Kickin' the Mule
Kickin’ the Mule
Kickin’ the Mule

For working musicians the value of a good regular gig falls somewhere between gold and platinum. What distinguishes a good gig from a bad one? Money is only part of the equation. The opportunity for creative expression ranks high, as do audiences that, at a minimum, don’t treat music as a conversational obstacle best overcome by talking louder. Respectful management is value added (you might be surprised to hear how many music-presenting establishments are run by people who make no secret of their disdain for musicians). For these reasons and others, Kickin the Mule treasures its long-running Friday gig at the Cheese Board on Shattuck Avenue.

Part of the Gourmet Ghetto institution’s regular rotation of acts for more than five years, the infectiously grooving East Bay blues/R&B combo has honed a vast and varied repertoire of tunes while entertaining the throngs who line up for the pizza of the day. They’ll be back on Friday to accompany pies with San Marzano tomato, red onion, Buffalo and fresh local Belfiore mozzarella, garlic olive oil, and basil.

“The Cheese Board gig has meant so many things to us,” says bassist Patty Hammond, who leads the band. “We have this place where we can work stuff out musically and try tunes we always wanted to do but couldn’t play on other gigs. The Cheese Board folks love that we’re trying new things, and we all love playing for the kids. It’s almost like this huge family. People come back to see us, and let us into their world. It’s also some steady income for us, and that’s been huge.”

The band’s evolution has basically unfolded at the Cheese Board. The band first came together about 10 years ago as a vehicle to accompany Freddie Hughes, the Berkeley-raised soul crooner who scored a major R&B hit with 1968’s “Send My Baby Back.” He’s still a Cheese Board regular, performing Saturday afternoon with Freddie Hughes and the House of Hughes. But early in the Cheese Board residency Kickin the Mule changed horses, turning over lead vocal duties to veteran drummer Kelvin Dixon, a versatile musician versed in blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, salsa, Cajun, zydeco and more. Lately he’s been dropping “Werewolves of London” into sets. The regular line up also includes Lee Bloom on piano and organ, saxophonist Mike Waters, and Hot Club of San Francisco’s Jeff Magidson on guitar, slide guitar and vocals filling in for the ailing Steve Gannon.

“We have such a wide range that we do now,” Hammond says. “We just do a bit of everything. It’s a group of older players and we’re not going to pigeonhole ourselves.”

For Friday’s gig, the line up features Hammond and Dixon with several subs, includes Richard Mayers on congas and harmonica, and 23-year-old Berkeley guitarist Harry Gold. Bloom will be back on hand (with Gold) Aug. 15 when the band returns to its Friday evening slot after the Cheese Board’s weeklong summer break, and the full line up comes back together on Aug. 22 (the band is always off the last Friday of the month).

Kickin the Mule’s enduring success stems from its ability to attract top-flight players, like regular sub Harry Gold. He attended Berkeley High before graduating from Orinda’s Holden High, where he’s now on faculty teaching blues guitar and creative writing. His rise in prominence is particularly impressive considering he only started concentrating on the guitar at 16. While raised around jazz and blues, he mostly ignored the music until he suddenly realized “that all this punk rock I had been listening to was pretty heavily blues influenced. I worked my way back to the source and got stuck.”

While completing a bachelor’s degree from the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, where he’s been studying with guitar ace Jeff Massanari, Gold has been performing around the region. He brings a quartet into the new Birdland Jazzista Social Club at MLK and 44th Street for a late set on Aug. 8, and there’s a plan afoot for him to run a jam session at Armando’s in Martinez. Meanwhile, Kickin the Mule provides Gold with opportunities to play an array of styles and grooves.

“I love that the music is so diverse,” Gold says. “I’m not sitting and playing a shuffle for four hours. I love the New Orleans feel they add to so many tunes. They are all so solid. It’s a great band.”

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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....