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November 24, 2008
Sacramento Single: Happy Mayfield's "Happy"

happymayfield_brunos.jpg

The collaboration started a decade ago in a Sacramento High School classroom.

Lee Bob Watson was a musician but he was also a substitute teacher and, sometimes between classes, he found himself talking music with one of his students.

That student, Derek Taylor, had a band called Bucho and he invited Watson to come check them out sometime.

Watson did and, now 10 years later, the teacher and the student are bandmates in Happy Mayfield, which releases its debut CD Friday at Old Ironsides.

The four-piece, based in Sacramento and San Francisco, connects its members' electric influences to craft an oddly compelling hybrid of folk, soul, hip-hop, world beat and rock.

For Watson, who's played with the likes of Jackpot and recently released a solo album, it's an affirmation of how music can define your life. The birth of Happy Mayfield, he says, came at a point when he'd started to question the very act of making music.

It was 2004 and, back home after a stint teaching English abroad, Watson reconsidered his path: Playing endless bar gigs, touring on the cheap and subbing to make ends meet.

"It'd been 10 years of the grind of doing music and so I took a hiatus and stepped away for a minute - I just had to take it all in and ask myself, 'is this what I want to do?'" It's a crazy life."

Finally, he decided yes - but with a catch.

"I wanted it to be fun and positive, I wanted to find something that was uplifting."

That meant sifting through the sounds that got him interested in music in the first place - old funk, soul and jazz.

Watson, already writing and recording music for his 2007 solo CD "Aficionado," set aside songs that didn't quite fit that album's Americana vibe.

"Sometimes I'd write something that was more upbeat and dance-oriented, so I put them aside and waited until the time came when I would have the proper band."

The time arrived when Watson approached his old friend and student.

Watson had jammed with the members of Bucho before and now he wanted them to give his songs new life.

"The first batch I wrote came out pretty realized but I'm an old school cat and I knew that ... they would bring in some more contemporary influences."

By this point Bucho had disbanded and Taylor was living in San Francisco, playing drums with his old Bucho bandmate Josh Lippi and pal Ben Schwier in The Park, an ensemble that combines funk and jazz with hip-hop and R&B.

Taylor was ready to play.

"Lee used to burn us mix CDs and really opened my eyes to old (music)," says Taylor, whose Bay Area band now backs up neo-soul and pop acts such as Alice Russell and Nino Moschella.

"I loved his songwriting - when he had this Happy Mayfield idea, it just seemed totally natural."

And, although Watson already had the songs, Taylor says, Happy Mayfield has transcended the sum of its parts to create not just a sound but a sense of place,

"We're all from California and we all have this genuine love for soul and dance and that kind of cross-cultural sound."

Bassist Josh Lippi sees Happy Mayfield as unmistakably "authentic" but also something larger-than-life.

It's like we all are (playing) as these alter-egos," he says.

"Lee Bob's coming from this folk singer-songwriter background but in his heart of hearts he's this real James Brown kind of soul singer."

Dana Gumbiner was also struck by the band's dramatic flair - both on stage and in song.

"Lee Bob has this real cinematic way of looking at music, it's almost theatrical," says Gumbiner, who produced the Happy Mayfield record at his Grass Valley-based Station to Station studio.

And with songs that touch on everything from love and religion to outlaws and inspiration, it's Watson's viewpoint that keeps it fresh.

"It's like Happy Mayfield became this character with a sub-narrative on subjects" Gumbiner says,

"That's what makes it click."

Still, although Happy Mayfield may be Watson's creation, the singer-songwriter says the rest of the band is force that makes it breathe.

"This is all happening because the band is hitting its stride," he says.

"They've played with tons of different people and they bring a playfulness to the music that pretty much goes beyond any boundaries."

Happy Mayfield

Song: "Happy"

Style: Jazzed out, Booty-shaking funk

Behind the song: The track, which references everything from street poet/ R&B singer Gil Scott-Heron to the El Camino High School-run station KYDS 91.5, chronicles Watson's lifelong musical journey - and sets the mood for the rest of the record.

"I wanted to write a bio for the band so I started writing down things and it occurred to me that it was a song - a declaration of principles," he says.

"This song became a genealogy of Happy as a character - why I feel the way I do, why I feel I have the right to say this."

See them: Friday at Old Ironsides(1901 10th St, Sacramento); the 21-and-over show starts at 9 p.m. and is $7 at the door. Friendly Creatures and Casual Fog are also on the bill.

On the Web: myspace.com/happymayfield

Listen to "Happy" here:



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