By Tim McCoy
It was a wet, warm summer night at Parkway Brewing Company. One of those nights when the rain was driving sideways and the roll up doors had to be closed to keep the place and everyone in it dry. But no one inside was worried about the rain as local jam band Mad Iguanas drove the packed house to a frenzy with a scorching cover of “Fire on the Mountain.”
It’s in between the Grateful Dead covers and a mix of original jams, where the Mad Iguanas have developed a reputation as a highly funky and fun jam band that consistently delivers a good time. Currently, the band’s line up consists of Foster Burton on rhythm guitar and vocals, his brother Daniel on bass and backing vocals, Henry Lazenby on lead guitar, and Charlie Wimmer on drums. The Iguana’s lead singer Foster has a style to him reminiscent of the late Garcia. A jolly fellow with a wide smile, who you instantly know you want to share a beer with. I did just that awhile back to discuss the origins of the Mad Iguanas and the future of the band.
Foster laughed often as he described the band as giddy kids who are filled with anticipation of playing their upcoming shows. “Sometimes when you’re around four guys all the time, it can feel like hanging out with three ex-girlfriends. But when the music starts, we’re high fiving and hugging each other. I love playing and creating. I am doing this for the fun. If it stops being a joy, I’ll stop. I can sit right here and play.”
A few songs into any Iguanas set, it’s instantly evident that having fun is what this band is meant to do. The Mad Iguanas play all over the valley, with a loyal following of friends and fellow Dead fans. It is the joy they bring to playing that Burton credits with their popularity, plus a long history of playing music with his brother.
“Daniel and I have been playing together since we were old enough to keep two guitars in tune,” Burton laughed. “We were never much good at it, but we loved to play.”
The Iguanas originally formed in early 2009 when Foster was asked to play between bands at the “Happiness & Harmony Festival.” He recruited Daniel to play bass, and Charlie Wimmer to play drums. Then, in February 2009 they had their first practice.
“It was pitiful, but we thought it was the best thing ever. Daniel and I just came alive.”
Their first show followed in May at AllSports in Salem, a venue they still play regularly, and a few days later they played the Happiness & Harmony Festival.
“It just continued from there. We’ve had multiple lineups, but Henry has been the only guitar player, and he has done nothing but add to the band. He has our style down. Daniel and I have a telepathic connection, and Henry fits right in. He knows where I’m going, even if I throw him a curveball, because he even knows every one of my curveballs.”
In fact, it’s local guitar player Henry Lazenby and another fellow musician and friend, Brian Gray, that Foster recognizes as the most influential on his musical knowledge. “Those two are the standard. They’ve taught me how to conduct myself, how to play like a professional. I would not be the player I am today without them. They teach me and they keep me on course.”
These days the biggest challenge that the band faces is staying on course with practices. It can often be daunting as many of the band members play in other bands. Burton fronts the band GOTE, and plays with The Dead Reckoning, Lazenby is a leader in the local band GroovaScape and also plays with blues band Smokestack Lightnin’ Blues Band, and Daniel has a solo shows that keeps him busy.
“We tend to have one practice per show, but the better we get, the less practice we need. We all have families now, but the music is getting better as life happens. That’s what keeps us stoked.”
When it comes to songwriting, it’s essentially Foster with a notebook, coffee, and guitar as he works to puts himself into other’s shoes, and paints that picture.
“My best stuff comes in a flash, then I can’t write it fast enough.” Daniel writes about twenty percent of Mad Iguanas’ tunes, and they are all very distinct from the songs that Foster writes. “If you sit in with us, you’ll recognize that we have three types of songs: covers, Foster songs, and Daniel songs. Daniel’s are completely abstract.”
Switching from the topic of the band, I asked Foster his thoughts on the local music scene, of which he is optimistic. “Roanoke is diverse. It is not as rough as Richmond, and not as country as Raleigh. Jason [of Martin’s Downtown], throws a lot of bands a lot of bones, and it doesn’t always come back to him. Yet, he keeps putting it out there.”
He also repeated an opinion that we at Blue Ridge Rock have witnessed, “Billy’s Barn is one of the most underrated rooms in the valley. You can fit so many people in that place. Bands and fans love it. You just gotta get them out there.” It’s a spot that Foster likes to play with all of his bands, especially GOTE who has a regular Thursday gig.
The origin of the band name is a tale of its own. It came to Burton when he was twelve, as a result of a mishearing of the Peter Tosh song lyrics to the 1976 “Legalize it”. Foster heard a phrase as “Mad Iguana, mad iguana, mad iguana”, and told his friend Jason Neighbors, “that’s gonna be the name of my first band.” It’s a story that you should hear directly from Foster the next time you get out to hear them play. You can find him and the band playing a Halloween show on October 29 at Awful Arthur’s Salem. In the meantime, learn more about them online and listen to a few of their songs on the Blue Ridge Rocks Playlist.