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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.

Colorblind James’ music stopped, and then it started again

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Julia Kracke Photography
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The young guy in the headscarf was up in front of the stage most of the night, tearing up the dance floor. Was this show last weekend at Abilene Bar & Lounge simply a tribute to The Colorblind James Experience?

Or was it the real thing?

This one seems to go both ways. The Colorblind James Experience was always Chuck Cuminale’s band. He wrote the songs — abstract word collages and collisions of characters. Darkness. Whimsy. He created the sound — a circus beat, upbeat and persistent.

Yet it hasn’t been Cuminale’s band for two decades. Not since he passed away of a heart arrythmia in 2001. Instead, that wonderful and strange music has largely been left to drift through the ether. We listened on CDs, remembered it with friends. Some of us even wrote about it from time to time — suggesting that there should be a spot in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame for a rock band that likely comes first to mind when thinking of our scene in the 1980s and on through the ’90s. 

And last weekend, it was real once again, with guitarist Phil Marshall, vocalist Rita Coulter, drummer Jimmy McAvaney, bassist Ken Frank, reed player Dave McIntire, and Steve Frank on trombone — all of whom were among the dozens of musicians who played or recorded with The Colorblind James Experience over the decades.

They were joined by Mark Cuminale, Chuck’s son, on vocals, keeping his father’s words alive. That closed the circle on an emotional level.

The band played deep into both nights for the sold-out shows at Abilene. Not a cover song to pad out the set lists. All originals, all great. Or, at least, worthy of your curiosity.

I’ve had many musicians tell me over the years that it’s tough to make it on the club scene if you’re not throwing in a few cover songs. Give the audience something it’s comfortable with. A Beatles tune. 

I asked Phil Marshall if Colorblind James was ever much for cover songs. Sure, he said, if the song fit: The Beach Boys; Van Morrison; Blind Willie McTell; Jug-band bluesman Gus Cannon; “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat” from the musical “Guys and Dolls”; and The Coasters’ “Idol With The Golden Head.”

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Carefully considered covers. Maybe ironically considered covers. The band never seemed interested in winning a popularity contest. It’s not like Colorblind James was covering Jimmy Buffett or Blue Oyster Cult (although, truth be known, if I were in a cover band we’d be doing “Don’t Fear the Reaper”).

Not including a curious British affection that saw the Colorblind James song “Dance Critters” reach No. 10 on the United Kingdom indie chart, The Colorblind James Experience had a strong local following. The band was a true Rochester original, with its songs about a piano shaped like a coffin, a ring snatched from a dead man’s finger, and “A Different Bob.”

To be sure, finding the proper way to keep the music of The Colorblind James Experience alive has been like riding a fencepost. Which way do you fall? The feelings of family and friends have to be taken into account. And Cuminale’s wife. Jan Marshall, has been understandably protective of her late husband’s legacy.

A few days after the shows, I sent Phil Marshall — he’s Jan’s brother — a Facebook message, expressing some concerns.

Friday night, she was at the show. As her brother wrote back:

I think Jan was in heaven. She was swaying to the music in front the band. I think we each got something private as well as communal out of it.

It’s kind of hard to go both ways on something like this. Pain runs private. But healing is to be shared.

So where does it go from here? Marshall, again:

I think as far as the band is concerned, we’re back! Lots of ideas to look forward to.

So it doesn’t sound like last weekend’s events were simply tribute shows. 

Near the end of the night, the band eased into what might be Colorblind James’ best-known song, “Considering a Move to Memphis.” The young guy in the head scarf was bopping around at the front of the stage again. And Phil Marshall could hold himself back no longer. He skipped down from the stage, electric guitar in hand, and started boogeying with the guy.

The guy, who is a young drummer of note, was Roy Marshall. Phil’s son. Chuck Cuminale was his uncle. Roy’s too young to have known Chuck. But there is no escaping the music.

And we know that from “Dance Critters,” a Cuminale song that seemed to be about what we were hearing at those Abilene shows:

The music stopped.

And then it started again.

Just another cool thing that happened last weekend.

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

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