Kickin' The Mule: bringing West Coast shuffles, Stax soul scorchers and raucous Chicago blues to Berkeley's Cheese Board

Listen to Kickin’ The Mule while you read our review: Rockin’ Pneumonia & Boogie Woogie Flu by Kickin’ the Mule

With its expanse of east-facing windows thrown open to Shattuck Avenue, dearth of cigarette smoke and ample selection of healthy beverages, no one is likely to mistake the Cheese Board Collective for a down home juke joint. But over the past 18 months or so, the soul-powered band Kickin’ The Mule regularly transforms the Gourmet Ghetto eatery into a groove-laden crossroads where slinky T-Bone Walker-esque West Coast shuffles, Stax soul scorchers and raucous Chicago blues all converge.

“I sing songs from every different genre,” says the Mule’s drummer and vocalist Kelvin Dixon, who returns to the Cheese Board with the quartet on Friday (and again on October 14). “The people at the Cheese Board have been great. They say: do whatever you want, though they really like novelty numbers like Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s ‘Ain’t Got No Home.’ They’re back there dancing, making pizzas.”

For much of the group’s seven-year run, it served as a forum for Freddie Hughes, the venerable Berkeley-raised soul crooner who scored a major R&B hit in 1968 with “Send My Baby Back” (he’s a story for another day).

Creative differences led to a parting of ways, and, since Dixon took over lead vocal duties he’s greatly expanded the band’s repertoire. A blues veteran whose credits include performances with John Lee Hooker, Charles Brown, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush, and Irma Thomas, he’s also steeped in zydeco and jazz. Widely esteemed by his peers, he’s the kind of player who would rather be part of a band than up front as the leading man, though he’s got the talent and charm for the role.

“I don’t want to look upon it as my show,” Dixon says. “I was hoisted into that lead chair and I said I’ll do what it takes. I like improvising with the voice. I figure, why pigeonhole yourself? There’s blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, salsa, Cajun, zydeco. Why limit yourself to crumbs when you can sit down at the table and eat?”

Along with Dixon, Kickin’ the Mule features veteran keyboardist William Beatty, who spent five years with the popular combo Indigo Swing, guitarist John Graham, a founding member of MotorDude Zydeco, and bassist Patty Hammond, a former member of Jesse McDaniel’s Gospel Travelers. Hammond is the driving force behind the Mule, and for a late blues bloomer, she’s become an important figure on the Bay Area scene.

Born in Hawaii and raised in Berkeley, she grew up playing cello in a very musical family. But she stopped studying music in her late teens, and didn’t find her way back until decades later in the mid 1990s, when her love of Cajun and zydeco dancing brought her into regular contact with working musicians. MotorDude Zydeco’s Graham encouraged her pick up the electric bass, and Hammond started frequenting the jam sessions at Eli’s Mile High Club to hone her chops.

She landed her first professional gig with harp player Bird Leg and the Tight Fit Blues Band, a hard-working combo that played Biscuits & Blues, the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company and the Northern California circuit of blues festival produced by Ronnie Stewart. After about six years with Bird Leg, Hammond and Graham broke away to launch Kickin’ the Mule, which quickly turned into a showcase for Freddie Hughes. Over the years Hammond recruited Beatty and Dixon, whose vocals developed a vociferous constituency.

“We’re still experimenting,” Hammond says. “But we’re probably focusing most on New Orleans R&B and raw blues. William Beatty brought in a real jazz flavor. We’ll do something like Herbie Hancock’s ‘Cantaloupe Island’ or Clifford Brown’s ‘Sandu.’ We try to let everybody in the band do what they think is going to be fun.”

And if the band’s having a ball, the odds are excellent that their audience is also enjoying the ride.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....