetition. Fortunately, the wit and bizarre subject matter remain unchanged.
Solid! Behind the Times makes a fine entry point into the CBJE oeuvre, with more songs that mix humor, gentility and compassion. The funny stuff always leads you in, rather than slapping you on the head or squirting you in the eye.
A German label picked up the ball for I Saved Your Life, and the album features a strong, stable lineup; Rita Coulter’s vocals add a perfect foil to the mixture. In particular, she brings warmth and confidence to “I’ll Never Get Tired,” a simple celebration of undying love that wouldn’t have been possible without her. As usual, the songs win with characters that spring to life; the range of indignities, discomforts and doubts suffered may bewilder, but never overwhelm, them. They’re never looking for redemption or intervention, rather, just some company for commiseration. As Colorblind James sings in “I Can Be Your Guide,” “If you want to find your way home, I’ll just step aside / But if you’re lost and want to stay lost, I could be your guide.”
Colorblind James died in his Rochester pool, reportedly of heart failure, in July 2001. He was 49.