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[whitespace] Electric Playground
George Sakkestad

New Blues: Started by bassist Jesse Carrington, left, and guitarist and singer Jason Bond, center, when they were Soquel High School students, Electric Playground (here with new keyboardist Blaine Deaton) adds youthful exuberance and a rock-hard sensibility to the blues.

Soquel band Electric Playground gives the blues a youthful charge

By Rob Pratt

JUST LOOK AT the swing craze. Touched off by an art-house film (Swingers) and fueled by retro fashion, latter-day zooters have taken a sound once the province of old jazz hacks and turned it into a youthful, underground phenomenon with the street cred and volatile energy of punk rock.

So who can question the qualifications of blues quartet Electric Playground? Though the band often earns press for being a bunch of young bucks playing music mostly purveyed by old guys, Electric Playground has a sound that's much more than a novelty. With a solid new lineup, everyone in the band old enough to drink in the clubs they play and a rock-hard new CD set for release this week, the Soquel foursome is on a mission to break local blues out of a rut. Or at least get it into a groove.

"I get bored playing it," says guitarist and frontman Jason Bond of run-of-the-mill blues vamps, "so I know people are getting tired of hearing it."

Learning to play by copping licks from Mike Bloomfield of the Butterfield Blues Band and inverted song structures from Jimi Hendrix ("he took the 1-4-5 changes of the blues but put it into a different order," he explains), Bond adds a considerable rock wallop to the blues. Bassist Jesse Carrington, who performed on upright bass with school jazz combos, kicks in a jazzer's driving, rhythmic touch. Onstage, Electric Playground lives up to its high-voltage sound.

"They really add a lot of youthful energy to the blues," says club booker Matt Heimbold, who gave Electric Playground its first club gig in 1998 at Doc's Nightclub in Monterey. "Jesse, the bass player, looks like he's in an alternative-rock band. When he plays, he's always jumping up and down. Jason has a lot of charisma both as a singer and guitarist."

Electric Playground, though, doesn't so much underscore the generation gap in music (rock for twentysomethings and blues for older folks) as bridge it. Early crowds tended to be the age of the band's parents, but once they started headlining on their own, Electric Playground drew a surprisingly mixed audience.

"I almost felt like, before we turned 21 and could hang out and have a beer with people, that I wanted to go out there and get people to dance," Bond says. "It's like they were almost afraid to do that because I was like their kid or something."

Electric Playground
George Sakkestad

Deep in the Shed: After winning 1998's Winter Fest Battle of the Bands in Monterey, Electric Playground earned an enthusiastic audience with get-down opening sets for Bay Area blues hero Tommy Castro.

Kidding Around

THE WINNING amiability of Electric Playground's sound--even when Bond sings of "Whiskey, Cocaine and Women" it's with a mischievous wink--quickly earned them a devoted following when they hit area stages. Offstage, Bond and Carrington have similar charms. Bond, a 22-year-old auto mechanic by day, likes to chat--about everything from a troublesome, short-lived move his family once made to Oregon to learning the ropes from older mechanics at his workplace. The 21-year-old Carrington, who works as a hod carrier for his father's masonry business, stands tall, has a quick smile and talks easily about difficult personal conflicts the band has endured in its short lifespan.

When original drummer Mike Bagley left the band earlier this year, Carrington says he was torn between loyalty to a longtime friend and the direction of the band. But his grey eyes flash with excitement when he talks of new drummer Robin Macmillan, whose dynamic, less-is-more approach adds a new level of sophistication to their sound on the new album.

"He's just got so much control," Carrington says. "And he's so smart. He knows when Jason starts singing, he goes to the hihat instead of the snare. He leads us into chord changes."

While a teen-aged Bond traded his drum set for a guitar ("I wanted to write songs," he explains), Carrington hit the blues scene, getting a feel for the music behind the scenes at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival. David Claytor, booker of Moe's Alley and a festival organizer, first met Carrington during 1993's inaugural event.

"He was 13 or something, and you could tell he was paying attention to what was happening around him," Claytor says. "Then he didn't work the last year and a half, and the first time I saw him after that, he'd grown a foot and he was rockin.'"

Soon Claytor started hearing about Electric Playground winning fans as an opener at Monterey clubs. Carrington says Claytor seemed a little reluctant at first to book them. But once he lined them up for a Thursday night at Moe's he saw that the band had touched off a sensation.

"They just tore it up when they came," Claytor says. "They brought their whole crowd--a younger crowd, but 21-and-over, definitely a little bit of a range of folks."

Heimbold, who booked Electric Playground after seeing the band win March 1998's Winter Fest Battle of the Bands in Monterey, explains that Electric Playground earned fans from their first club show.

"They started out opening for Tommy Castro--and that could be pretty intimidating because he sells out shows all over the Bay Area and especially when you have 250-plus people aggravated that they have to wait for him," Heimbold explains. "When Electric Playground took the stage, not only were people not aggravated, but they were totally into it."

On their debut full-length CD, Chester's Groove, it's obvious that the band gets totally into it, too. With out-and-out rockers like "Mailbox Blues," the laid-back twelve-eight struts of "Every Now and Then" and "Rainbow of Love" and reflective ballads like "Whiskey, Cocaine and Women," Electric Playground takes tried-and-true blues forms and updates them with a raw, post-punk jolt of adrenaline and breathless immediacy. Songwriters Bond and Carrington rarely resort to stiff, chank-a-chank shuffles--the common denominator of most blues bands.

"'Full Moon' was kind of an afterthought," Carrington says of the only shuffle on the album. "Just to show we could do it."

But doing it is not a problem. Bond and Carrington have both played since they were in elementary school, and they started jamming together in their junior year at Soquel High. (Carrington did a Soquel High performance of a funked-up version of a classical chorale when, Bond says, he introduced himself and propositioned, "Let's start a blues band and make millions.")

Even though the band's ambitions have come a long way from a simple excuse to get onstage and play like rock stars, Bond says the motivation to keep going remains the same.

"By playing covers and trying to match the old sound, you're actually stealing from yourself," he says. "I couldn't feel very satisfied doing that because I like to express myself a lot, and I couldn't express myself with other people's words or other people's notes. I mostly write songs for if I'm listening to the radio, it's a song I want to hear come on."

Electric Playground plays a CD-release show at Moe's Alley Thursday (Aug. 12). No cover; 21+. 479.1854. Also, Aug. 25 at the Long Bar, 180 East Franklin St., Monterey. No cover; 21+. 649-4241.

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From the August 11-18, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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