During the early-'80s heyday of Lise Uyanik and the Mobile City Band, an old-style rock & roll & rhythm & blues outfit named after a Morrisville trailer park, your best bet was to catch them in Carrboro. There, at least once a month, they'd pack The Station or the Art School, playing the kind of danceable and drinkable music that both club-goers and club owners live for.
The band broke up in 1984, but apparently no one informed all of the parties involved. "We've kept playing," Uyanik, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the band, says, punctuating that conflicting statement with a hearty laugh. "We didn't really completely stop. We just weren't pursuing it the way we had before." Granted, there were some years when the band didn't play together at all as children arrived, career and business opportunities surfaced, and marriages ended (including the one between Uyanik and Mobile City Band guitarist Charlie Ebel). But roughly five years ago, the Mobile City Band cranked it up again. More often than not it was by private demand, with 50th birthday parties, 25th wedding anniversaries and second weddings the most common gigs.
Then last November, Lise Uyanik and the Mobile City Band returned to Carrboro for a re-coming out party in the form of a benefit concert at the ArtsCenter, the first general-public show that the band had done in this latest incarnation. As tends to happen over a 25-year period, the Mobile City Band has grown and changed since Uyanik and Ebel started it in 1977, although that pair remains the core of the band. Jay Miller and drummer Rodger Tygaard, the former the founder of the Music Loft and the latter the cofounder of the Salaam Cultural Center, are next in terms of years of service. Back-up singer Mary Rocap played acoustic shows with Uyanik and Ebel in the late '70s and early '80s, but didn't join the Mobile City Band until later. Percussionist Sue Sneddon and back-up singer Donna Giles are the most recent additions, joining five years ago for what Uyanik calls "the latest round." Bass player Lew Wardell and Ann Alexander, cofounder of Wellspring Grocery with husband Lex, round out the lineup. (Aspiring singers, take note: Alexander approached Uyanik at a party saying that she had made a list of things she wanted to do before she turned 40, and singing back-up in a rock & roll band was one of them. There was soon a mic with Alexander's name on it.)
What happened at that November 2002 show bordered on epiphanic. People turned out whom Uyanik and the others hadn't seen in 15 or 20 years. It was a combination of lovefest and musical event. Inspired by that exhilarating experience, thoughts turned to recording an album celebrating 25 years of the Mobile City Band. Uyanik and a group of her female friends--dubbed the Mobile City Mafia and led by Jeanette Stokes, the director of The Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South--raised the funds needed to make a record. The result is Song for Us All, a wide-open, 17-tune collection that blends R&B, rock, and acoustic music as deftly as it alternates originals and covers. "I sort of felt like this is my shot to make a record," Uyanik explains. "So I really just wanted to put everything on there." That includes, at the album's liveliest points, spirited takes on the Beatles' "One After 909," the Don Covay-and-Steve Cropper-penned, Aretha Franklin-owned "See Saw," and barroom singalong fave "Hang on Sloopy." Versions of Cat Stevens' "How Can I Tell You" and Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" showcase Uyanik's ability to hush things down and make plenty of space for introspection.
Georgann Eubanks and Donna Campbell, the Emmy-winning documentary team who run the company Minnow Media, were at the ArtsCenter show a year ago. Relatively new to the area, Campbell had never seen Uyanik and the band, and the energy coming from both the stage and the crowd made a deep impression. "She liked the band and she liked the music," says Uyanik of Campbell. "But it was more the feel of it, the community of it. Everybody got so high, and it was all about re-creating the past or something--but not in a bad way." Inspired by the musicians' stories, the deep friendships within the Mobile City Band, and the mutual affection that bonds the band and its fans, Minnow Media has been shooting footage for a documentary that should be finished in the spring of 2004.
Making an already emotional story that much more poignant are some additional details that can't help but be a part of the documentary's storyline: Three years ago, Uyanik was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and she also has a disease that causes random bouts of often intolerable pain. Both make playing the guitar increasingly difficult for her. But in talking with Uyanik, you get the feeling that she'd prefer that it all be about the music and the interwoven fellowship. "Getting these diseases has really made me focus on who I am and what I want and what's important," she tells me. "And music is one of the things that's really important to me." To hear her on Song for Us All and, by all accounts, to see her on stage is to know that's true.
The CD release show is at the ArtsCenter on Saturday, November 22. Admission is $10 ($8 for ArtsCenter members), and attendees will get a free copy of the CD.