By Mike Powers
Robert Walter's 20th Congress continues to serve up vibrant dishes of funk, jazz and soul to fill the appetites of hungry music fans everywhere. The former Greyboy Allstar keyboardist and his team of skilled musicians, Cochemea Gastelum (sax & flute), George Sluppick (drums), Chuck Prada (percussion) and fellow Greyboy alum Chris Stillwell (bass), have managed to propel crowds into the night from coast to coast. This month finds Robert Walter joining forces with Mike Clark, Charlie Hunter, DJ Logic and Skerik on Mike Clark’s Prescription Renewal Tour. Robert Walter is no stranger to performing with talented artists. His journey on the keys has seen him groove along with the likes of Fred Wesley, Stanton Moore, Melvin Sparks and many other legends. Recently, San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall held host to a sold out 20th Congress throw-down. Before the gig, Robert Walter sat down and offered some insight on his musical past, present and future.
Powers: The 20th Congress just played over the Golden Gate up in Mill Valley last night at Sweetwater. It must be relaxing not having a major travel day after the show.
Walter: Yes! Right before that we drove about 20 hours straight from Vail. It was nice to only have to cross the bridge today and not have much to do.
Powers: You guys sure seem to be road warriors. Do you ever get tired of the constant touring?
Walter: I’m a little tired of traveling at the moment and I have a lot more to do right after this... I don’t really stop. I like it once we get to the gig, but when I’m home for a while I usually miss the travel. It’s cool. I’ve found that the best shows are usually after a little bit of a drive at least. Sometimes you get soft when you have two day runs with no setup the second day. Everyone tends to show up late, because it’s their only day to do laundry. [laughs] A little bit of stress seems to make the gigs better.
Powers: How were the mountain shows the 20th Congress just played? Is there a different vibe playing to the ski crowds in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming?
Walter: We have fun up there, but I think our band is not the most suited for it, because we’re not really a big frat party band. There tends to be a big frat party atmosphere in some of those towns... drinking madness. It’s fun, but for the most part you end up sidestepping most of the cerebral material of a set because you’re not going to get much attention for it. Then you come to a city like San Francisco or Chicago and there’s a more sophisticated music crowd to play too. You can pull a little bit more trippy stuff on them. [laughs]
Powers: San Francisco sure seems to treat your band well. The Great American Music Hall will probably sell out tonight.
Walter: Yeah. It’s probably our best market. Chicago is really good too... New York as well. Any sort of urban center has seemed to catch on to us, but the minute you get out to the boonies it seems that it takes awhile for people to figure it out. Sometimes the music may be a bit too heady for the small towns, but it all gets better. The same thing happened with the Greyboy Allstars... we hit in all the big cities first and then we started to spread out.
Powers: How about Southern California? I remember catching the Greyboy Allstars a couple of years ago at the Dragonfly in LA when I first moved out west. Some nights, the club would be packed and grooving. Other times it was kind of a sluggish crowd.
Walter: You know it’s funny, LA didn’t really happen for the Greyboy Allstars. It happened a little bit for that band, but it was real unreliable from gig to gig. This band has been received better in Los Angeles than the Greyboy Allstars ever were which I can’t seem to explain... particularly in Santa Monica! [laughs] The Temple Bar in Santa Monica has been real good to us. It seems to get you out of that whole Hollywood vibe, I guess.
Powers: Is San Diego still home for you? You don’t seem to have too many gigs down there as you do up here in San Francisco.
Walter: Yeah, home still is San Diego, but we’re hardly there. We’re not really home enough to cultivate San Diego. We’ll play there and people will come out, but it’s not as big as it is elsewhere. We never stay home and play. We’re there once every few months. It’s more of a low-key gig. It’s funny, people will travel down to San Diego to see us and be amazed because we’ll just be playing in a small bar.
Powers: Speaking of San Diego musicians, how’s it feel when the 20th Congress and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe combine forces? Weren’t there just some shows together in Chicago?
Walter: It’s fun. Sometimes it’s weird. [laughs] I tend to find myself at those gigs thinking I have more to prove in a way, since we were all once in a band together. I’m less relaxed when we have to open too. Opening gigs are less relaxing than playing your own shows. But it’s always fun to see Karl! We always do some sitting in with each other. We just did a gig in Minneapolis with him where his band couldn’t come... they got snowed in. So we ended up being Karl’s band. We played a bunch of Allstars’ tunes. It was just like old times.
Powers: Ha! Denson and the Tiny Universe sure seem to have troubles lately with travel. Did you hear about his New York to Portland adventure during the String Cheese New Year’s run? Total planes, trains and automobiles, but KDTU made it on stage at around 4am.
Walter: Yeah! They travel and have big jumps…much more extreme routing! [laughs]
Powers: You’re heading east soon for the Mike Clark Prescription Renewal Tour, how’d you get involved with that? It’s amazing cast of musicians...
Walter: That’s just a thing where I got a call about it. I know Charlie and Skerik and they were in too, so I figured it would be great. Charlie has played a lot with Mike Clark over the years. I’m a big fan of the Headhunters records. It should be a cool thing. As of yet we haven’t played together though. (laughs)
Powers: I was just going to ask if there was a game plan.
Walter: I’m going to go in a week early to rehearse and learn some stuff. I think a lot of it is going to be open. I would be worried, but it’s Charlie and Skerik and I’ve done stuff like this with them before. It seems to work perfectly. It’s almost better not to plan too much, that way you don’t kill the spontaneity.
Powers: What’s that like just getting together with these great musicians and just going for it on the fly? You guys seem to have it down.
Walter: Yeah, you know how all those guys play. The less you prepare, the better. I kind of know what they’re going to do, but not too much, so there’s still some spark and it surprises you. Those guys are masters of playing off the cuff.
Powers: Has the sound of the 20th Congress morphed at all since the stolen equipment incident in Albuquerque last summer? Your fans and fellow artists seemed to really rally to help you out.
Walter: We’re used to the new instruments. There’s still a lot of stuff that we still need to get. But in the end, it’s just stuff. You just adjust. The response and support we got after the theft was really great though.
Powers: Money Shot, your latest release on Fog City Records has been out for awhile now. What’s down the road, a live record?
Walter: I would like to put out a live record, but I think the band needs another six months or so before it happens. I’m probably not going to release more than one or two live records out ever. So I want to make sure it’s a lasting document of it when it’s really happening. I’m not unhappy at what we’re doing now, but every tour just seems to get better. I really want to wait until things level off a bit. The growth seems to be going on very fast.
Powers: Cool. So you can feel the 20th Congress sound maturing at every show?
Walter: Yeah every tour has surprised me. I don’t know when it’s going to stop. It seems to just be getting better and better.
Powers: What’s your take on the festival scene? Will you bring the 20th Congress to High Sierra or Mountain Aire this summer?
Walter: I would really like to do more of that. Hopefully we’ll do High Sierra this summer. We’re about to play in New Orleans for a couple of days at Jazz Fest in May. That’s the most fun. It’s the best time you can have. It’s just amazing. There’s so much music and just an absolute debauchery in that city. [laughs].
Powers: You’ll be late night at the Maple Leaf, right?
Walter: Yeah, that’s my favorite club down there. It should be a lot of fun.
Powers: Will you roam around and check out the scene while in New Orleans?
Walter: I’m going to try to nudge my way into gigs and play with some friends.
Powers: Are there plans to get the 20th Congress back on the road after the Mike Clark Prescription Renewal Tour? Is there anything else on the horizon?
Walter: We’ll be back on the road in April and May, finishing up at Jazz Fest. There’s supposed to be some more dates in the south with Karl a little later, probably Atlanta and Athens. I just made another record on my own with a bunch of session players that will be out sometime in the near future. It features Phil Upchurch on guitar, Harvey Mason on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass and Red Holloway on tenor sax. We did a bunch of tunes. It’s going to be a record of a bunch of veterans with a younger leader on it. We’re going to call it There Goes the Neighborhood. The joke being that I bring the value down. [laughs] It’s really cool though, I’ve been fans of those guys for a long time. Hopefully later in the summer we’ll start recording a new 20th Congress record. We’ve got a bunch of new material. It seems like we only ever play one or two songs live anymore from the last record. [laughs]
Powers: Never ends, does it?
Walter: It moves along real fast, which I like. In my experience, this is the best time to be in a band... right when things begin to gel and grow at the same time. There was a time with the Greyboy Allstars when that was happening... sort of in between records. We made West Coast Boogaloo right away, then we made The D Stands for Diesel with Karl and then my record. Right around that time we started learning how to play better together. There was that thrill of figuring out what you’re really doing. The crowds were growing, too. It felt really exciting. After you realize you can sell out whatever place so many times, the thrill slowly leaves. It’s good to always be pushing yourself in different situations. It seems once this gets comfortable, I’ll want to do something that mixes it up. [laughs] The good thing about these players though is that they’re all into that too. They want to be challenging themselves.
Robert Walter finds himself on the East Coast for a two week run on Mike Clark’s Prescription Renewal Tour along side DJ Logic, Skerik and Charlie Hunter. Shortly after, Robert Walter takes the 20th Congress out for another musical trek across the country. Audiences will be dancing feverishly as Robert Walter’s 20th Congress spreads their infectious funk from west to east this spring. For more information check out www.20thcongress.com or http://www.fogworld.com/robert.
Special thanks to Dan Prothero, Kevin Garrett and Brian Groves. Thanks to Adam Foley and Nicole Evans for the photos.