But a musician — especially a rock musician — will always be that thing. Band or no band, gigs or no gigs.
When Lisa Umbarger, founding member and bassist of the '90s hit-making punk-rock group Toadies, left that band more than 20 years ago, she says she “went out into the world to discover what she wanted to do when she grew up,” now that being a rock star had been checked off the list. She got her irrigator’s license, managed international marketing for a juice company and invented some cool stuff using nanotechnology. But the music was always there, calling to her.
Four years ago, when it got too loud to ignore, she joined with two other ex-Toadies and two cover band musicians to form SolShifter. Former Toadies drummer Matt Winchell (who went on to play with rap/metal/punk/Southern rock band Pimpadelic after leaving the Toadies) and vocalist Jennifer Winchell had been performing with guitarist Steve Dzwilewski in a cover band called Urban Gypsy, occasionally playing old Toadies tunes. They asked Charles Mooney, former lead guitarist for the Toadies, to join them for some appearances. A call to Umbarger seemed like a natural next step.
“It was super fun,” says Umbarger, “so, Charles and I did it again with them a few weeks later.”
Even more fun ensued. Then came the almost inevitable question: "Should we start a new band?" The answer, as it happens, was yes.
Then came the next obvious question, about what the band name should be. It seemed like every name the band members came up had already been taken. As they learned, christening a band is no easier than titling a start-up tech firm (Rupifi or Confluera, anyone?) or a new wonder drug (Otezla or Rybelsus). Were they willing to settle for a string of nonsense syllables? Hardly. Then, one day in her car, Umbarger glanced down at the gearshift. That was it, "Shifter"! Nope, already taken. How about "SoulShifter"? Also spoken for. Fortunately, "Sol" (for sun, of course), combined with "Shifter," had not been grabbed. And a band was born.
When COVID rattled the world at the beginning of 2020, restaurants, small businesses and arts organizations all felt the sting of plunging patronage and disappearing revenue. The effect across the entire spectrum of musical performance was no less dramatic.
“We had started to hit our stride,” says Umbarger. “We were playing packed clubs, then COVID sucked all the energy out of it. We lost two years.”
The band continued to rehearse and to record, building up a nice following on streaming services. But the urge was strong to get back to the clubs.
Just as COVID restrictions were starting to ease to the point that the band could resume live shows, along came another hurdle: Umbarger was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, she reports that the disease is in remission, and the band looks forward to a busy schedule with its bass player back to full strength.
As was the case with the Toadies, SolShifter is finding its association with Fort Worth to be a mixed blessing. They’re proud of their Cowtown roots but have found themselves hitting the same walls as the Toadies did in trying to break into clubs in Deep Ellum. There was a December 2021 gig at Three Links on Elm Street, and the band has appeared in the eastern half of DFW, including dates at Six Springs Tavern in Richardson. But after the long hiatus due to COVID, it’s going to take a while to regain the momentum the band once had.
With so much Toadie influence in the group, it’s not surprising that SolShifter has retained a bit of a Toadies vibe. But the band won’t be defined by its history or by any particular genre. “It’s just rock and roll,” says Umbarger. And for those fans who don’t know the Toadies from Toad the Wet Sprocket, none of that ancient history matters anyway.
“The Toadies — that was a long time ago,” says drummer Matt Winchell. “Charles and Lisa and I wrote a lot of those songs together, and it was huge experience for me. I loved that band, and I played with another band that was pretty crazy, the Pimpadelics.”
But the feeling has changed since those earlier times, he says.
“Everything was a business in the other bands I’ve been in," Winchell says. "It’s easy for me now, because it’s fun. These are the people I want to play with. My best friend and my wife. I have two people that I basically came into the music industry with in Charles and Lisa. What better way to spend this time in my life?”
“When you’re away from it for a long time then you get back into it, it’s like ‘Damn, this is fun!’” he says. “Plus, there’s more respect and appreciation for each other. You’re an adult now, and it makes it all work so much better.” – Charles Mooney
Mooney sounds a similar note.
“With the knowledge we’ve gained since then, it just feels like we know what the hell we’re doing now,” he says. “The thing that’s amazing, though, is that it had been 28 years since Lisa and Matt and I played together until we started messing with this [new band]. But we were still a cohesive unit; we could still read off each other. It was like it was yesterday.”
Mooney also appreciates being a little older and a little wiser this time around.
“When you’re away from it for a long time then you get back into it, it’s like ‘Damn, this is fun!’” he says. “Plus, there’s more respect and appreciation for each other. You’re an adult now, and it makes it all work so much better.”
For guitarist Steve Dzwilewski, knowing that his bandmates are depending on him to contribute new music is a challenge, but a welcome one.
“I started writing songs in high school,” he says, “But nothing ever amounted to anything. I’m more serious now. I’m trying to put out some legit rock songs. I may come up with 10 or 15 riffs, and one will make it through. It’s trial and error.”
He says playing other people’s songs, as he did in the cover band, was easier because it’s music the audience already knows.
“But with your own original music, it’s something new to them," he says. "People don’t know it and are hearing it for the first time. Hopefully, it’s catchy and something they want to hear again.”
The group has released a handful of singles, including the riff-heavy rock banger "Pretty Enough," where vocalist Jennifer Winchell, like Dzwilewski, now has the opportunity to let her originality come through.
“When I was in Urban Gypsy, I was brand new," she says. "Never been in a band before. Singing covers, I tended to want to imitate the original artist. Now, with SolShifter, I get to arrange things the way I want them to be. The band gives me the liberty to make a song my own. It’s way more rewarding than singing a cover, where I am imitating somebody else.”
For Umbarger, the chance to pick up her bass and get back in front of audience to play with good friends has helped in her fight against her illness.
“We didn’t want to turn down or miss a gig,” she says. And they didn’t. Even while enduring a long and grueling series of chemotherapy treatments, during which she somehow continued to take the stage — sometimes standing, sometimes sitting — she and the band kept going.
“We’re having fun,” she says. “It’s just a lot sweeter this time around.”