THEY DO NOT play commercial music. They receive virtually no airplay on the radio. Four of their six releases are available only on cassette. They are unknown outside of Arizona and are based in a town so out of the way (Jerome) most Arizonans would be hard-pressed to find them without benefit of a map.
But in band years they are ancient, spawned from the same primordial ooze that was around when U2 and REM were conceived. And they still awkwardly accept comparisons to the Grateful Dead (even though none of them have ever seen the Dead), while they feel more influenced by the improvisational work of Hendrix and Cream. They live for the "all ages" show, put out a newsletter endorsing everything from propositions to vegetarian eateries, and demonstrate the kind of staying power that would make the Eveready keeps-on-ticking bunny rabbit blush with envy.
They are Major Lingo, and after almost 18 years of relentlessly touring the Grand Canyon State, they continue to inspire people to celebrate through music and dance like no one this side of ... String Cheese, Phish, Little Feat, Queen Ida ... take your pick or fill in the blank.
Lingo's John Ziegler calls it "a complete and utter joy for performing live," explaining how the band has held together so well through the years. "It's all about kinship," he adds, "and being the troubadours we are."
And if that seems a bit over the top and clichéd, consider this: Ziegler has been writing songs with bassist Sally Stricker and lap steel guitar virtuoso Tony Bruno since the early 1980s; Stricker and drummer Steve Botterweg have been married since the mid 1990s; Ziegler and Bruno have each fathered a child with the same woman, dating back to the late 1980s, and have remained good friends both on and off the stage. And while these kinds of creative and interpersonal energies could be more than enough to drive several bands apart, to say Lingo is indeed connected remains an understatement to say the least.
"Of course there are always egos involved," says Ziegler. "But we've learned how to nurture each other's egos and to diplomatically see where each others' frailties are."
He also cites Botterweg's presence in the band as key to the group's success and survival. When Botterweg joined in 1990 he had big shoes to fill replacing Tim Alexander, who would go on to fame and fortune with the power trio Primus. "But Steve added that element of balance, kindness and professionalism," says Ziegler. "He is the most generous, sweetest gentleman."
But do not be lulled into thinking soft hearts equal soft rock. Clearly Ziegler loves singing and occasionally writing with Stricker, as evidenced on the band's most recent recording, Pagan Moon. Here, Strickler's creative presence as a writer and vocallist are showcased more than in any previous recording."But Steve and Tony take us to places more daring and edgy ... going on tangents ... that helps keep us fresh!" And he deadpans, "While people do listen to the words now and then, it is the musical improvisation that is right up our alley!"
And quite an alley it is, littered with originals (everyone writes) that present a unique spin on reggae, ska, world beat, Celtic and, for lack of a better term, psychedelic space-funk cowboy music. Lingo has also become a master at redefining others' work, something that allows it to create with other artists' creations. The group's fascination with John Lennon and the Beatles is an audio case-study unto itself. Among other songs, Lingo has covered "Working Class Hero," "He Said She Said," "Dear Prudence," "Revolution" and "One After 909." It doesn't get more eclectic than that.
Perhaps another key to Lingo's longevity is how its own success has not seduced the members with the promise of greater success to come. With a handful of side projects in motion, Lingo's players are not looking to burst onto the pages of Rolling Stone or pile into a van criss-crossing the states. And why should they? They've got a pretty good thing right here.
Major Lingo will perform Saturday, November 25 at the Nimbus Brewery, 3850 E. 44th St. The cover is $4.