By: Robyn Rubinstein
I'm just not sure if there is "that one and only someone" out there for everyone. Even if there is, with the current world population of just over 6.5 billion, the odds of my perfect someone and me crossing paths are, at best, deeply stacked against me. No matter how often I try to beat the living crap out of my helpless romantic side, that tenacious little bitch is tougher than she looks. Together, we've come to a compromise. If a man ever looks me dead in the eye and says, sober with the utmost sincerity, "If you suck my soul, I will lick your funky emotions" AND I believe him, then that could maybe be my someone. George Clinton hit on something genius when he coined that phrase. Funk music began as an illicit analogy and soundtrack for sex and therein lies its power. Real funk grabs your visceral inner hedonist and brings her out to dance. In my opinion, the litmus test for legitimate funk is its ability to open your soul to full capacity and make you warm below the belt. In the sage words of Alice Russell and TM Juke, "Maybe I'm asking too much, but the best is all I do." What follows is an introductory look at a few funk and soul bands that you may not be familiar with, but the best is all they do. It's music that uses you up, and all you want to do afterwards is smoke a cigarette and pass out.
If Melvin Van Peeble's Sweetback could step out of his 1971 film into 2008, Orgone would be playing his baadasssss song. It's a bold statement to name your band after "universal life energy" but what flows out when this 9-piece L.A. based band takes the stage does fit that description. Comprised of Sergio Rios (guitar), Dan Hastie (Rhodes, Clavinet and Hammond B3), Sean O'Shea (drums), Ethan Phillips (bass), Stewart Killen (percussion), Darren Cardoza (trombone), Devin Williams (trumpet), Joel Bowers (saxophone) and Fanny Franklin (vocals), Orgone delivers an air-tight mix of all of the dirtiest elements of funk and soul with a healthy dollop of disco and Afrobeat.
"We're not scared of disco," says drummer O'Shea before their last gig at the Elbo Room in San Francisco, on a particularly craptacular rainy night in January. "There's been a big retro-soul revival lately but where say, Amy Winehouse or Sharon Jones have a '60s sound, we draw from a different musical palette, more '70s."
O'Shea, keyboardist Hastie and guitarist Rios are a few of the core members of the group, who have been playing together in some form or another for 15 years. Collectively, the band has built a formidable resume, with members also playing in the Breakestra, The Lions and as the backing band for the Pharcyde, Little Brother and Plantlife. "We are all pretty like-minded about our vision and our style," says Rios, "so it makes sense that we would work on different projects together."
For most of that January tour, Orgone was the opening act and the back-up band for veteran indie MC Pharoah Monch. So, if any group has their finger on the pulse of the current state of American funk music it's Orgone.
"Honestly, I think it's [funk music] in a better place than it's been in a long time," says O'Shea. "It's been great to be on tour with a pro like Monch. People who wouldn't expect a hip-hop show to have a live band get a whole new idea of what live hip-hop [can be], and crowds have really loved it. From the beginning we've tried as much as possible to approximate our musical idols - Booker T and the MG's, Roy Ayers, The Meters but to still keep it fresh."
"We have to give a lot of credit to Scion to put a 9-piece band on tour to back an MC, which could theoretically be done with one DJ. [It] shows a lot of vision and faith in what we do. Their support has been fantastic," says Hastie.
As we talked, I was struck by their innate and intelligent sense of each other. Their genuine camaraderie translates into an intuitive playing style that confidently knows it's super bad. Their original compositions are horn, percussion and disco soaked torches that lit up a damp San Francisco citizenry like a gas station fire. Vocalist Fanny Franklin delivered more than enough California soul to make Marlena Shaw proud, especially on "Who Knows Who," an Orgone original that easily sounds like a soul classic. "Hambone" is an undeniably dirty mix of Afrobeat and disco, heavily grounded by a driving bassline, powerful drum work and polished horns that ring of Fela Kuti and Curtis Mayfield. "Sophisticated Honky" is a seasoned funk journey laden with filthy guitar. "It's What You Do" and "A Wot" both sound like they were lifted from the funkiest '70s blaxploitation movies and updated for 2008. Their originals stand strong next to their classic funk covers like "Funky Nassau" (The Beginning of the End), "Ain't No Use" (The Meters) and "Tell Mama" (Etta James likely by way of Janis Joplin).
Orgone is touring the West Coast now, dates available here...
Where Orgone tears you to pieces, leaving you in a spent heap, the electro funk trio Honeycut woos you beforehand and cuddles with you afterwards. The trio of RV Salters (keys), Tony Sevener (MPC drum machine) and Bart Davenport (vocals) are not necessarily new news around the S.F. Bay Area, but they tend to be categorized as an all-electro studio effort. This is absolutely a band whose live performances showcase the mountains of talent and potential that studio work simply can't capture.
"Our first album was done a lot like a hip-hop album, all produced in the lab," says Salters over the phone from L.A. while on break from mixing the new record for his other project, General Eletriks. "[Honeycut] really only became a band after we started playing live shows. Once we all get back to the Bay we're going to start work on our second album and try to incorporate some of the live element that we've developed over the last year and half."
"The thing about us is onstage we actually play everything, even though we incorporate electronic sonics everything is played [live]. Tony plays the MPC live. He's drumming, really [but] instead of a drum kit he's playing a sampling drum machine. No loops, no sequencers, he's just playing it with his fingers," continues Salters. "It allows us to have the sonics but still the live element. We're all locking into a pocket that particular night with that particular audience and it's never the same twice. I think that differentiates us from other bands that use electronic sonics onstage and usually end up using sequencers for that stuff."
Honeycut is a precisely mixed recipe of electro, funk and soul, and their live performances bring something for every dance junkie. Joined by bassist Leo Krenner, their March 7 show at the Great American Music Hall was no exception. Their combination of organic and electronic elements is a near perfect balance, and it creates a slice of new soul that is just as seductive as older models but way more fun. Salter's manipulation of his vintage Clavinet is as impressive and vigorous as his simultaneous dance moves. Davenport's voice is indeed "Silky," the one slow ballad of their set, after which Davenport declared that the down-tempo was over. "Crowded Avenue" has the slightest hint of 1974 Robert Palmer singing "Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley" - fun, funky and addictive. Their covers of Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" and Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23" are dance gems, illustrating their modern take on what has come before. The only disappointing thing about their set was its short length.
The fact is that everything has already been done before, a fact that spitfire British soul singer Alice Russell is well aware of.
"All music is such a mish-mash of all sorts. If you look at the history of any music it's all just an amalgamation of what's come before. Everything has come before, and that's actually what I'm doing and I hope it's a bit of everything," says Russell. "I'm taking all the music I love, from the totally deep, deep thick old school like James Brown, Minnie Ripperton, gospel and black-style music to the modern artists I love like Kate Bush, Paul Simon Prince, etc. I want to have a bit of all of them in there. And it makes sense to have them all in there. I hate it when people get all picky, like, 'You should only have this style of music or that style' Why? Why would you want to go through life eating only plain pasta with butter on it? Why can't you have all the flavors? It makes more sense to be a person that lives in the world that is for everything and everyone, especially with music and food. Maybe not sex, though, since that could cause bad vibes and diseases and I've got a boyfriend that I love."
That fact might severely depress a large contingent of her fans. She sold out the first of her two mid-week shows when she came to Mojito in S.F. last March. The majority of the Monday night crowd looked like love struck hipster and funk 45 crate-diggers, awed at the sight and sound of an adorable, pint-sized blond woman with an enormous soul diva voice and zero diva attitude. Her sound draws from an incredible range, from jazz crooning and scatting to the gully, gritty and skin tingling. Russell exudes pure vocal power wrapped in sass and fun. Her voice lies somewhere between Sharon Jones and Nina Simone.
Budget restrictions prevented her from bringing the complete powerhouse U.K. band, The Pups. However, she was able to bring guitarist/producer/co-songwriter TM Juke (aka Alex Cowan) and violinist/guitarist Michael Simmonds, both key contributors to her signature sound. They supplemented the band with local players Josh Lippi (bass) and Derek Taylor (drums), who had to learn the material at soundcheck for each show.
"Humankind" is a reggae-tinged romp that plainly states, "If we go your way or you come to mine/ Come lets create a new humankind/ Can you tug my hair and slap my behind/ I'm a whole lot of woman and I want to recline." Her version of Donny Hathaway's "I Love You More than You'll Ever Know" was heart-melting, as was her slow original "Hurry On Now," which contrasted with her darkly funky cover of The White Stripes' "Seven-Nation Army," where her belting voice and Simmonds' wailing violin made an electric combination. I'd always envisioned that my dream someone charming me with George Clinton's sweet promises would be male but Alice Russell is so drenched in sensuality that if she made me that offer, I'd have to give some serious consideration to switching teams.
If your old brand of funk isn't getting it done like it needs to get done, well, then it's time upgrade. There are brave new worlds of funk and soul music to fall in love with, or at least one-night stands that will not disappoint.
Alice Russell - Seven Nation Army (Live in Paris)
JamBase | One Nation Under A Groove
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