With founding members that are a vital part of the New Orleans Jazz Festival late night scene and jazz-fusion world, a Greyboy Allstars performance during the annual event would seem obvious. Thanks to band loyalty and individual desires for autonomy, however, that show has eluded fans since a rowdy Howlin' Wolf show in 1999. This year, fans of the funk have reason to rejoice: the band is back and its performance at the Saenger Theatre Saturday May 1 is a highlight of the late night grids.
Keyboardist Robert Walter explained in a recent interview that drummer Zak Najor's decision to go to ministry school and stay off the road pretty much sealed the band's fate nearly five years ago. After a single tour with a replacement drummer--Cal Evans, who later joined Soulive--Walter said the band could tell "the chemistry just wasn't the same" and that they needed to take a break. "We all said we won't do it unless it's the five of us," he elaborated. And for years, it just didn't happen. Now Najor is again willing and able to work with the band so its members are taking advantage of the opportunity with open arms.
"Everyone's been missing it," Walter said. "We all have established our autonomy from the band, which is part of why everyone wanted to do different things in the first place. We were playing so much it was like our whole life was wrapped up in the band. I think everybody feels independent enough now where they can appreciate the band for what it is." It's a somewhat ironic turn of events considering the band was originally only supposed to perform a single show.
The keyboardist explained that it was DJ Greyboy who put the band together so they could play a record release party for his album Freestylin'. "It was all of us playing versions of his tunes off that record," Walter said. "There was a chemistry right from the beginning, though, so we just kinda kept doing it." He said they went on to write their own music and eventually everything just "picked up on its own." The Greyboy Allstars' popularity was also propelled "by things other than the music," Walter explained. "DJ Greyboy at the time was really popular, especially in Europe and then Karl Denson's affiliation with Lenny Kravitz didn't hurt... There is nothing that comes out of a vacuum," he admitted.
The keyboardist pointed out that the band's unique, acid jazz, funk and soul sound is the sum of several different individual influences. According to Walter, bassist Chris Stillwell and himself "probably have the most reverence for the old style stuff." The two spend time investigating old funk and soul records and are "trying to be conscious of the history of it all." Walter said Najor and "crazy" guitarist Elgin Park "push the music forward in a lot of ways," while saxophonist Denson is "kind of like a father figure" to the others. "In a lot of ways he is a little more of an accomplished musician and has been playing longer than any of us, especially at the beginning," Walter said of Denson. "He knew a lot more about playing music than we did so we learned from him in that way."
During the years the band was splintered, both Walter and Denson grew their solo projects into widely popular touring acts. At the same time, the live music scene grew and evolved as well, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Walter. "It's crazy because there are so many bands now that are trying to do this sort of thing. When we first started there was nobody around," he said. "Now it's worked into this whole other thing, this sort of hippy-jam thing which wasn't anything we even knew about when we started. We came more out of a club kinda thing and the DJ scene and just sort of found ourselves playing in front of kids that were into Phish and the Grateful Dead just because those kids are into live music and want to go see bands improvise and stuff," he explained. "None of us were very knowledgeable about that whole scene. And, now, it's all kind of one and the same. I don't think musically that we have that much in common with those types of bands other than we improvise."
Greyboy Allstars by Tony Stack
The keyboardist has also noticed an "interesting" change in the fans who come to see them perform. "There are a lot of people who come now because they remember it from back in the day. For them it represents some sort of nostalgia," he pointed out. "But then, there are a lot of young kids at the shows who had never come to see us in the day because they were too young to get in or their big brother was into the band or something like that." A unique phenomenon has resulted. "These little kids come out who I know were not around in the day yet they know the music, even the rare songs we never recorded. It's cool," Walter said.
Walter is especially excited to be playing a Greyboy Allstars show during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. "That is my favorite thing in the world. It's like my Christmas, a real special thing for me," he said. The fact that "everybody you know from the road is in the same place for a week" and that being in New Orleans "with its history" really gets Walter in the mood for music. "I don't know, I just feel like playing music there. It gets me excited. You walk down the street and it's a music thing all day," he said. As far as getting together with friends on stage during the New Orleans show, Walter explained that time will have to tell. He added, however, "there will be a lot of people in town so hopefully something interesting will happen. It usually does at Jazz Fest." He doesn't like the idea of billing the show as a reunion, however. "Calling it a reunion at this point is kinda silly. We ARE united. We ARE working," he explained.
In addition to a love of Jazz Fest and New Orleans in general, Walter and his band mates "think it will be cool" for the Greyboy Allstars to play there again because they haven't been able to play many parts of the country since getting back together "so hopefully a lot of people get to see us down there." He pointed out, however, that the band hopes to do a tour across the country in the summer.
As well as the Greyboy Allstars gig, Walter will also be playing with the 20th Congress uptown at the Maple Leaf twice during Jazz Fest. "That's the greatest place, you know. It's my favorite venue in the States. It's got a lot of vibe in there," he said. "The sound system is always shady, it's not comfortable, and it's hot, but it has just got a great vibe for music. Against all odds it's just a great place to play music." The keyboardist will also perform at Tipitina's French Quarter as part of the 264 Keys event, which also features Ivan Neville, John Gros, Stanton Moore, and Kirk Joseph. Denson plays the fairgrounds and a late-night House of Blues show.
Following their Jazz Fest appearance, the band will play only four more times until they tour in the summer. In the meantime, band member solo projects Robert Walter's 20th Congress and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe will continue their relentless tour schedules while Elgin Park will continue his work on film scores and other music projects. Stillwell, however, "likes to stay home whenever possible," according to Walter. The group also hopes to get into the studio to record a new studio disc soon. "I feel like the band has never recorded the way it could," Walter said. "We have never really made the record we all want to make. So, hopefully this time we'll nail it."
Walter's and Denson's high energy performing style together on one stage in the beautiful Saenger Theater on a Saturday night during Jazz Fest's eventful second weekend can only equate to another memorable performance from the world's "ultimate groove band."
JAZZFEST SHOWS FOR GREYBOY ALLSTARS & BAND MEMBERS:
5.1 | New Orleans, LA | Saenger Theatre
KARL DENSON'S TINY UNIVERSE
4.29 | New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues | Sunrise Show
4.30 | New Orleans, LA @ JazzFest | Fair Grounds
ROBERT WALTER'S 20TH CONGRESS
5.1 | New Orleans, LA @ Maple Leaf | LATE NIGHT, The Duo opens
264 KEYS (w/ Robert Walter, Ivan Neville, John Gros, Stanton Moore and Kirk Joseph)
4.30 | New Orleans, LA @ Tipitina's French Quarter | LATE NIGHT
JamBase | New Orleans
Go See Live Music!