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Tuesday, March 26 Entertainment

Sound Surfing / Staying true to New Orleans musical roots

When Chris “Otis” Cross founded Otis and the Hurricanes two decades ago, his goal was to pursue the music of the greater New Orleans and Louisiana region.

With set lists featuring music by the likes of Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Little Feat, The Funky Meters, Alan Toussaint, Tab Benoit, C.J. Chenier, Delbert McClinton, and Chuck Berry, the band remains faithful to its original mission as it celebrates the musical roots of American rock ‘n’ roll itself.

“The history of the music is wonderful,” Cross said. “It’s basically the blues format, but a lot of it has to do with the rhythm, because New Orleans’ music is based on rhythm. So much of it has that Cuban-Afro syncopation, so it’s very rhythmic and it just grooves. There’s something that feels good about it to us when we play it. Sometimes in our sets, we’ll venture off. We’ll go off to Memphis and do some funk and go a little West into Texas and do a good shuffle. It’s really all part of the Americana style.”

Otis and the Hurricanes is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2019, and over the years it has become a staple on Fairfield County’s festival and club scene. The band annually headlines at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport and Waveny Park in New Canaan, plays frequent dates in Stamford over the summer at the Crab Shell and in Redding at the Roadhouse and Hideaway. It ventures out to Blue Monday in Mystic and has been headlining Block Island’s “Blues on the Block” for the past 15 years.

Saturday, local crowds can catch up with the band at one of its regular gigs in Norwalk, Peaches Southern Pub & Juke Joint, 7 Wall St. It returns there March 2, April 13, and May 4.

The band has a long history at Peaches and was one of the groups featured during the restaurant’s opening weekend in April 2016.

“Greer has a wonderful restaurant and a smokin’ juke joint,” said Cross, about Greer Fredericks, who runs Peaches. “She has always supported the music community and has a great feel for getting things moving.”

Cross, who was raised in Norwalk and attended local schools, including Brien McMahon High School, brings a long history of performing to his role as leader, singer and guitarist in the band. The Fairfield-based musician is an original member of Paul Gabriel’s Blue in the Face and toured with blues great Debbie Davies. He also works with River City Slim & the Zydeco Hogs.

The current Hurricanes consist of New Canaan’s Smokin’ Joe Najmy on keyboards, accordion, and vocals; Wilton’s Chris Bishop on bass and vocals; Fairfield’s Doug Bernstein on tenor sax and vocal; and Rick Quintinal, from Sandy Hook, on percussion, plus an entire family of subs who occasional sit in.

“Joe Najmy, the piano player, and I got together 20 years ago,” recalled Cross. “We met on a gig, and it was just like instant bonding, and the band took off from there. Joe and I are the only ones from day one, but everyone else has been with us between 10 and 15 years.”

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Besides the musical chemistry Otis and the Hurricanes brings to the stage, there’s a personal bond.

“We get along together so well,” Cross said. “Everyone’s been on the road. The credentials the guys have are quite impressive. When we play, it’s a very relaxed thing, musician to musician. It’s a groove, it’s a feel. It’s five guys who know how to have a good time. There’s no ego trying to outgun someone else. We respect the music. We let the songs do it.”

The band has one CD out and plans to record another with Paul Opalach at Longhill Recording in Shelton. Original songs can also make it to the set list, as all the members write.

“We all contribute,” Cross said. “If the song feels good and gets people dancing, it makes the list.”

Overall, Cross says that he and the Hurricanes feel fortunate to be where they are right now in their music careers.

“We are very lucky and very appreciative of the opportunities that we have at this point in our lives,” he said, “and God bless the wives that let us go out. It’s all good.”

For more information, visit otisandthehurricanes.com or peachesnorwalk.com.

Mike Horyczun’s Sound Surfing column appears every Saturday in The Hour. Mike can be reached at news2mh@gmail.com.

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