Max Bangwell is complaining about the weather. He doesn't do that, usually, because weather is what made the leader of his eponymous blues band relocate from Cleveland to Los Angeles.
"It's cool and hazy out here, too," Bangwell says. "We're supposed to be like this all summer. Something about La Nina is going to keep us in fog and smog for months."
Bangwell will return to Cleveland for the first time in four years on Saturday when he plays Wilbert's. It will also be the initial visit to Cleveland for the four-man Max Bangwell Band, which he started in 1991. Max and the group will unveil their album, King of the Hill, at the club.
Bangwell, 46, grew up as Robert Ebersole Jr. in Parma. He played all sorts of music for years in his hometown before his move to L.A. in 1987. Bangwell's most famous gig was as the drummer in Robert Lockwood Jr.'s band in the 1970s. Lockwood is expected to join his old pupil for the show Saturday.
"I came out here [Los Angeles] for two weeks in January," he says. " I said, 'Man, this is it.' I went back awhile later and called my wife and told her, 'Honey, we're going to have the biggest yard sale when I get back, because we're moving.'"
Bangwell was working steadily in Cleveland, but claims he had little apprehension about taking it to the West Coast, because "there's more people in Los Angeles County than there are in all of Ohio, so I figured there was a need."
He certainly helped fill the need. In 1996 he tied with James Harman and Rod Piazza for Happening magazine's Hardest Working L.A.-Based Blues Artist, and the following year he was tabbed by Music Connection magazine as one of the hottest unsigned acts in Southern California.
Max and the band have been fixtures in the sweaty blues clubs found in the seedy Southland neighborhood, where serious blues fans go to soak up the real thing. Bangwell ran open jam nights at popular Babe & Ricky's on South Central Avenue, a place that he says, "makes you play from the heart."
But it wasn't always the blues exclusively. Bangwell played in disco, country, and heavy metal bands, too. He was also production assistant for syndicated radio host Dr. Demento and toured with parody king "Weird Al" Yankovic, playing harmonica on Al's "Generic Blues." But his resume was what impressed the L.A. blues community. "You know, I never did it right when I was with Robert," he says. "It was just that being with Robert was my ticket to the blues."
He hooked up with Robert Lucas, leader of Luke and the Locomotives and a current member of Canned Heat. Lucas had previously played in Pacific Gas & Electric with another transplanted Clevelander, former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz. "Robert Lucas was blown away by my having been in Robert's band," Bangwell says. "He was bothered that I was not more astute about the blues. I didn't know what he was talking about. I thought I knew everything about the blues."
Jay Levy, Yankovic's producer, fixed that. Levy was compiling boxed sets of blues CDs and sent some Bangwell's way. It opened up horizons Bangwell never knew existed. "I really buckled down and learned about the blues," he says. "I got into the deep blues like never before."
When Max formed the Max Bangwell Band, he was out front with the harmonica. He switched instruments "after firing six drummers--six close friends of mine--because they just couldn't do it the way I wanted it done."
He now does it his way, with a unique and engaging drumming style that plays off the fiery lead guitar of Job Striles, the band's other original member. Primordial Slim handles the harp now, with Miles Reed having replaced Scott Lambert on upright bass. The band takes on Chicago blues and swing blues with equal verve, and can do Little Charlie and the Nightcats-style humor along with the serious stuff.
It's led to some interesting experiences beyond the L.A. club scene. Perhaps none was more thrilling than being hired as the band for Mick Jagger's 1996 birthday party. Bangwell met Jagger through Jimmy Rip, a Los Angeles musician/producer/songwriter who has done a lot of work for Jagger. Rip's band and the Bangwell Band often played at the Monkey Bar, a joint owned by actor Jack Nicholson in Beverly Hills. The party was at a mansion that Greta Garbo once called her home.
"As both a musician and a movie buff, this was a dream come true," Bangwell says. "Imagine, Madonna complimenting me on my drumming, Matt Dillon high-fiving band members, Nicholson and James Caan on the dance floor kicking it up."
Rip played on the title cut on King of the Hill, "as a favor to me," Bangwell says. "We're still friends, but we don't see too much of each other anymore. Jimmy has moved to New York and become the sideman to the stars."
Bangwell's last trip to Cleveland was to play drums/harmonica in the show It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues at Cleveland Play House in 1995.
And that nickname?
"I played in a heavy band in Cleveland, around 1985," he says. "The leader would introduce me as 'The Maximum.' Later, he shortened it to 'The Max.' People started thinking my name was Max.
"One guy in the audience came up to me and said something like 'Hey, Max, I love your drumming.' I told him I was just banging away, so he says, 'You bang well.' I guess from that, Max Bangwell was born."
The Max Bangwell Band. 10 p.m., Saturday, June 19, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 West Ninth Street, Warehouse District, $6, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.