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Cebar Survives Because He's a Fine Humor Being


On the other end of the phone, Paul Cebar's voice was showing the effects of a severe lack of sleep. It's a musician thing, this voice; you hear it in hard-touring performers all the time. The low and desolate tone from deep in the chest is one of exhaustion and numbness, too much cigarette smoke and coffee and beer.

It's a tone borne of nights spent curled up in unnatural positions in a van or trying to sleep in sleazy motels while keeping one eye on the clock.

But Cebar, who performs Sunday at the Coach House with his band, the Milwaukeeans, says he has found the antidote for the ravages that touring can inflict.

"I believe that humor is very important in music," says that battered voice. "I believe it prevents what I call 'creeping Bolton-ism.' "

That essential funny bone, his appreciation for the ridiculous, feeds his music and powers his life.

Cebar, 39, has had his manic pleasure machine on the road for 10 years, plumbing the latitudes of American music's outer edges. The band has weathered many personnel changes; the current lineup features Cebar on guitar and vocals plus percussionist McKinley Perkins, drummer Reggie Bordeaux, saxophonist-keyboardist Bob Jennings, bassist Mike Kashou and guitarist Terry Vittone.

Their current album, "Upstroke for the Downfolk," is only the group's second in a decade-long career. The album has been likened to a cross between Louis Jordan and the Talking Heads, Smokey Robinson and Miriam Makeba, Isaac Hayes and Leonard Cohen.

Cebar, known as King of the Whatchamacallit, draws his own conclusions in an insert he wrote for the band's promotional package: "The common ground between Paul Cebar and Whitney Houston? Paul sings. Between Cebar and Dr. Dre? Paul is not a doctor either. Cebar and Snoop Doggy Dogg? Were Paul a dog, he'd add another 'g.' Cebar and Elvis Costello? Neither is the king of America."

For all the joking that's such a big part of Cebar's appeal, he is a serious musicologist as well. Get him to talking about influences, and you'll find yourself holding the phone in silence for extended periods.

"I have an enormous passion for New Orleans R&B and everything that leads you to--down the Caribbean and over to Africa and Latin America," Cebar said. "Curtis Mayfield is very important to me in terms of his guitar playing and his tenderness.

"Some contemporaries would be people like John Hiatt or Nick Lowe, Leonard Cohen. Lately I've been trying to find Caribbean orchestras. I used to buy all those records for only the Calypso tunes and skip the tunes where the band was playing--now I'm searching those out.

"I got to listening to the accordion and trying to find it everywhere. . . . I love Stax-Volt, and I love Motown, as I assume all Americans do. There's a lot of influences to draw from out there. Rhythm and blues, its whole history is endlessly rich."

Cebar got into exploring all sorts of music at an early age. One can easily picture him as an outcast in high school, forgoing sports and dances and extracurricular activities to rush home and listen to 78s by Wynonie Harris or Professor Longhair.

"When I was getting into high school, an older girl sat me down and said, 'Here's Mississippi John Hurt; here's Bukka White; here's the whole pantheon of blues guys,' " he said. "That got me started right off when I had just started playing the guitar. In college, I had a music professor who told us to look behind the cracks of the major figures for lots of surprises, and I did."

Cebar's first group was called the R&B Cadets, which made a splash in Milwaukee but nowhere else. Cebar said his main duty with the Cadets was to dig up obscure R&B songs for the group to cover.

He formed the Milwaukeeans in 1986, developing a reputation throughout the Midwest as a live band second to none. Signed to Shanachie Records in 1993, the group released "That Unhinged Thing," but the album went largely ignored.

"The first record came out, and we hit the old boards real hard," Cebar said. "But we wound up with the typical beautiful disappointment that we all love, trying to get somebody to hear it and wondering what in the world is going on."

"Upstroke for the Downfolk," released on Don't Records, has fared somewhat better, receiving some national airplay and a lot of critical raves. With a small taste of success after years of fruitless struggle, Cebar hungers for more attention.

"I'd like to say that it's all water, and it just runs and runs and runs--but the fact is that I'd like to get to a bigger audience," he said. "That's why I'm still out there in a van today. I'm trying to become a recognizable part of the culture, as opposed to a speck in the Midwest."

* Who: Paul Cebar & the Milwaukeeans.

* When: 8 p.m. Sunday, opening for the BoDeans.

* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to Camino Capistrano and go left. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.

* Wherewithal: $18.50-$20.50.

* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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