The first time I had heard of Swamp Mama Johnson it was in the early 90's in Seattle, long before I began my travels across the country. I caught that first 1993 show in Pioneer Square at a place called Doc Maynard's. I knew at that time that they would be a band to watch over the years, and if they were able to overcome the tensions almost always associated with band personalities, they would mature into a true powerhouse.
Last night's show at the Clearwater Casino was a bit of a different crowd than most music venues in and around Seattle, as the majority of the people at the casino were there to gamble. The casino, located across Puget Sound from Seatte is on the Suquamish Indian Reservation and looks like a giant white overturned canoe...about 150 yards long and 75 yards wide, and is a full gaming center complete with Vegas style tables and slots.
I arrived at the casino at about 9:30pm and could already hear the bass and drums thumping. As I walked in, the music stopped, and SMJ's lead vocalist, Lisa Mills cut into Janis Joplin's famous a-capella "Mamma, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?". The dinner section of the bar was packed to the point of me having to wait about 30 minutes to get a seat, but it was pretty much free of smoke which was a nice and unexpected break (being in a casino and all), so I was content to hear most of their first set standing by the buffett.
I caught the last part of their show at Seattle's Hempfest in August, and did a review with photos, but didn't get the opportunity to really take a long listen to their music. Once they finished the Janis tune and started playing, saxophonist Tracy Ferrara was the first to grab my attention with her wild hair and even wilder solos. A New Jersey native, Tracy has been with SMJ for the past 7 years and has been instrumental to their sound. Guitarist Laurie Miller, originally from Florida, said she came to Seattle for "The Trees and Mountains". Laurie's playing was awesome as she tore it up with hot lead and funky rhythm, playing off of the backbone of the band...SMJ's rhythm section. Drummer Kim Carson, originally from Dallas, hooked up with Tracy Ferrara while attending school at Princeton University. Kim is easily spotted as the gal with the perma-grin when she plays...not suprising since I'm sure that playing with a group as hot as SMJ would put a smile on any musician's face! The most recent member of the band, bassist Leah Hinchcliff is nothing short of awesome! In the past year, I have to admit that Leah is the most innovative, tasty and funky bass player I've heard! According to Kim, "Leah's playing has really changed the sound of our band for the better...it makes it a lot more fun for me as a drummer to play with someone that can add so much funk". My viewpoint as a "critic" (also as a bass player) is that Leah totally understands rhythm and knows how to play circles around it. It frees up Laurie and Tracy to do anything they want to and it will always sound awesome!
During their break, I had the opportunity to speak with all of them individually, and had to ask what their view was about playing at a Casino, versus their normal venues of outdoor festivals (they played for an estimated 55,000 people at Hempfest), and major Seattle clubs.
"Last week, we played for a totally packed house at the Tractor Tavern" said guitarist Lisa Miller..."When you're playing for a crowd of people that come to see YOU, it's a real different adreniline rush...an ego rush you might say."
"Not that we don't appreciate the crowd or the owners of the casino" added Leah Hinchcliff..."The owners here treat us VERY well, and we appreciate that. We also noticed that the people in the audience are actually listening to us and enjoying our music...it's just different when you are playing for a more reserved dinner audience rather than for a crowd that is there specifically for you."
Whether the crowd came to gamble, or came to see SMJ, I noticed that almost nobody got up to leave, and almost everybody got up sooner or later to dance...it's pretty hard not to when you have a 'funky groove thang' (as they call it) happening! I'm looking forward to catching more of their shows in the future, and hope to work with SMJ on upcoming music benefits sponsored by Hotbands next summer!