The blues is the music of life’s road, no matter where that road takes us.
It is powerful when it takes hold of the heart; it is not jealous and it will bide its time. You can play the blues and then leave it for awhile. But then you always come back.
David Orban knows about that. A Trenton native, Orban lives with his wife, Mary Yess, in Hamilton Square. He has gone back and forth as a musician and artist, finally creating his own band, the Mojo Gypsies, nearly 20 years ago. On Thursday, June 20, at 6:45 p.m., Orban, 58, and his band will appear at DeAnna’s, the well-known Italian restaurant in Lambertville, and play acoustic blues.
“Many, many, many years ago,” he said recently, “back in the ‘60s, like many kids my age, I decided I wanted to play the guitar like the Beatles and the Stones. By the time high school came around my friends and I were playing in many of the venues around Trenton. That’s the interesting thing. Earlier when I was about 12, my cousin had a band that exposed me to stuff I had never heard of, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, all these blues guys I had never heard of. This really opened my eyes to this other type of music that I wanted to play.”
After graduating from Steinert High School in 1973, he attended Mercer County Community College, where he studied with Mel Leipzig, the renowned painter who lives in Trenton and recently retired from MCCC. Orban earned an MFA from CUNY Brooklyn, then worked as a designer at Lenox China, one of the mainstays of what was once a thriving pottery industry in Trenton.
Today Orban’s day job is as senior marketing manager for NIP Group in Woodbridge, where he does E-mail marketing, website design, webcasts, videos, and brochure design for a company that develops insurance programs for small businesses. He teaches a course in advanced multimedia once a week at Rider University, and he and Yess have a marketing consultant business, O and Y Partners. Yess is also deputy executive director and publisher at the Electrochemical Society in Pennington. Their daughter, Jess, just graduated from college.
“I migrated from design to marketing,” Orban said, “and half that time I had my own company and did marketing for other businesses. It was kind of a combination between the creative side and the analytic side.”
When he returned from college, Orban was an artist who became immersed in the Trenton cultural scene, eventually serving as president of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association from 1985-’87. Yess held the same post from 1978-’81, and then was executive director for 11 years at Artworks, the visual arts center in Trenton. They met through TAWA and have been married since 1990.
“I can’t stress enough that Mary was the glue that guided the organization (TAWA),” Orban said. “Volunteer organizations are notoriously difficult to manage because you’re not paying anybody. She was a very, very good leader, even after her tenure as president.”
But while Orban was developing as an artist, he had forgotten about his music. Then he met up with a former high school bandmate.
“I spent all of my time painting and then entered the corporate world in the 1980s,” he said. “It was a long time since I had owned an instrument, and Keith Csolack tried to get me interested again. I went to his house for a party, and they were playing all this stuff. I couldn’t remember how to tune a guitar, much less play it. I was sitting in a corner listening and decided to give it a try again. This was about 1994.”
The Mojo Gypsies website lists the band’s influences — Ray Charles, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Louis Jordan, Little Walter, George “Harmonica” Smith, Freddie King, Albert Collins — which comprise a blues hall-of-fame with which Orban started to reacquaint himself.
Orban started going to “open mike” nights at the Merry-Go-Round, the long-time roadhouse-style establishment that was once firmly planted on Brunswick Circle in Trenton. He sat and listened to others play at first.
“After about six months of that and who knows how much liver damage I finally got the nerve to sit in with the house band and I made it through a song,” he said. “That first night, when I was going up to the stage, the emcee asked me my name and he asked me what I did. I told him I was teaching at Mercer, so he introduced me as ‘The Professor.’
“It was exhilarating and I decided I have to do this again.”
He became a regular at those jam sessions and met a younger musician with a similar passion, Steve Lansing, from Lawrenceville.
“I became more adept at it and relearned what I had known,” Orban said. “Steve and I decided to go out and see if we could play for tips and see where it went. One thing led to another and over time we played for different places, the (Lambertville) Shad Festival, private parties, anywhere we could book ourselves.”
By 2001 the band had solidified into the current lineup, give or take an instrument or two, and had gone electric. The Mojo Gypsies started heading down that road.
Lisa Nichols, co-owner of DeAnna’s in Lambertville, said the restaurant has been featuring music for several years. Every Friday, singer-pianist Michele Wiley performs and on Thursdays there is an entertainment mix.
“We’ve had jazz, blues,” said Nichols, “we had a cabaret, which was a fundraiser for Animal Alliance (a local shelter). We had all sorts of amazing performers. We raised a lot of money and it was so successful that people want us to have another one. If it’s nice and not super hot, we set up in the garden, which is nice. We are really committed to music and promoting local talent.”
“The interesting thing about the DeAnna’s gig,” Orban said, “is that we’ll be going in as a trio without the drums. It’s more in keeping with the venue. We’re going to play it by ear. A lot really depends on the crowd. We pride ourselves on playing quietly but still give a rockin’ show. We get the rhythm moving even a lower volume levels.”
The band is a versatile quartet, with everyone sharing in the vocals and showing distinct personalities. Orban is prominent in the group as its guitarist and singer, not to mention its founder. A stonemason in his other life, Russ Lambert, from Berwyn, PA, also shares the spotlight on harmonica and vocals. Bassist Jeff “Flourtown Fats” Michael, of Philadelphia, is a professional musician and music teacher. And drummer Michael Shewchuk, also of Philadelphia, has a retail music sales job in addition to his various gigs.
Band members have come and gone, as the history section of mojogypsies.com shows.
“It’s evolved quite a bit, gone through several different iterations,” Orban said. “I feel really fortunate because in the dozen or so years I’ve had the band, I’ve always been able to partner up with talented, really fun people to work with. The lineup I have now is the best I’ve ever had. It’s been a lot of fun for me, very cathartic. Some guys golf, I play music.”
Orban said the band’s name has a specific provenance.
“My paternal background is Hungarian, and mojo comes from my love of the blues,” he said. “When I was putting the duo together back in those days, the idea was that mojo was something interesting about the blues, and gypsies is about playing with different types of musicians. Not by design, but that is what has happened. Different people have come and gone and we’re all remained friends. We just kind of flow in and out. We’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of people.”
The importance of family resonates with Orban in other ways. His home, in a sparsely developed area where Hamilton Township borders Trenton, was once owned by his father and before that his grandfather. Orban’s father was a tool and die tradesman at Deleval, the Trenton manufacturer that has since been taken over by Siemens. His mother was a homemaker and later worked as a medical assistant. His brother, Tom, owns Orban Realty in Hamilton Township.
“I lived in Brooklyn for a number of years, and in Trenton, but after my parents passed I decided to buy their house,” he said. “It’s a little jewel in the middle of the woods.”
The thing about Trenton is how much it has changed, except when it comes to art, music, and culture, which somehow thrive in so many vibrant spots in the city. For Orban, the blues has come, gone, and come back again. But what became of his painting, which he took up over music as a college student? Would one of the many U-turns on the road of life bring him back to the easel?
“I had stopped painting for about 18 years,” he said. “Back in 2010 I got a call from a gallery I used to be involved with. They were having a 30-year exhibit. I said, ‘You know, I’m going to pick up a paintbrush again.’ It was like I had never stopped. It just flowed out of the brush. I’ve kept up my painting since then.”
Mojo Gypsies, DeAnna’s, 54 North Franklin Street, Lambertville. Thursday, June 20, 6:45 p.m. 609-397-8957.