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Arts & Life Series
Arts & Life is an important part of WXXI and CITY's reporting. From harnessing the knowledge of writers Jeff Spevak, Daniel J. Kushner, Rebecca Rafferty, Brenda Tremblay, Julia Figueras and Mona Seghatoleslami, to our television products that focus on lifestyles and the arts, WXXI is the place to turn for arts and life news.

Celebrating The Colorblind James Experience, Western style

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The defining question for every band is always: How will this play in Kristiansand, Norway?

So it was that The Colorblind James Experience had booked a hotel-lounge gig in that beachside city in southern Norway. This was the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Union — just a couple of narrow Nordic countries away — was still a thing. And about 30 of what bassist Ken Frank calls “members of the Soviet elite” showed up.

“Bad music! Very bad music!” they shouted.

Yet the Soviets kept dancing, Frank recalls. “Probably because they would be damned that they would miss out on a rare night of partying Western-style,” he says.

Such partying with The Colorblind James Experience resumes this weekend, with two sold-out shows at Abilene Bar & Lounge.  

“We really want to get Chuck’s music still in circulation, but it’s not that easy to get things together,” Frank says. “So I’m happy we’re doing it this time.”

The band’s founder, Chuck Cuminale, was an Oswego native who in 1980 moved to San Francisco to pursue his quirky music dream. He returned to Rochester in 1986, working as a counselor for Center for Youth Services. And he was a music writer for a while. Which is kinda, sorta, journalism.

But The Colorblind James Experience is what’s being celebrated now, not Cuminale’s time as a CITY music critic.

When Cuminale died of a heart arrhythmia in July 2001, the music stopped. And then it started again (CBJE fans will understand that lyric reference). A tribute album, recorded by Rochester musicians, was never released. In 2008, an edition of WXXI Television’s “OnStage,” a platform mostly for local bands, brought together a handful of one-time members. With one thoughtful addition: Cuminale’s son, Mark, contributed guitar and vocals.

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And there was a slight flurry of activity in 2012, when Cuminale’s former CBJE bandmates played the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance in Trumansburg, then carried the music over to shows at the Bug Jar and Abilene.

And some of the musicians who played The Colorblind James Experience’s annual Bob Dylan birthday celebration continued that tradition, until the pandemic brought it to a halt. So it hasn’t mattered for a few years that Dylan never took up Cuminale’s long-standing invite to attend the event.

The shows Friday and Saturday will see the reunion of Frank, guitarist Phil Marshall, vocalist Rita Coulter, drummer Jimmy McAvaney, reed player Dave McIntire, and Steve Frank on trombone. And Mark Cuminale returns as well, to keep the family connection intact.

This was foreseen. Frank recalls how, in the 1990s, Cuminale had imagined his music being rediscovered 20 years into the future.

“Maybe that can still happen after 30 years,” Frank says.

Indeed. Let’s pause for a moment and consider: Why isn’t The Colorblind James Experience in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame?

The Hall has eloquently celebrated the city’s impressive, and very diverse, contributions to music. The rumbling baritone of William Warfield. The howl of Foreigner lead singer Lou Gramm. Blues icon Son House. The Hall is waiting for world-acclaimed soprano Renée Fleming to become officially available. Some DJs who gave voice to the scene are honored. There’s even a piece of long-gone architecture, Corinthian Hall.

Yet the night-in, night-out nighthawks of our nightclubs are severely under-represented. There aren’t enough Dady Brothers, Class of 2020. There isn’t The Chesterfield Kings. There isn’t David Bowie getting busted for drug possession. Or Elvis Costello getting kicked out of Scorgie’s bar.

And The Colorblind James Experience doesn’t seem to have been a part of the conversation.

This, despite what you’ve just read, is not a criticism of the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. It’s a reminder of Rochester music’s sprawling history. And how easy it is to overlook a club scene that operates in the dark, populated by acts that frequently have the life span of a firefly.

To be fair to The Colorblind James Experience, it was not a firefly; it enjoyed a 21-year history. And it was not heard solely on Rochester stages. An initial tour of Europe brought the band to the attention of John Peel.

Peel was a hugely influential British radio deejay. He was enchanted by The Colorblind James Experience’s song “Considering a Move to Memphis.” The band’s appearance on his show was followed by the release of a 1989 EP, “The Peel Sessions.” 

This brush with Peel came on the first of three European tours for the band. Frank was on all of them. The Norwegian adventure. Paris, which Frank admits greeted the group with a bit of a yawn.

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Credit David McIntire
Chuck Cuminale performs.

But the English club scene, that’s where The Colorblind James Experience found its biggest audience. Foreign intrigue lent the band an aura of eclecticism. A cocktail mix of rock, country, bluegrass, and jazz set to polka beats? Let’s dance! The Colorblind James Experience released nine official albums of this stuff. But the quirkiness, combined with Cuminale’s strong songwriting and oddly compelling deadpan vocals, did not transfer to a large American following.

Plenty of CBJE alumni are scattered throughout the Rochester scene. Frank estimates at least 25 musicians passed through the band’s ranks. Then he concedes that it was likely more.  

“Most people I know just moved on,” says Frank, who has played bass with the cocktail-jazz ensemble Margaret Explosion for years. “Because it was great playing with Chuck but, you know, if you have your own ambitions, the most you could hope to do is put a side band together, maybe.

“So that’s one reason I know that a number of people who were in the band quit. Just so they could pursue other interests. As much as they liked playing with Chuck, it was just time to move on.”

Frank was with the band from 1987 to 1993, plus an occasional fill-in date when a bassist couldn’t make it. He remains connected to the legacy. During a telephone conversation last week, Frank dwelled a bit on what role he might continue to play. After taking a night to sleep on the idea, he followed up our conversation with a series of texts. Like all Colorblind James alumni, Frank has his own ambitions:

“I still might release some of my own stuff, but I want to record a good amount of Chuck’s lesser-known songs and release them first.

“In terms of quality and quantity, I truly believe the only other artist in Chuck’s league is Bob Dylan.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.