Mumblefinger's Brian Birkes - Making Music in the North State
By Jon Lewis
In Any KeyFebruary 2015
Story and Photos by Jon Lewis
As a kid growing up on the family farm near Los Molinos, Brian Birkes’ options for killing time were fairly limited once the chores were done.
There was the telephone, but it was a party line “and people would yell at you if you talked too long.” There was the TV, but it only received three stations and if you wanted to change channels, you had to get on the roof and move the antennae.
“So I picked up a guitar, mostly out of sheer boredom. I was in the sixth grade, probably 11 years old,” Birkes recalls. “It was my dad’s guitar. He showed me ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and a few others and it just took off .”
It took off and so did Birkes, who left the country life as soon as he graduated Red Bluff High School. He was 17 and ready to see a few big-city lights.
“First I went to Chico because that’s where all my friends were. I slept on couches and played music. That’s kind of where I honed my craft and my skills as a live performer,” Birkes says. Then I went down to the Bay Area, then New York, then Nashville, then back to the Bay Area, and then back here. All that took about 30 years.”
In Nashville, Birkes hooked up with Barry Beckett, the keyboardist and producer who was an instrumental part of the Muscle Shoals recording studio, and collaborated on a CD. In the Bay Area, he performed at several blues clubs and released three CDs on his own. In all, Birkes says he’s recorded 15 CDs. “I’ve been pretty much selling them out of the trunk of my car.”
He came back to Red Bluff for the very same qualities that sent him on the road: some peace and quiet and a break from the fast-paced lifestyle of a touring musician.
“I came back here about eight years ago. I was just kind of beat up and tired and I didn’t want to play so much, so I built a studio,” Birkes says. Aft er a spell, the stage again beckoned. “I missed playing live so I booked a couple of gigs, and now it’s snowballed.”
Birkes performs throughout the North State as Mumblefinger and he’s fashioned a couple of avenues for his music. He has a jazz trio (with Bruce Calin on bass and Cleveland Boney on keyboards) that plays most Saturdays at the Gaia Hotel in Anderson. “I get to relax and just play,” Birkes says.
The pace is decidedly more upbeat when Birkes breaks out his fullfl edged funk ensemble and tears into his hefty catalog of original tunes and selected covers. That lineup includes Boney (who’s also a member of Cold Sweat) along with Steve Huff on bass and Patrick Wiseman on drums.
A largely self-taught player, Birkes became enamored with the electric guitar aft er watching Roy Clark on the TV variety show “Hee Haw.” A love affair with the blues was sparked when he put B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal” on the turntable.
He soaked in music at every opportunity. “If there was a party somewhere, I’d go. If there was a band, any band—and it was slim pickings back in Red Bluff —I would go and park myself in front of the guitar player and just listen.
“I can’t sit down and learn stuff . I never would have taken to lessons, I don’t think. Most of what I’ve learned has been by mistake,” Birkes says with a laugh.
Boney, the keyboard player, says there’s a lot more to Birkes’ musicianship than he lets on. “The most awesome part of being part of the band is how loose the gig is. As a musician, I usually go into a gig with some charts. But Brian has a great understanding of musicians and how to speak to them, how to direct them. All he has to do is shout out a few chords.
“He may pull out a song he wrote the night before and we’ll somehow just nail it. I don’t know how he pulls that off . It’s a testament to his ability to direct musicians. He’s an awesome songwriter. His musicianship is just uncanny and we follow along.”
MacKenzie Hughes, a trumpeter who played in Mumblefinger before relocating to Fort Worth, Texas, says Birkes’ sense of humor and spontaneity reminds him of the late Slam Buckra, a North State favorite with whom Hughes and Wiseman both played.
“I had some really good times with Brian. He’s a very honest man and a standup dude,” Hughes says.
When he’s not performing, Birkes stays busy at Sky River Music, his sister Melissa Wendland’s new music store in Red Bluff . “It’s become a really cool place for kids and musicians to meet up. It’s become quite a cool scene down there,” Birkes says of his day job.
At home, Birkes enjoys the company of his wife, Ronnie, and his German shepherd, Ringo.