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MUSIC : Tombo Combo Adds Some High Voltage to Its Rootsy Blues : The band has a 'rural Delta' style that includes playing Stephen Foster tunes on tenor banjo and slide guitar.


Santa Barbara's Tombo Combo doubled in size during the last year. Instead of two guys playing acoustic roots music, now it's four guys doing that stuff, only louder, and using a lot of electricity.

"I have always been an electric musician," said slide guitar player Tom Murray during a recent interview. "Every blues place is a dance place, and they don't really want to hear acoustic music. And why should we limit ourselves? If you're good, you can back it up. We're a very hard act to follow."

Tombo Combo will be returning to Toes Tavern on State Street for a free Wednesday night performance. For more than three years, it was just Spider Murphy on banjo and Murray on slide guitar and Leon Redbone-like vocals. The band now includes Jack Tyson-Joshua on bass and Rod Rolle on drums.

"We were playing in Joseppi's, and the two guys that manage Toes came in," Murray said. "They ended up dancing around with chairs on their heads, so we blackmailed them into giving us a gig there a few weeks ago. We like that place, but we also want to play SOhO and Nicolby's in Ventura. Everyone in the band has been around, so I'm not going to book any gigs that are going to make anyone want to leave the band."

The band has a bunch of originals, written by Murphy and Murray. While most bands play covers of this week's happening popular artist, Tombo Combo plays covers that are so old, nobody cares or remembers who wrote them.

"We've got around 25 originals," said Tyson-Joshua. "We also do a lot of traditional songs that are really old. I mean we do 'Camptown Races' but no one today even knows who Stephen Foster was."

A rootsy band with a tenor banjo and slide guitar somehow seems incongruent with the lower State Street scene in Santa Barbara where kids just want to dance to Spencer the Gardener, Munkafust and Common Sense.

"We play a little bit of blues, bluegrass, country and zydeco," Rolle said. "We call it jumpin' juke joint music."

"People try to put us in a category, but they don't know what to call us," Murphy said. "We have a rural Delta sound, like something you'd hear from somebody's porch on the bayou. We steal from all the various juke joint styles."

And every town seems to have a blues scene that won't get big, but also won't go away. Blues Night is traditionally any night a club owner can make anything instead of nothing, which usually means Monday or Tuesday.

"I think Santa Barbara blues are silly," Tyson-Joshua said. "People hear the blues fifth hand and don't understand the tradition, the history. After a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughan records, people think they know what the blues are about, when very few musicians even have a clue. Also, most of these people wouldn't even go to a real blues joint."

"That's right--a lot of people just try to copy the blues," Murray said. "They don't try to make up their own sound. That's exactly what we're not about."

And they spend their days as well as their nights trying to teach people what the blues are about; Murray, Murphy and Tyson-Joshua are music teachers. "I've had most of my students for two or three years," said Murphy, co-owner of Murray and Murphy's Guitar Man Studio. "We've been doing this long enough so that we don't take students just because their parents have money and want to get rid of the kid for an hour."

Thus, Murphy and Murray are grooming the next generation of local S.B. musicians.

"After you can play scales, the next step is to realize that you can make your own music," said Murray.

Tombo Combo has a tape entitled "Big Time," but it came out last year before they electrified. They're hoping for a CD by September.

Tombo Combo's Ventura debut will be March 18 at Nicolby's.


* WHAT: Tombo Combo.

* WHERE: Toes Tavern, 416 State St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Wednesday night, about 9 p.m.

* HOW MUCH: Free.

* FYI: 965-4655.

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