Dragon Smoke | 02.26.09 | Santa Cruz

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Dragon Smoke :: 02.26.09 :: Moe's Alley :: Santa Cruz, CA

Ivan Neville - Dragon Smoke :: 02.26 :: Santa Cruz, CA
Wet, nasty Hammond B-3 spilled into the night air as I walked up to the bouncing new times juke joint that is Moe's Alley. A Thursday night and things were jumpin' with a line stretching from the front door and cool, stanky energy permeating the air. Over the years, this venue has become a happy crucible for working musicians, the cats and kittens that play music the way most of us punch a time card. From the owners to the staff to the clientele, folks REALLY love music at Moe's and you probably couldn't find a more ideal merger of venue and artist than Dragon Smoke, a high powered New Orleans aggregate that's met annually during Jazz Fest at One Eyed Jacks since 2003 but began a new annual pilgrimage to Northern California in 2005. More than straight funk (which they surely served up), Dragon Smoke is about soul music in its many-faceted variety – from inhibition softening slow numbers to blazing shack Bayou fare to Clintonian Chocolate City numbers. Their diverse influences, supreme confidence and stellar chops offered us a playful, well-maneuvered cross-section of where funk and soul have traveled since Ray Charles, Professor Longhair and Motown began to spread regional offerings onto the national scene.

While Dragon Smoke's lineup has shifted in the past, the current quartet - Ivan Neville (keys, vocals), Eric Lindell (guitar, vocals) and Galactic's Stanton Moore (drums) and Robert Mercurio (bass) – has gelled over the past couple years, and it showed at Moe's. "This is supposed to be a fun band for us," quipped Neville during the first set, and the syncopated pleasure of their union showed in their eyes and limbs and spread readily to the audience. While this could be a showcase for jam vehicles full of wicked solos, they seemed more interested in cohesion, playing to songs rather than riffs and showing enjoyable restraint when each took the spotlight. I'm as big a fan of a good groovy cutting contest as the next funkateer but I'm more impressed when four salty dogs like this harness their super powers for music with slightly less slop. Their previous gigging has produced a small but tasty catalog with a few originals (I think) and primo covers such as Dyke & The Blazers' "Let A Woman Be A Woman, Let A Man Be A Man," Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round In Circles" and James "Sugar Boy" Crawford's beloved Mardi Gras fave "Iko Iko" (originally titled "Jock-A-Mo" for you trivia buffs). Regardless of the platform, what's obvious is how much they dig these occasional gatherings, a fact that hummed in every note, stage glance and even between sets as the quartet warmly chatted with anyone who extended a hand.

7 Come 11 :: 02.26 :: Santa Cruz, CA
The evening got a fine kick start from Santa Cruz locals 7 Come 11, a classic '60s organ trio who've imbibed modern groove music and a little of "that Scofield thing," as observed by our lens person Sue Weiand. It was the slow crying of keyboardist Gianni Staiano's Hammond that drew me into the room and the meth-a-nized heartbeat flutter of drummer Kris DiNoto and sushi chef incisiveness of guitarist Mark Van Ness that had me waving off friends in order to focus on their opening set. A fine mix of roadhouse ready and '70s electric jazz wow, they played with engaged strength and broad dynamics, moving from whisper low to explosive outbursts in a smooth way. Some numbers recalled Brother Jack McDuff at his rugged '60s best, while others showed a strong awareness of Medeski Martin & Wood, though the resemblance was more in mood than anything outright copied. This configuration of instruments is sort of modern-sacred, a trinity capable of tremendous things in the right hands, and while obviously still a new band, 7 Come 11 has real flair and facility with what they're working with, enough so to nail both the more classic sounding material and a pulsing cover of Zep's "Kashmir."

Fresh off the plane from NOLA, Dragon Smoke were nicely roughed up, too woozy to over-think anything, so the music flowed like a broken garden faucet from the first notes – a beautiful sensation to just stand in front of and let get all over you. Soul music is all about engagement – with one's emotions, with one another, with the world at large. Long before Chuck D called hip-hop "the Black CNN," soul music was connecting hearts and minds over something you can dance to, and you often know it's working well when bodies are in motion. The seething, whooping mass tucked shoulder-to-shoulder in Moe's Alley offered grinning enthusiasm from the start, with most sticking around even after a lengthy set break for a second helping.

Stanton Moore - Dragon Smoke :: 02.26 :: Santa Cruz, CA
One felt pleasantly groped by Mercurio's bass, which left the skin tingling with a slight fever, sweat drenched and full of heat left behind by his playing. This contrasted well with Moore's crisp, conversational percussion, which carried the backbeat enormously well but also found its way into all kinds of places. When I closed my eyes and tuned into Moore, I found myself thinking of Rossini's thieving magpie as he flitted and touched on different branches, light as air but presence always felt nonetheless. Lindell is a monster cutter that makes each string strike count, going bone deep where others settle for surfaces, and he's got a fantastic crooner's voice. If he ever stumbles across a "Tell It Like Is" or "Dark End of the Street" he could find his way into ladies boudoirs from here to Timbuktu. Doubt me? Well, you should have seen the faces of the women in attendance as he sang, "Oh sweet, sweet, sweet baby girl/ sweetest girl in all the world," over a JGB-esque melody that just brightened the night. Which leaves Mr. Ivan Neville, who once again proved himself a smiling, elemental force, pulling the most natural, inspiring sounds from his keys and singing with roughhewn mastery, the sort of voice radio loved in the '50s and '60s but doesn't have enough spine for anymore. The sheer love of playing always resonates loudly from Ivan, and it infects and pokes and stirs the folks onstage with him. What gets me, as it did this evening, is how he can be downright mean one second and the nicest cat in the mix the next. His range reflects the full spectrum of human feelings, and in this way helps us tap into our emotions in a really profound way. Oh, while your clapping hands and shouting about your grandma you may not be thinking, "Damn, Ivan is hitting me where I live," but step back for a sec and it'll probably hit you.

A celebratory feeling hung over this show, and it wasn't just residual Fat Tuesday energy either. While working my ass in a twisty salute to Chubby Checker, I had a sudden, painful flash of the many Americans sitting at home and stewing, upset about who won the presidency last November, pissed off about their job (or lack thereof), fuming at Wall Street, the shoddy treatment of our citizenry by its government in the past decade or so (Katrina is never far from one's thoughts when New Orleans comes to town) or maybe just how they aren't ever going to be rock stars or celebrities even if they swap a wife or blow Bret Michaels on a tour bus. I thought, "Why so mad? Why so sad? Why not dance? Why not sing?" The thought was a random one but somehow triggered by the joyousness of Dragon Smoke. Disappointment and defeat are easier options than singing the body electric and joining in. We value our privacy so much that we've lost track of our neighbors, especially the ones we regard as different or dumb or lacking in some way. Gatherings like this one help nudge us ever so slightly closer together. It is one of the virtues of New Orleans music and the people who make it, and I hope Dragon Smoke knows they did some greater good than just a night on the town in Santa Cruz.

Continue reading for more pics of Dragon Smoke in Santa Cruz...

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