"When I was younger I used to rock 'n' roll all day and party every night. Now I'm lucky to find an hour a week in which to get funky." --Homer Simpson
What do you do if you are a New Orleans musician who isn't gigging on a Sunday nights after the Simpsons? If you're organist John Gros, you gather together other musicians in the same situation for a series of jams at an out-of-the-way juke joint across the Mississippi River in Algiers called Old Point Bar. On a Sunday night, it's amazing who you can recruit. Gros was able to call upon some of NOLA's finest to round out the jams: Russell Batiste, Jr. (funky Meters, Vida Blue) on drums, June Yamagishi (Wild Magnolias) on guitar, Jason Mingledorff (formerly Galactic) on saxophones, and rotating bass players Marc Pero (formerly Func Haus) and Peter V (formerly Cyril Neville). What began as a jam sparked such a creative energy among the musicians that they decided to form a band--Papa Grows Funk.
This powerhouse came together almost four years ago for fun, and has steadily grown along the way. Their weekly gig moved across the river to the Maple Leaf and the band began touring the country in bursts. Two studio albums (Shakin' and Doin' It) later, countless hours logged in the van and on stage, and relentless word-of-mouth praise have garnered the band a growing fan base and much critical acclaim, including being named Offbeat magazine's "Best Funk Band" in 2002 and 2003. And they still have fun--an outlook which is very contagious.
Last Friday night I had a chance to catch up with John Gros over a cup of coffee before that night's gig at Chelsea's. The band had just returned from an East Coast swing through New York City (Bowery Ballroom), Boston (Harpers Ferry), Baltimore (The Funk Box (8 x 10 Club)), and West Port, CT (Conte's), where the crowds have been steadily growing. When I asked John what type of material they had been playing, he explained, "Year one, we played mostly covers--the Meters and that type of stuff. Years two and three crowds began to get familiar with our stuff. The crowds began to accept something from New Orleans that's not the Meters, or The Radiators, or Galactic. Those are already great bands--why would we want to recreate what they do?" In a world where the lines between appreciation and imitation are blurred, Gros explains the heredity of PGF as "a fusing of the New Orleans rhythms, the sophistication of 1970s electric jazz, and the rawness of 1960s soul and blues... it is incorporated into everything we do. We've made it our own."
If you've never been to Chelsea's, let me explain something. It is a bit of New Orleans an hour up river--very friendly, great food, pretty small, and not much pomp. This is the kind of joint that gets hot and sweaty as the night slips on. The band took the stage to whoops and hollers of the appreciative crowd. (We were lucky--a "big name college band" was playing down the street, removing anyone who would be there for "the scene" and talk through the show.) The band got situated as Gros announced, "We promise that we will get you all stinky by the end of the night"--a promise they kept. The band jumped feet first into funk with a version of The Nightlighters' "Afro Strut," followed by "Dolemite Returns." The band shone through "Slinky Snake," an instrumental that reinforced Gros' comments about the sophistication of the band. This jam has at least three distinct breakdowns that flow like a smooth, melodic walk that slams into a brick wall as Peter V's bass slaps and pops, bringing the melody back around. Next, Gros belted out the vocals of "Rat a Tang Tang" as the band sat deep in the pocket behind him. "Mutha Funk Ya'll" followed, which shows the power of the band as a collective unit. Everyone was in the right place at the right time--Mingledorff and Yamagishi traded solos like pros, each backing and accenting the other's powerful runs, while the vocal harmonies of the simple chorus had the crowd singing along. Not slowing much, the band tore into "Pass It," with Batiste's drumming driving the groove. Earlier in the evening, Gros and I had a conversation about the idea of "church" and the B-3 organ, in which he claimed not to know what I was talking about. During the song, as the band quieted and allowed the organ to swell and grow and reach out, caressing smiles from the rapt faces of the crowd, I looked at Gros and mouthed a single word--"Church."
He smiled back, obviously pleased, and maybe a bit closer to understanding what I meant. After a screaming crescendo, the band invited Don Gros, John's father and a local musician himself, to join the band. Stan Campbell, a member of Don's band, joined in on guitar as "the original Papa Gros" lead the band through a medley of "Aiko Aiko" > "Rockin' Pneumonia" > "Don't You Just Know It" > "Come On (Let Me Show You Where It's At)" > "Rockin' Pneumonia." Father and son smiled at one another as the band allowed the elder Gros to put them through the paces--and it sounded damned good! Not to go unnoticed in his hometown, Campbell led the band through an improvisational funk romp that ended the first set.
Don and John Gros
With most of the crowd refreshed by the exodus outside to cool off, the band took the stage for the second set with Marc Pero on bass. Understand that the band has two bass players, but rarely do they both play on the same night--this was a treat indeed. Pero guided the band into "Fish-eyed Fool," showcasing his slapping style that fits so well with Batiste's syncopation. Gros grabbed the reins vocally for a rousing version of "If I." The piece that followed was a highlight for me. "Yakiniku" segued effortlessly into the Professor Longhair classic "Tipitina," during which the band dropped out and let Gros take the crowd down old dusty roads on a solo piano before dropping back in with a roar to finish the "Yakiniku" sandwich. "Once Again It's On," a new song that the band has been trying out on the road, came next. Forged somewhere between "heavy metal" and "horns," this tune left the guy next to me grinning and shaking his head as he turned to me and asked, "What the hell was that?" The band went back to well-wrought funk with fine version of "Fire in the Garage," then showcased another new tune, a plaintive song called "Black Rider." They then picked up the pace without missing a beat and jammed into "Doin' It," a tune with a distinctively New Orleans feel. As a reminder of where we were and the impending Mardi Gras season, the band closed out the second set with a joyous romp though the classic "Carnival Time." Wasting little time and with little fanfare, the band sent the crowd home with the clavinet-heavy rhythms of "Big Wind." We shuffled off into the cool night air, sore and satisfied... and in need of a shower.
Rat a Tang Tang
Mutha Funk Ya’ll
Aiko Aiko >
Rockin’ Pneumonia >
Don’t You Just Know It >
Come On (Let Me Show You Where It’s At) >
Once Again It’s On
Fire in the Garage
Black Rider >
Doin’ It >
E: Big Wind
Words and Images by: Jeffrey Dupuis
JamBase | New Orleans
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