The band and its people
Todd and the Toots is a unique band, born out of a group of bluegrass pickin' friends one night at a party at Todd Gray’s place. Inspired by a Toots & The Maytals tee shirt that John Brogan was wearing, Todd and John started playing old-school reggae, ska, rock steady, and funky soul music on their mandolins. Todd's wife Paisley Gray jumped in on upright bass, and Tom Rooney joined in on acoustic guitar. The result was thrilling to them, so they got to work... slightly modifying the bluegrass instrumentation, Todd put down his mandolin and got on the drums, and they brought killer soul singer Rob Jones (The Doctor of Soul) on board as well. Todd & the Toots was born... an acoustic tribute to Toots and The Maytals and other similar artists from the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s. They have since been packing places with dancing fans, and have become favorites at several Seattle area venues, local concert series, and festivals.
THE DEEPER STORY
Todd Gray has been a drummer and an avid reggae fan for decades. Turning to bluegrass mandolin about 10 or 15 years ago, he often found himself humming bluegrass tunes in his head. His head, however, was inserting Jamaican dance hall grooves - ska, rock steady, and reggae beats - into the bluegrass tunes. "It makes sense", his head thought, "because there are some real similarities between the two genres." It was parallel evolution – the music of these two separate cultures developed shared traits, though isolated from each other’s influence. They both incorporate male falsetto vocal harmonies – what bluegrass calls the “high lonesome sound”. Both base their groove on an off-beat, chorded “chunk”– called the “scratch” in reggae music. Both are exciting and uplifting. And both speak of a people struggling, trying to find safety and happiness in an oppressive world.
“Essentially”, Todd thought, “if one were to add a reggae drum beat to a bluegrass song, and change the bass line, you’d have Jamaican dance hall music”. The seed was planted. A couple of years later, Todd & the Toots was born. Not bluegrass with a reggae beat, as Todd envisioned, but rather Jamaican dance hall music with a bluegrass treatment. Sometimes you ask the universe for something, and the universe gives you what you should’ve asked for.
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Todd and his wife Paisley Gray used to have a monthly residency at Seattle hot spot 'Nectar Lounge', doing something called Karaokegrass – live band karaoke with a bluegrass band. One night a young medical student, somewhat shy and unassuming, stepped on stage. He chose to sing the song “Use Me” by Bill Withers, and the band kicked in. Three minutes, forty-two seconds later, the roof came off the place. The crowd erupted in a deafening explosion of applause, clearly blown away. At the end of the night he won the 'Karaokegrass trophy'. He had never been on stage before. His name was Rob Jones.
Todd and Paisley didn’t forget. Several years later, when Todd wanted to incorporate the funky soul elements of Toots and The Maytals into his fledgling Jamaican/Appalachian fusion band, he knew who to call. Happily for all of us, the call was answered, and Todd & The Toots had their front man.
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Paisley Gray, often called “The Minnie Pearl of the West” is something of a local celebrity in the scene, and a force of nature to be reckoned with. Not only is she known far and wide as one of the most colorful and entertaining upright bass players in the acoustic music world, she’s also a mover and a shaker. Responsible for founding, organizing, running, promoting, or otherwise being involved in countless groups and events in the local acoustic music world, almost everything happening in the burgeoning scene has in some way been marked by her presence. Gleaning from Todd’s deep familiarity with reggae bass lines, she picked up the groove, and lays it down – a thing almost unheard of on the upright bass. Flamboyance, a distinct lack of shyness, and a focus on fashion means there’s also no holding back on stage outfits for her, and consequently, her hubby Todd too!
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When it comes to the surprisingly vibrant Seattle bluegrass scene, two names rise above as prominent fixtures: John Brogan and Tom Rooney.
John, simply and affectionately referred to as 'Brogan', has often been called 'The Laser Beam of Bluegrass'. His incredibly powerful, sharp cutting, and authentic bluegrass voice has been wowing audiences for years in what might be Seattle’s hardest working bluegrass band, 'Dysfunction Junction'. Not just a phenomenal singer, he’s also Seattle’s answer to Bill Monroe when it comes to mandolin – expertly instilling his impressive chops with the deep, smokey authenticity of Appalachian tradition. Sporting cowboy boots, belt buckle, western shirt, and a genuine Stetson cowboy hat, no one could possibly bring more bluegrass to the unlikely fusion that is Todd & The Toots.
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Tom Rooney may be the most complete embodiment of bluegrass, reggae, and funky soul that can be found in one person. A seasoned pro, he’s a veteran and avid fan of all those genres. Even more impressive than his larger than life stage presence is his guitar playing, and the perfect blend of influences he brings to it. Veritably steeped in every style of music Todd & the Toots incorporates, these influences create a thick, juicy, and undeniably danceable groove, making it almost impossible for anyone in the audience to sit still. He also has what is more valuable than gold in the music world – a booming bass voice, and the gift of knowing how and when to use it. For many reasons, he is an essential part of the Todd & the Toots sound.
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But it’s the combination of all these characters, all stars in their own right, that makes Todd & The Toots what it is - Unique yet familiar; unleashed, yet always in command; fresh and new, yet as seasoned as the masters of a bygone era. Some call them their favorite. Some call them the best. Some call them the 'funnest' band in Seattle: Todd & The Toots!!!