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Happy Days

A local R&B outfit, The Next Level Band, is going higher

Houston's Next Level Band is in a happy mood. It's still playing regular gigs, from private parties to its monthly stop at Monroe's Gallant Knight on Holcombe. And it recently signed a deal with Southwest Wholesale to sell and distribute its year-old debut, The Next Level Band. For these six contemporary R&B musicians, happiness is good health and a big break.

On a particular Friday evening, the band convenes at the Quality World Child Care Center on Hiram Clarke for rehearsals. And the minute they enter the place, a chummy goofiness fills the air. As soon as they sit in a circle, perching on those small, cramped plastic child seats, the giggling begins. They try to hold it in, looking down at their shoes. But the minute somebody says something remotely humorous, as when one of the band members claims he is 30 years old (note: this is a band filled with middle-agers), the others are choking with laughter. "Hey, R. Kelly has been 30 years old for ten years," says lead guitarist Derrick Harris, who himself claims to be "fortysomething." But these guys aren't your usual collection of contemporary R&B playas. Okay, maybe they are. But still, they're professionals.

They're as serious about their night jobs as a talented R&B ensemble as they are about their day jobs, which include such positions as tax return systems specialist, mutual fund investment manager andŠ professional musician. The Next Level Band began in late 1989 when drummer Linus Anderson, vocalist Greg Strachan and keyboardist Eric Nathan got together to jam. The trio then picked up bass player Henry Hudson and some other musicians. And somewhere around the early '90s Nathan left to get a master's degree and keyboardist/sax man Jeff Phelps was pulled in to oversee the operation. "We picked Jeff up and we rock and rolled for maybe another year or so," says Anderson, 42. "And then, that's when we all kinda did different projects."

In late 1993 the band regrouped, and guitarist Harris joined a year later. But the men were still missing a little something. "We didn't have female singers until we realized that's what we really needed," says Phelps, 44. So the band held tryouts, and Domonic Eagleton got the spot in 1996. In January 1998 another female vocalist, Satiyah Douglas, joined the group but left a year and a half later to help her husband manage gospel acts. The boys are glad the quiet Eagleton chose to stick around.

"We've had some girl singers," admits the portly, laid-back Harris, "and -- this is just my personal opinion -- she's the most reliable and the most agreeable. And that's very hard to find in a female vocalist."

Says 32-year-old Eagleton: "I have no problems. They treat me great. I'm happy."

With the band fully intact, it is doing what it has always done in its on-and-off ten-year career: gigging. The band has done club performances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, personal parties, sporting events, whatever. Its reputation as an energetic party outfit began to pick up some good word-of-mouth. "We really got popular in certain circles where we just seem to have weddings and parties almost every weekend," says the chrome-domed Phelps. "I tell people it's like we caught lightning in a bottle. We got the right people, and it works. We didn't start off trying to choke each other or anything like that, but we do okay."

The band is focusing on the ways it can strengthen its togetherness. Says Strachan, 39: "A lot of the bands I've been participating in, it's usually always some kind of real issue, like, you know -- and I feel comfortable to say -- drugs, alcohol, things like that. We don't have those kinds of issues. When you are ready to perform and people want you to do something, they can count on you. And [audiences] know they can count on The Next Level to perform, do what they gotta do and, you know, do a good job.

"That's also pretty much what inspired us to do a CD. Because people were always asking, 'When you gonna do some original stuff?' "

In the years the band members have been together, going from gig to gig doing cover tunes and other assorted musical fare, they picked up the itch to work on their own material. "We knew what the band sounded like doing other people's music," says Phelps. "But we wanted to know what we sounded like."

In late 1997 band members began collaborating on songs for an album. They made a recording during the spring and summer of '98. When they were finished remixing and remastering, the CD was released last October. The self-titled debut is a 14-song collection of lite-soul and adult-contemporary R&B that may be too subtle and simplistic for some audiences but has a stylish, genuine sheen to it. Originally sold by the band at its club performances, the independently produced and distributed record (released on Hudson and Phelps's P.H. Balance Publishing company) soon found its way into local retail stores such as Cactus and Soundwaves. The record can also be bought either on the band's Web site (http://tnlb.iuma.com) or through a toll-free number [(800)850-IUMA].

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