They were the Mighty Pranksters. They were the goodtime gangsters.
Those lucky enough to own the 1998 self-titled album by the Mighty Pranksters may sense, when they play the CD, that the music transports them to a time when great bar bands played regularly on Saturday nights.
Labeling themselves the “goodtime gangsters” in the leadoff track, “Prankster Tune,” the Mighty Pranksters possessed a joyous vibe and top-notch musicianship that included killer guitar solos, great harmonizing vocals in spots, and a jam-band aura that feels, well, like live music.
Former Champaign-Urbana resident Mark Rubel, who co-recorded the Mighty Pranksters album at Pogo Studio with Gary Strater, didn’t reel in the musicians’ jam-band tendencies during studio sessions — he said that wasn’t his role. Recognizing the band “had a great mojo” as seasoned performers, Rubel and Strater stood back and let them do their thing.
“It’s all about flow and spontaneity and not audio trickery or manipulation,” Rubel wrote via email. “We were trying to portray their magic as a unit and keep the recording studio out of the way.”
The mojo was made by Bill “Griz” Stevens (vocals, harp, and percussion), Jeff Kerr (vocals and guitar), Brian Wilkie (guitar, mandolin, and vocals), Andre Mossotti (bass), and Danny Deckard (drums). Jim Cogswell and Ron Stockert contributed keyboard work.
Rollicking harmonica played by Griz enhances the songs “My Dog” and “Keep on Smilin’,” though that instrument is not listed in the CD liner notes. Griz said there were some mistakes on his harmonica performances, and that he perhaps should have done more takes in the studio — then he quickly dismissed the thought with a laugh.
“I just would have made it worse,” he joked. “I thrive on imperfection. That’s what jamming and improvising is all about. You just keep on going. Keep on keeping on.”
Former Pranksters drummer Danny Deckard said he had a blast playing with his former C-U band and loved the Pranksters’ dedicated following.
“Playing that type of music with those guys was just the real deal. It was really fun,” he said.
Deckard lives in southern Indiana and still plays music on a freelance basis. Right now, he and his fellow musicians are doing the surprisingly lively “driveway circuit” since regular venues are closed due to COVID-19.
Deckard’s favorite tune on the Mighty Pranksters album—and one of the band’s most popular compositions—is the Grateful Dead-sounding “China Cat Blues,” which was written in honor of Jerry Garcia not long after his passing in 1995.
Prior to their time in the Pranksters, Deckard and Griz played in a band called The Blues Deacons. Griz was also in a group called the Mighty Hounds of Joy, which he said was “the loudest, most raucous blues band on Earth.” Jam sessions at Griz’s shed among various established musicians on the scene eventually led to the formation of the Mighty Pranksters.
Like Deckard, Griz said he valued the fan following of the Mighty Pranksters, who often played in front of sizable crowds and opened for big-named acts such as Little Feat, the Jerry Garcia Band (following Garcia’s death), and 38 Special.
“When you have a group of people in front of you that want to hear you and pay attention to you, instead of raising hell at a bar and not paying attention, it’s a special thing,” Griz said.
One Pranksters tune fans likely paid attention to was “Twenty Years Ago,” written by Jeff Kerr. In a 2012 Amazon review of the Mighty Pranksters album, I wrote this about the song:
The tune that puts this CD over the top is Kerr’s nostalgically driven and beautiful “Twenty Years Ago,” which sounds like classic Bob Seger from the 1970s (think in the realm of the slow-burning song “Turn the Page”). Kerr’s unknown masterpiece boasts lyrics that will get you thinking of your own little world when times were more carefree, and its poignant theme of life coming and going, yet somehow remaining in place, is effective and truthful.
Rubel said “Twenty Years Ago” is a “great, classic Southern rock song,” while Griz said the tune could have charted in the country genre, and perhaps other genres, had it gotten the right exposure.
More than twenty years have passed since the release of their album, but most of the former Pranksters are still playing music and manage to keep in touch with one another. According to Griz, there is a misconception that musicians in bands hang out together all the time. That wasn’t the case at all with the Mighty Pranksters, whose members had five varied lives and musical goals.
“We weren’t the kind of band that lived together and saw each other every day,” Griz said. “But when we could get together every couple of weeks, get together and go play a gig somewhere, we had great camaraderie. And when we stepped on the stage, magic happened. But then we all went our separate ways.”
This article was originally published in Smile Politely.
Photos by Sal Nudo