The Chilly Willy Band : Still Chilling and Having Fun
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography
Moonlighting musicians in The Chilly Willy Band have been trading cool licks and plenty of laughs around Hilton Head for 28 years, and original guitarist Fred Warren figures there’s no need to stop now as they continue to have a blast playing good-time rock and blues cover tunes. “We’ve learned a few things over the years,” said Warren, who formed the band as a quartet in 1986. “First, people would rather hear something they know played well rather than something they don’t know played beautifully. The second thing is, ‘nothing good ever happens after midnight,’” he added with a laugh.
His brother, David Warren, joined the band in 1988 and drummer David Carroll came on board soon after, initially as a Saturday fill-in for an original member who had to deliver mail. Carroll then took a lingering hiatus to raise his three daughters before returning to full-time status. All of today’s six CWB members maintain regular day jobs, ranging from tennis instructor to real estate agent, and Warren believes that’s a secret to ongoing success. “We’ve never worried about relying on playing for our income,” Warren said, “and that allows it to work.” Drummer and singer-songwriter Carroll, who recently recorded a CD of originals, added, “I’ve met a lot of full-time musicians, and many of them have a sour attitude about the music industry because it’s such a struggle … while all of us are just happy to be playing music and still having a good time.”
The band, named after a cute cartoon character penguin wearing a ski cap, started out playing every area night club imaginable, often until the wee hours, before turning more to festivals and special events. “We continue to build the band as a festival band, and I think we’ve played everything from the Watermelon Festival to Burgers and Brews and the Chili Festival,” Warren said. “I think they named the last one after us,” added Carroll during a recent interview. The band recently slipped into Greg Critchley’s The Sound recording studio and, in just a couple of hours, turned out a promo CD of cover tune snippets that includes songs by Creedance Clearwater (“Born on the Bayou”), the Allman Brothers (“Midnight Rambler”) and the more contemporary Black Keys (“Lonely Boy”).
“Our set lists are all over the place,” Warren said, “and we’re basically a cover band that’s trying to keep things fresh after all of these years. If there are three pretty girls who want to hear “Margaritaville,” we’ll bring them up onstage and let them sing it so everyone has a ball. We’ve always been somewhat blues-based, but we don’t play sad blues; we play up-tempo blues. That appeals to everyone, so when we play a festival or other public event, no one gets hurt.”
CWB has a busy season ahead with bookings that include Bluffton’s Station 300 (“our first bowling alley gig”), private parties and an upcoming spring show at Hilton Head Prep that will find the band sharing the stage with the school orchestra and popular newcomers Cranford Hollow. Warren’s son, Sammy, attends the school and sometimes joins the band on guitar, playing with his dad and Uncle David. “It’s great to still be playing with my brother and now occasionally my son,” Warren said, noting that today’s CWB lineup has remained steady for nearly a decade with fellow mainstays Steve Ryden, Neil Warner and Eric Wammock. And none of them are quitting their day jobs as CWB faces a future of continuing good times playing enjoyable songs for visitors and locals alike.
“The only other band that’s been playing longer than us is The Headliners, and we have great respect for those guys,” Warren said. “They’re still playing everywhere, but that’s their main job.” Warren and Carroll also cited Deas Guyz and the Simpson Brothers as bands that have become “institutions,” playing familiar tunes on the island. The same can surely be said of CWB, which plays without need for technological assistance in an era of increasing tape loops and computer-based sound tricks. “There are a couple of guys who do it well, but we prefer to play everything live,” Warren said, citing the purity of playing with a talented drummer like Carroll instead of relying on beat box accompaniment.
“The venues come and the venues go,” Warren added, “and we’re playing a lot of new venues as well as places like the Big Bamboo that are still going strong. We had a couple of years where we were playing 100 shows a year and up to three gigs in a single day.” But CWB players now prefer a more selective pace that allows more time for family and increased productivity in their day jobs.
“We used to party with the people, but we don’t do the real late-night thing anymore because we all want to go to bed,” Carroll said with a smile. “No one in the band drinks onstage these days; it’s all about the music now, and we’re having more fun than ever.” CWB founder Warren agrees: “This is just a bunch of fun-loving guys playing fun-loving music and I think that still comes through.”