A decade ago, before the Killers and Panic! at the Disco made the leap from Las Vegas clubs to national prominence, Mama Zeus seemed like they could be that band. Their sound channeled Led Zeppelin classic-rock boogie; their stage presence exuded a hippie vibe that appealed to the jamband crowd; and they had a fiery redhead up front who delivered soul and sex appeal with every note. They opened for acts such as Robin Trower and Sebastian Bach at The Joint and House of Blues, and also performed on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. They had even released two critically acclaimed independent CDs.
When Mama Zeus signed with a management company that was shopping them to major labels, it seemed like they were finally on the brink of “making it.” But their rise coincided with the rise of illegal file sharing. And just as they were reaching new heights, the bottom began to fall out of the record industry. Mama Zeus suffered a huge blow in 2003, when a courtship by Universal proved fruitless, leaving the band members beaten down.
They had enough new material for a third CD, one written in a more commercial vein to appeal to record companies. But the songs never got past the demo stage as the end drew near for Mama Zeus.
The band had been together since 1996, and after years of practicing four to five days a week while working regular jobs, the pressure of chasing the big time took its toll. “The major-label dream, in my eyes, was gone,” drummer Vinnie Castaldo says. He officially bowed out of the band first, tiring of the financial and emotional drain, with the others quick to follow.
“It was really fucking sad,” vocalist Nicole Sottile says. “I went over to the studio, packed up and grabbed my shit. I remember showing it to a friend, opening the trunk of my car and saying, ‘Here’s 10 years. I’ve got, like, a box of fucking candles and T-shirts, a stack of lyrics, a mic and a cord.’ And we split up our band fund and we each got like 200 bucks.”
Their final performance, though it wasn’t billed as such, was at the Crown & Anchor in May 2003, when their bitterness had manifested itself into a Black Sabbath-filled set list. They were in the midst of “War Pigs” when the PA blew and caught fire, and abruptly ended the gig. No encore. No applause. No final bows.
Until now. Mama Zeus is ready to take the stage for the first time in eight years, playing the Canyon Club as part of May’s First Friday. It’s not a one-and-done gig, but instead a full return. And this time, it’s free of the pressure and angst of trying to break into the music business. The group—which consists of Sottile, Castaldo, bassist Kyle Adoor, and guitarists Charlie Vantine and Bill McCleary—is reuniting on its own terms, and pledging to enjoy the ride. “It’s nice to have this outlet again, especially for all of us to be together again,” Sottile says. “It’s just cool because I think there was a point where we probably wouldn’t have all wanted to be in the same room together, much less playing music together.”
The first talk of a Mama Zeus reunion came about two years ago when Adoor bet McCleary over beers that they could get the band back together in five minutes. The resulting flurry of text messages found no hesitation. Some casual jam sessions followed, but personal conflicts kept getting in the way.
Since the breakup, the band members had spiraled in different musical directions. McCleary didn’t even touch a guitar for about six years. Vantine and Adoor also went extended periods without picking up their instruments, playing in the occasional cover band. Meanwhile, Castaldo, who had produced the band’s second CD, grew his Tone Factory into one of the Valley’s finest recording studios. And Sottile spent stints providing backup vocals for Vegas headliners Jimmy Hopper and Trent Carlini.
The impetus for the reunion finally came last year, when Castaldo posted live clips of the band on Facebook and YouTube. Castaldo also began recruiting his former bandmates for studio work, which sparked further interest and led to Sottile again joining the fold.
The band has been in serious rehearsals since the start of the year, and is writing and recording songs. They have revamped many of the songs originally penned for the third CD, and even some of their older songs have changed subtly since they were last played publicly. At a recent rehearsal, the band proved that they’re as tight as ever, and Sottile still has the ability to seduce an audience.
“I think we have a really good record in us,” Castaldo says. “For me, that’s the goal: to make a really amazing record that stands on its own.”
But even if that doesn’t happen, just being together onstage again is good enough for Mama Zeus. “We’re basically like family,” Sottile says. “We’ve known each other and spent so much time together for so long that it’s like a very happy and comfortable thing for all of us to be doing this again.”
Mama Zeus plays at 10:30 p.m. May 6 at the Canyon Club inside the Four Queens; $10 ($5 in advance), 800-634-6045, Facebook.com/MamaZeusBand.