Q&A with Philly area guitarist Dave Orban (The Mojo Gypsies) - unique blend of up-tempo blues and old-school R&B

"Life. The ups, the downs, the successes, the failures, love, loss… you name it. It’s all about the human condition. If you’ve experienced sadness, heartache, or joy, you can write a song about it."

Dave Orban: The Mojo (Philly) Gypsies

Founded in 1998 and based in the Central NJ/Philly area, Dave Orban & the Mojo Gypsies are a high-energy quartet that play a unique blend of up-tempo blues and old-school R&B. At a Gypsies gig, you’re likely to hear songs by such classic blues artists as T-Bone Walker, Ray Charles, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Louis Jordan, Freddie King and Albert Collins, as well as music from contemporary blues performers including Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza, Kid Ramos, Paul DeLay, and James Harman, along with original material in the same vein. Active since 1998, they have performed with or supported such national acts as James Harman, Debbie Davies, Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, Murali Coryell, and Selwyn Birchwood. Led by founder – and Blues Hall of Fame inductee – Dave Orban on guitar and vocals, the Gypsies feature Mike Scott on tenor sax and vocals, with Flourtown Fats on the upright and electric bass, Mark Shewchuk keeps the groove goin’, on drums.

The band’s music integrates many influences from the greater blues tradition – from Chicago and West Coast electric blues to southern country blues and even New Orleans-styled marches. With a repertoire that shines a light on lesser-known but compelling tunes from the pioneers of the blues form, the band looks to impart a contemporary feel to a traditional form, while not departing drastically from the foundational elements of this type of music. Influences ranging from Willie Dixon to Bob Dylan to the Rolling Stones and even Norah Jones can be heard in Orban’s original tunes. His songs are self-contained stories in their own right, and cover a variety of topics that can be both humorous as well as more serious. Their new CD, “I Heard You Twice the First Time” – a collection of 14 of Orban’s original compositions –released in Sep 24, 2016.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and when you played your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?

My first ever “gig” was in the living room of my late uncle’s house, with my cousin on guitar and his friend on a snare drum. We were about 11 or 12, and really had no idea what we were doing, but when has that ever stopped anyone? We played “Last Train to Clarksvile,” or something that might have sounded remotely like it, to an assembled group of adult relatives. Pretty sure I was playing an old, blonde, grain-painted Stella archtop, one with an enormous neck! If I recall correctly, Uncle Joe had set up a TEAC reel-to-reel tape recorder, to capture the performance for posterity. I can only hope that the tape eventually disintegrated some years later!  I believe we each got a dollar for our performance… Sadly, in 2016, the music business hasn’t become appreciably more profitable. Nonetheless, that was my first performance in front of a paying audience!

Cool nickname “Professor”. How did you come up with it?

Formally schooled as an artist (M.F.A. in Painting from Brooklyn College) I have been teaching undergraduate courses in Fine Arts, Advertising Design, and Advanced Web Development for over 20 years. Among many other things that I do, I’m currently an Assistant Professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ.  During my re-entry into the world of musical performance at Joe Vadala’s open mic, when I first introduced myself to him, he had asked me what I did for a living, and I had told him about my teaching. Several weeks later, when introducing me for my first time sitting-in with the house band, he introduced me as “The Professor,” and the name stuck. 20 years later, there are quite a few folks out there who have no idea what my actual name is, but they do know “The Professor!”

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

High on the list would be backing-up the great James Harman on several gigs in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area, when he came through back in 2007. James is a real character – a fine musician and a wonderful story-teller. It was a great thrill to share the stage with him and his guitarist, Nathan James, along with the rest of James Day’s Fish Fry band, of which I was then a member. Fast forward to today, and I’ve added a new high point: completing my first CD of all original music. Decades in the making, the recording process was alternately terrifying and exhilarating, but the end result exceeded my wildest expectations. Definitely a high point, for sure! In terms of low points, there really haven’t been too many… other than the occasional run-in with an unscrupulous club owner who was looking to take advantage of the band. And even after all these years, I still get quite a thrill every time I take the stage, be it with my own band, sitting-in with a friend’s band, or even at a local jam. That feeling tends to wash away whatever cares or worries that I may be carrying around with me at that moment in time. There’s nothing quite like it, and it’s why most of us keep coming back to performing.

Which memory from your early musical career with the Nickel Band; the Moe Lester Orchestra; the Tranter Brothers Band; The Society Casuals; and Help'num makes you smile?

Pretty much all of them. There were lots of interesting gigs and plenty of interesting people associated with each of those bands. And craziness… bar patrons sadly, several of my bandmates from that era are no longer with us. One thing that just popped-into my head, me singing the old Helen Reddy song “I Am Woman,” back in the mid-70s, with the Society Casuals band. That was different, for sure!

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

All of them. It’s been just one adventure after another. There’s always something new to experience, new perspectives to share, and new people who come into your life. Of course, it’s not always happy times, but you need to absorb the good along with the bad… it helps to keep you grounded.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN?

Life. The ups, the downs, the successes, the failures, love, loss… you name it. It’s all about the human condition. If you’ve experienced sadness, heartache, or joy, you can write a song about it.

What's been their experience from “studies” from Billy Briggs' Tir Na Nog tavern?

That Guinness really is “a meal in a glass.”

What characterize the sound of Mojo Gypsies? How do you describe Dave Orban’s music?

Well, I like – and listen to – a wide variety of musical styles, from blues and roots music to pop music to show tunes to old-school jazz to classical to opera. So my influences are pretty varied. When choosing songs to cover, I’ve always looked for songs or artists that weren’t as popular as those that actually made it into the mainstream… at any point in time, there is just so much incredible music being made, and only a small fraction of it ever achieves the wider exposure it deserves. Take Ray Charles, for example… you’ll frequently hear bands covering songs like “Hit the Road, Jack,” or “Unchain My Heart,” or “I Got a Woman”… all great songs, but just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ray’s music… So, I preferred to go with less-well-known songs like “Greenbacks,” or “You Don’t Know Me.” They’re all wonderful songs, but I don’t want to be tripping-over every other band that’s out there covering his music. Similarly, there are a ton of instantly-recognizable blues songs that everyone seems to play… Songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” or “Messin’ With the Kid.” Of course, I’ve played them plenty of times over the years, but again, I want to provide listeners with an experience that they’re not likely to get with your typical blues band. So, the focus tends to be on songs that aren’t in every other band’s playlist. Additionally, I tend to focus more on up-tempo tunes, the kind that someone could dance to. That’s where the influence of the West Coast styles – the sounds of Louis Jordan or Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson – comes in.

When I finally got to the point at which I was ready to start writing my own material, all of that was in the back of my mind. I wanted to write out of my own real-life experience, and try to not identify the songs with a particular time or place.  I’ve never picked cotton, hopped a freight train, or used John the Conqueror Root, so I didn’t want to try and come up with songs that mimicked the traditional blues “experience,” but rather could be interpreted fairly liberally by any listener. In terms of our lineup – guitar/vocals, sax, bass, and drums – that tends to limit what we can do musically, so the arrangements are sparse, which forces me to focus a bit more on the song structure, than on lots of solos. It also has the added benefit of highlighting the vocals a bit more, because they’re not fighting for space with a bunch of other instruments.

What do you miss most nowadays from the “OLD DAYS OF BLUES”?

Well, having enough venues who will support it. The demand for live music is fairly cyclical here in the U.S., and I feel like we are definitely going through a “down” cycle. Bands with a solid international reputation are struggling to find venues here in the U.S., and the venues that will host them are usually very small, with very limited budgets. Similarly, the audience for this kind of music is aging-out. When I work with the various blues societies, their demographic is typically older – 50s, 60s, and above – and they are literally dying-out. There are some younger audiences to be had – 20s, 30s, and 40s – but there aren’t really any break-out artists in that age demographic to draw them in, like there was when Stevie Ray Vaughan hit back in the 80s. So the challenge becomes one of creating and maintaining an audience for the kind of music that we play.

"Well, I like – and listen to – a wide variety of musical styles, from blues and roots music to pop music to show tunes to old-school jazz to classical to opera. So my influences are pretty varied."

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

I don’t think of myself as a particularly “natural” performer. I really have to work to engage an audience, particularly in larger venues. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy going out and watching other performers who are more natural about it. Hey, I’ll take tips and ideas from anyone! In terms of the band itself, there’s only 4 of us, so we are all really engaged with each other while performing, and are able to communicate with each other with just a glance or a nod of the head. Very helpful with creating dynamics within a song!

I presume that big part of your life is somehow connected with blues. Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music?

Formally trained as an artist – I have a M.F.A. in Painting from Brooklyn College, I’ve had a varied career that started in product design and ended up as a technology marketer. I’ve spent the last 18 years doing marketing for technology companies, so I’m fairly tech-savvy. I also still paint with some regularity, do a little woodworking, and I love to cook. My Facebook feed is littered with my “food porn”: Pictures and videos of various meals that I am creating. I also do some design work – websites and marketing collateral, primarily – some for clients, but mostly for friends.

What is the current state of the live music scene in NJ where you live?

Abysmal. There are very few venues that feature live music, in general, let alone those that are focused on blues or roots music. Which is unfortunate, because there really are quite a few very talented performers in the area, and unfortunately, everybody’s competing for those same few venues. Most do little, if any, promotion, expecting the bands to do all the heavy lifting. And the pay is also grossly inadequate… Generally speaking, I made more money at a typical gig back I 1972 than I do in 2016, and there are times when I wind-up paying my guys out of my own pocket. And the national acts coming through don’t usually fare much better.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet? From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

I think Paul Butterfield would have to be number one for me. I really appreciate the musical journey that he took during his all-too-brief career. From the raw energy of his earliest records to the jazz/big-band feel of “Keep on Movin’”, and to his “Better Days” efforts, he was a pioneer, a virtuoso on his instrument, and a man not content to repeat himself. He always surrounded himself with stellar musicians, all of whom pushed him into new areas, and he produced an eclectic body of work that is just wonderful. Personally, his “Better Days” period is my favorite, and his performance on those collections demonstrated a growth and maturity that relatively few artists ever experience, especially within the blues genre. I could listen to his first “Better Days” album, repeatedly, and it always sounds fresh to my ears! I saw him at the Tower Theater in Philly right after that album came out in ’72, and loved the show.

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