When the revered and dedicated host of the best local radio show ever makes a special request for his final show, it's a simple one to grant
So no matter that a thundering, calamitous rock band has never played an acoustic show before, the wish must be granted. After all, what could be a more fitting conclusion to Don Jennings' 10 years hosting KXCI's Locals Only than a one-of-a-kind send off from Chango Malo. And despite the fact that the impetus for the show just might have come from the combination of a joke and a drunken boast, the band is fine-tuning a set that promises to be one for the ages.
"I was wasted and Don came up to me and asked when the Chango Malo acoustic set was going to be ready," says drummer Jericho Davidson. "I got all offended and said that contrary to popular belief we all know how to play our instruments and we can do an acoustic set anytime."
Sax player David Clark jokes that it was "entrapment," but the band has nothing but praise for Jennings and his whole-hearted support of local music, and they remember the first time the dean of Tucson's music scene caught them play: during a Club Crawl set in the basement of the defunct Double Zero on Congress Street.
"There's going to be nobody like him again," says bassist Justin Lillie. "He's a pillar. He's part of the foundation," says singer Quin Davis. Guitarist Tom Beach says Jennings is as important as anybody to the Tucson music scene. Guitarist Ian Philabaum has a more personal take. "Don Jennings means to me waking up in the back of Tape Worm's truck one early Sunday morning and not knowing where I was. Me and Don slept in the back of a truck together one time and from then on it was magic. I've been with the quintessential man."
They've been guests on Locals Only four times, and don't mince words when talking about how important Jennings has been to Chango Malo and dozens and dozens of other Tucson bands. "There's no other show like that in Tucson. For him to be so down with the whole scene, he's just like a best friend," Clark says.
Jennings was also instrumental in helping Chango Malo to get the Stunning Tonto record label off the ground. During those days, Jennings bonded with fellow Stunning Tonto champion and "investor" Matt Moore, the best friend Chango Malo ever had. Moore died (five years ago today, in fact) at Club Congress after he collapsed at the end of a Chango Malo show.
Jennings dedicated a Locals Only to Moore, a show Lillie calls the most emotional he's ever heard. Chango Malo also played a memorial show for Moore, donating the money to the Humane Borders group their friend supported so deeply. At the show, Chango Malo performed "Redemption Song," Moore's favorite. They pledged never to touch the song again, but that performance was among the most dynamic and emotive I've ever seen, with Clark handling the opening lines on saxophone and the whole crowd singing and swaying, most in tears, as the song built and built until it was shouted to the heavens.
"That was one of the most magical moments ever on stage," Lillie says. And with the acoustic show, especially the surprise covers, the band is trying to capture that same spirit. "It's fun because we're putting the same energy into it that we did for our Cover Up sets and the Abbey Road show. We just felt so honored that he wanted us to do his final show."
Talking Friday night in their practice space just south of downtown, the Chango Malo boys clearly know that they're putting together the show specifically for Jennings, and that he deserves it. "I just want it to come across awesome on the recording, so Don gets his wish," Philabaum says.
For Chango Malo, acoustic doesn't mean mellow or slow. Don't expect brushed drums or hushed vocals. "You see a lot of bands playing their songs exactly the same, but with acoustic guitars and that's just boring. So we reworked our songs, we added new parts," says Davidson, who nods to the old bridal adage in describing the set list as "old, new and borrowed."
Chango Malo is a rowdy band by their very nature, but also one that likes to throw a good curveball. And they have the creativity and the versatility to pull it off. The band has performed cover sets of material by Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, the Temptations and David Bowie, and triumphed with a New Year's Eve show by playing Abbey Road from start to finish.
The band's sound has always been a challenge to describe. It's definitely rock 'n' roll, but there are elements of soul, funk and hardcore throughout, all contributing to an unmistakable presence for the band, which can turn from melodic to heavy and back, smoothly guiding those stylistic shifts. More telling than any of the cobbled-together genre-hybrids that the band has never liked is the unrestrained joy that hit them when they got to open up for their heroes, Fishbone. On stage the band is pure energy, a rapturous thunder that wails and crashes. They bounce around the stage, in thrall with that glorious noise they're creating.
Not only does the band bring the same energy and passion to this acoustic take on their material, but the songs emerge in their acoustic versions fully-formed, modified rather than stripped down. Clark brought in an accordion for some parts, and horns have a greater presence. With the new arrangements, the songs fall together differently. Each instrument's role becomes slightly different. Some songs have a more soulful tinge, others adopt a sort of countrified shuffle.
"We wanted to make it more elaborate and get more people involved. And Don's so involved in the whole scene, everyone we talked to is totally down," Davidson said.
Those eager guest musicians include British bluesman Tom Walbank on harmonica and horns from The Jons' Javier "Escubi" Gamez and Jon Villa, who sat in with Chango Malo for a soaring rendition of "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" in a cover-up set of the Temptations.
The show is Sunday, June 1 at Club Congress, with an early 7 p.m. start. The performance is being recorded and will be broadcast during Jennings' last Locals Only broadcast, on June 9 at 8 p.m. (It's at 91.3 FM in Tucson and available streaming at kxci.org) And the band will turn the tables on the host, interviewing Jennings about his 10 years hosting the program, and the countless bands he's helped out along the way.
Chango Malo - Superstition (Stevie Wonder cover)
Get the whole set, from the 2001 Cover Up, as a zip file.