An occasional feature showcasing music by little-known artists who (generally) only put out one or two albums.
“A balmy Saturday night. Lights melt by the car windows as we drive through the dusk. We get a table and a couple of beers. The band soon arrives and tunes their instruments. Behind the stage is a large window looking out over the street. Car headlights streak by, with the band in the foreground. The first song starts slowly and then all of a sudden, just as it kicks in with a massive drum roll, a fire truck wails by out the window behind the band. Siren lights flash off the walls dramatically. The timing with the music is so perfect that it almost seems planned.”
I wrote the previous paragraph (yes, I’m quoting myself…I’m not sure what that says about me. I see that I was a bit fixated on lights though…) in a short-lived journal in 1988 or 89 when I was a student at the University of Florida. The band was called The Cast, from Birmingham, Alabama. Previously, they’d been called Forecast and they were soon to change their name to Vova Nova…and then back to The Cast again. The band used to tour throughout the southeast extensively and my friend Steve and I would always be sure to catch them whenever they rolled through. We’d developed sort of an attachment to them, feeling a bit like we had special inside knowledge of this great, but not nationally known group. They seemed to always play at a downtown bar called Rickenbacker’s.
Rickenbacker’s was slightly more upscale than the average university town joint, which went well with The Cast’s music – a mix of funk, rock and jazz, with some occasional other flavors thrown in, like bossa nova. Band leaders, and couple, Glen Butts and Libba Walker were a dynamic pair, Butts an extremely versatile guitarist who had grown up with Allman Brothers/Rolling Stones pianist Chuck Leavell and who had pursued music in late ‘60s L.A. with a group called Chair, paling around with Zappa’s Mothers of Invention at Disneyland while there. Walker was a vocalist and flute player who had attended the Berklee College of Music for a spell.
When they were The Cast, they played a mix of originals and covers such as “The Girl from Ipanema” and a burning version of Led Zeppelin’s “Out on the Tiles”, which kinda shows their range. The story is that the band saw a Red Hot Chili Peppers show in the late ‘80s and it made such an impression that they funked up their sound radically, and added elements of rap. Walker was actually quite good at the rap, her stage personality already very assertive and confident. Their originals also became much more politicized.
This is where the band was sonically when they were signed to Chameleon Records, a subsidiary of Elektra, and forced to change their name to Vova Nova. The resulting self-titled album in 1992 was, for me, a big disappointment as well as a surprise. The musicianship was still at a high standard, but it was subservient to an in-your-face, aggressive collection of songs railing against everything from censorship to racism.
By the halfway point on the CD, you just want a break or a change in the dynamic. It was very one-dimensional music – not that it was a bad dimension, just that I had been witness to their other dimensions. Gone were the textures, the highs and lows, any subtlety that I was used to from seeing them live. That’s just my take on it of course; my impressions. Reading the handful of reviews on Amazon, I may be in the minority. However, Libba Walker says in this extensive article which details the history of the band: “We were always evolving. Then suddenly, record deal! They caught us doing something at that one moment. That’s who you are at that point. We would’ve just kept evolving but that’s the just the picture the record company took right then.”
In retrospect, it’s odd that the record company emphasized and encouraged that side of the band. A political, confrontational group must have been harder to sell than a band playing more accessible material. Though, maybe they were too eclectic for their own good before. Regardless, the record didn’t sell well. Yet, taken on their own, there are some memorable tracks such as “White Man” and “Hot Spot” – songs I remember them performing live.
They regrouped as The Cast again, eventually morphing into just “Glen and Libba”, though The Cast seems to play some too. And their sound appears to be diverse and varied again.
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Thanks for sharing, Rob. It’s my opinion that most of us have some similar tales of various bands or soloists who never ‘took off’ in the mainstream, and stayed obscure. Years of living in the Chapel Hill NC area provided me with loads of live music experiences, good & bad; then more years living in Boston/Cambridge MA did the same, plus I had more chances to catch live shows by already-established big names who passed through. I used to keep a list of all the bands & solo performers that I was able to catch in concerts, with some vague idea of writing up little ‘review’ blurbs of my subjective recollections of the shows…but after a while, it grew to be too unwieldy, so I gave up. Not that I don’t remember lots of live music experiences – still, good & bad. But I’ve by now forgotten many too. As for those who really struck me as genuinely good and worthy of larger exposure and heightened attention, I came to see that Big Money corporate record company stuff is just a big fat greedy biz, full of snarky jerks and typical capitalist corruption, not truly friends at all of the artists/performers who were moving me. And so, while I regret that many of the bands who impressed me never got much chance to spread their styles to lots of others…I figure there were probably more of those ‘others’ than I realized. For everyone like me, there were likely several thousand others who appreciated these players & creators, without the ‘benefit’ of big record company promo machinery behind them. And I can certainly testify to those reverse scenarios, when some Big Record Label chose to snap up a band that I knew was really good, only to try to morph them into some pre-defined pigeonhole of ‘style’ or ‘genre’….and it just didn’t work at all. That made me resentful. So, maybe your Cast friends lucked out in the end.
Yeah, I’ve got a handful of other bands I remember who fit into that category of “should have been’s”. It’s easy to forget that there must be thousands of additional bands around North America (the world, even) who fit into the same category!
I, too, witnessed their early incarnation as Forecast at Rickenbacker’s in Gainesville. I was intrigued with their stage presence. I bought an album they were selling at the bar in 1982 titled “full extention” [sic]… a bit unpolished but still inspiring when I listen to it today!
Of note, their bassist – Roberto Valley – went on to greater success in the jazz world with Spyro Gyra and other well-known artists…