Leo Nocentelli Band vs Mandrill Saturday May 19, 2001
Justice League | San Francisco

"Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, tonight the Justice League and SF's own Sunset Promotions bring you a battle for the ages. Call it the Rumble in the Jungle, the Hoedown Showdown, the Fray by the Bay, the Clash that'll rock your ass... Presenting: the first ever World Heavyweight Championship of Funk!

"In the Blue Corner, weighing in with Bruce Dunams on bass, Ron Jacquard on drums, Albert Margolis on keys, and the undisputed master of the swamp funk boogie guitar Leo Nocentelli, we have The Leo Nocentelli Band!

"And in the Red Corner, weighing in with a massive nine piece funk mob led by the unshakable power of the brothers Wilson, Ric, Lou, Carlos, and Wilfredo, returning the stage in San Francisco for the first time in over 25 years, we bring you the one, the only, the legendary Mandrill!"

(Now gentlemen, listen up. We expect a dirty fight, nothing but gutbucket funk, raunchy, mindmelting hooks, and straight up boogaloo soul. So swing low and swing heavy, and keep it below the bass line.)

After DJ Motion Potion warmed up the crowd with some expert mixing of rare groove and roots funk (the Meters into Dr. John into Funkadelic-now that's the kind of DJ set I wanna hear), the room was ready for this monstrous double bill. Leo and his band took the stage and immediately launched some absolutely blistering freeform funk fireworks. This music may have been born in N'awleans, but as it's grown up, it's definitely wandered far from home, picking up elements of psychedelic blues, free jazz and hard rock. Having penned most of the Meters funkiest numbers, including "I Just Kissed My Baby," "Hey Pocky Way," and the untouchable "Cissy Strut," Leo is a certified legend. But this wasn't just your typical chicca-chicca wah-wah old school funk strumming--tonight the man refused to be pigeonholed into a single style, rhythm, or tone. His second tune again started off by straying way out, into the psychedelic soul of a "Maggot Brain"-style solo, before plummeting back down to earth and igniting a raging "Fire on the Bayou."

Anybody fortunate enough to attend the Meters reunion in November of last year knows that Leo's scorching riffs fan the flames of this old number, and tonight he rekindled it with intensified fury. Jacquard's bouncing, liquid bass lines fell like heavy drops of rain against Dunam's perfectly syncopated tin roof drum work, while Albert Margolis conducted a one-man choir on his Hammond, floating on top of the groove and occasionally diving deep into it to add flourishes and harmonies. The band did a fantastic job of keeping up with Leo's meteoric guitar, always accentuating but never overshadowing the man on center stage. I had a hard time believing that this band, with its staggering energy, killer song selection, and undeniable chops, was truly the opener.

Although from talking to Leo before the show I knew there was going to be a secret weapon pulled from the arsenal tonight, I still wasn't prepared for the bomb he dropped on the already funk-frenzied crowd. "It's a very special night," Leo told the audience, "Tonight we're doing it for the fans." And with that brief introduction, from backstage walks the undisputed King of the Funky Drums and member of the original Meters, Zigaboo Modeliste. Their rendition of "People Say," with both Leo and Zig on vocals, was the Funk with a capital F, the real deal taken from 30-some years back and reborn with brand new vitality by a fresh band working with funk's founding fathers. Watching the crowd chant the chorus with hands in the air and asses in motion, it was clear that everyone felt the vibe blow up exponentially when Zig and Leo rocked it together.

People, if you get all worked up over Galactic and their derivative brand of N'awleans groove, please do yourselves a favor and study up on these two heroes, Leo and Zig, because they were patenting the genre while the boys in Galactic were still second chair in their junior high marching band. These two together add up to close to 100 years of pure, body rocking, Mardi Gras-parading, up-til-sunrise-jamming Cajun fried funk. Their age adds a proud pedigree to their playing, as well as a depth of soul and magnetic presence, that elevates them beyond most of the younger players on the scene today. No nostalgic throwbacks or quaint old-timers, these two proceeded to kick out one of the fiercest funk jams I've ever witnessed. Zig's drumming is totally original and beyond compare, strangely syncopated but keenly in time, forcing some wild flailing dance moves from the joyously shocked audience. It was a good thing Zig sat in for only a single song, because the hysterical energy he and Leo inspired from the crowd might have caused a coronary or two if he stayed on too long.

That energy subsided only slightly after he left the stage, and the band finished with a second Leo-led, raging freeform funk jam that segued into the closer, another Leo original and ultimate crowd pleaser, "Hey Pocky Way." Everyone sang along at all the cues, smiles threatened to push ears onto the backs of heads, and as Leo thanked the crowd and left the stage, we realized that we were the ones that just took the funky beatdown during round one of this prize fight.

Mysteriously, the funky beats of DJ Motion Potion fused with heavy jungle percussion coming from somewhere unknown, and suddenly Mandrill emerged from backstage in procession, following a huge banner emblazoned with their primate mascot. The band streamed through the crowd, hidden behind monkey masks, grooving with a tribal beat on hand-held percussion instruments. As their parade took to the stage, the pounding got louder and more intense, until they reached a climax and exploded onto their instruments. Holy shit, this is a nine-piece band, sporting a full horn section and four-part vocal harmonies. Put down your drinks and lace up your shoes--it's gonna be a brutal battle to the funky finish...

For those who don't know, Mandrill was one of the pioneering funk collectives of the early- to mid-seventies. Featuring the four brothers Wilson, along with a cast of virtuoso players and charismatic characters, Mandrill reigned as funk's earliest concept band for several years. Back in the day, it was Parliament opening for these guys, and there's no doubt they've influenced the succeeding generations of funky disciples. Spicing their sound with smooth, Afro-Latin rhythms and horn parts, their heavy brand of anthemic funk is emotionally uplifting and extremely danceable. After a 25-year hiatus, the band has regrouped under the brothers' leadership, touring with several new players but harkening back to their massive 70's sound. After meeting Ric backstage during set break, I could tell the band was thrilled to be performing again, and the positive vibes flowed into their upbeat, infectious music.

Mandrill started their set with one of the all-time greatest funk anthems, "Ape is High," rocking out in incredibly sharp form for a band that hasn't been playing much recently. Already the energy level was so high that it carried into a kicking drum solo right after the first song. The band then moved into a ballad called "Starry Eyes," a mellow, relaxing groove that you don't often get from most live bands looking only to rock the crowd. The brothers' four-part harmonies in this slow number shined with tender soul, and had all the couples in the room looking wistfully into each other's eyes. Another rarity was not one, but two successive violin solos during this tune, one surprisingly more soulful than the next. Just about every player on stage was a multi-instrumentalists; it was two of the horn men that put down their brass and to pick up the strings. And each of the Wilson brothers took turns on percussion, guitar, and different horns. These guys are all incredibly talented players, and I got the impression that it was the decades of devotion to the music that created the air of confidence and elder-statesmanship that Mandrill exuded onstage.

Another highlight of the hour and a half long set was the salsa/calypso flavors of "Cohelo" and "Mango Meat," during which Carlos Wilson blew some gorgeous, funky flute on top of polyrhythmic percussion and a chanted chorus. There were times when it seemed the crowd was either too floored by the incredible musicianship onstage or too tired from endless grooving all night, because it seemed as if these older fellas on stage were outlasting the audience. With nine members onstage, the band's collective energy never waned; after three hours of nonstop boogie, at 1:30 am Ric stepped up to ask the crowd, "Y'all ready for some funky shit?" as if we'd been lacking for it all night.

After the crowd's thunderous reaction to the final song, another high-powered funk anthem called "Fencewalk," the band came back for an encore, giving the crowd one more kick in the ass and shaking loose whatever funk was left in our bones. By the end of the night, the band was just as elated as the crowd, and major props were coming from all directions.

Round Two was just as wicked as the first. Both bands had stood their ground and put up ferocious attacks, but the Federal Funk Commission's decision was a unanimous: this championship between Leo and Mandrill was a flat-out draw, and the real winners were those intrepid funkateers who braved the musical madness to get crazy all night long with two of the most practiced outfits working the funk circuit today. The championship is still up for grabs, so we'll see you at the next bout...

Special thanks to John Miles of Sunset Promotions and DJ Motion Potion for making this epic battle come together flawlessly.

Jonathan Zwickel
JamBase San Francisco Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 5/25/01]

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