Behind the McTuff Exterior

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By: Court Scott

McTuff by Brian Willoughby
I’m experiencing a moment of reverie, reflective and leaning against the ornate rail of the dance floor dressed to the nines in my maid of honor garb, watching a fabulous, if slightly reluctant wedding band wind their way through one of the most unique nuptial celebrations I’ve attended. On the small stage, McTuff lays down a blistering hard groove met – both literally and figuratively – at the altar by traditional jazz and blues melodies and set free by funk’s irreverent attitude.

Many of the 150 guests are dancing; furthest from the band and monitors couples locked in an embrace gracefully pivot and spin like Disney’s teacup ride while younger attendees have gathered closer to the front to form a loose semi-circle and giddily let their backbones slip. The band and the crowd, the bride and groom, swing and cavort like a couple of pros, giving the “celebrities” on Dancing with the Stars a run for their money in the attention-grabbing department. Like most weddings, it’s a generational free-for-all, yet at this event everyone has formed a consensus about the band. Their universal appeal is a phenomenal hit. Bringing me back to the present, the groom’s beaming grandmother swoops past me, Guinness in hand.

It’s likely that you’ve never heard of McTuff, even though the funk-soul-jazz quartet boasts saxphreak Skerik and guitar uber-talent Andy Coe. It’s likely, too, that you’ve never heard of the band’s namesake, famed Hammond B3 organist “Brother” Jack McDuff, channeled in this quartet by Joe Doria of Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet. And you’ve probably never seen anything like D’Vonne Lewis, a 24-year-old whiz kid on the drums who plays with contagious animation – arms and legs in constant motion, wrists that appear double-jointed, head tilted back, his expression a beatific, yet playful taunt to his bandmates. There is a timeless quality to McTuff’s sound; their result more of an artistic rendering as opposed to a direct copy of any original. But know this, they’re really not a wedding band, so don’t even ask.

Doria & Skerik – McTuff by Profitt Photography
“I’ve been lugging around and playing a piece of furniture for 15 years,” laughs Doria, referring to his cumbersome electric organ and accompanying Leslie speaker cabinet, which is necessary to produce the Nitrous-y, soaring, Doppler-effected sound associated with the Hammond. Doria holds down the basslines, alternately between hands and feet; his hands roll across the keyboards and his feet jitterbug across the pedals and vice versa. At one particularly smokin’ gig, without interrupting his limbs, Doria face-planted on the upper keyboard, playing with his nose and chin by rolling his head from side to side. The word “rambunctious” pretty much covers it. Doria furiously pulls and slaps the stops, controlling the tone of the organ. Sound percolates and swoons, notes wind and emotion builds until, with a final thwack, he opens the throttle and the organ howls. Watching Doria play, all four limbs, heart and soul fully involved, is truly a dizzying experience.

The band’s quasi-namesake, “Brother” Jack McDuff, was a prominent bandleader in the 1960s and recorded prolifically until his death in 2001. He was a self-taught organist whose preferred genres were hard bop and soul jazz. So, it’s no surprise that McTuff is full of texture and stylistic diversity, subscribing to a simple philosophy: “Let’s get into trouble, baby!”

“We knew after one or two small shows that this band had tons of potential. We can play a jazz circuit and then the next hit a crazy rock or funk room,” enthuses Doria. And though the free spirit and warm, welcoming, buttery sound are equal parts intoxicating and enchanting, it belies a steep learning curve of influences that forms the sound behind the swing. “That’s what really appealed to me [about playing in McTuff],” explains Coe, “everybody’s so open minded and super competent and capable.”

Andy Coe – McTuff by Profitt Photography
From gospel to originals like Coe’s “Tuff Love” to covers of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Billy Preston, Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon or Brother Jack’s own “Hot BBQ,” McTuff’s influences are as varied as their setlists, and are interpreted as wildly. Doria agrees, “These guys know how to listen. They took the music and started owning it!”

Despite being a quartet, McTuff leaves more room than many trios, space for the musicians to create and contribute. Coe’s off the cuff, raw soloing compliments things and Doria’s warm B-3 and Skerik’s sonic-electronic box of toys updates the sound. It’s all held together by Lewis, who perhaps simply as a function of his age, interjects youthfulness into the overall sound with his rat-ta-tat, “less is more” approach. This band is as smart as it is calculating. “There’s a saying that you’re only as good as your drummer,” Doria explains. “[Lewis] lays it down with authority. He’s as honest as the music he makes.”

It’s not only the quality of the instrumentation but also the stylistic knowledge of the players that make the band worthwhile. Most know Skerik, whether from playing with Galactic, Les Claypool, Garage A Trois or his own Syncopated Taint Septet, Critters Buggin and Crack Sabbath. His wind power yields alternately a mellifluous run, a guttural riff or fuzzy, punctuated squonk. In this ensemble, his contribution is more pensive and soulful. He’s primarily a passenger rather than the center of attention, a role he often takes with his other bands. The quick wit, fantastic brio and sonic fortitude are present, but the costumery and bravado of Skerik – the proper noun – aren’t.

Despite being comprised of four busy musicians, McTuff formed almost two years ago to the day – Friday, October 13, 2006 – and has been playing regularly around the Pacific Northwest since. With one southern sojourn to Oregon and California under their belts and another West Coast run happening right now (dates available here), McTuff are steadily building a solid McFanbase.

“It’s fun to [collaborate with] players who can read a room and design their playing and music to a vibe that best fits it. I’m a big fan of that kind of wordless improv. Jazz room? Sure! Watch out and let’s do this! Loft party? BAMM, let’s groove this into oblivion. Small and local? Mmmm-Mmmm-Mmmm! Those are just little huts packed with goodness to take advantage of,” says Doria. And on their current tour, that’s just what they’re looking to do.

Coe & Lewis – McTuff by Profitt Photography
Lewis has been playing drums since he was quite small, and despite still being quite young, he plays with crisp, explosive bursts of swing and clever percussive chatter, so deep in the pocket he may not come out the other side. Then, in a split second, he lapses into a strut, visibly shifting and leaning back on his stool. While Doria lays down the basslines, Lewis plays the kit not only like the rhythmic instrument it is but with a sense of melody, tittering ever so lightly on his cymbals and calling on each drums’ tone, rather than their collective oomph. This freedom and malleability frees him up to square off with Skerik or accent Coe’s cerebral guitar work. The beat is merely a fulcrum point for him to flirt with.

But it is Coe, a guitarist with substantial skill in multiple traditions and genres, who is becoming the risk-taker in the ensemble. Together with Skerik, Coe’s pan-stylistic, loose limbed, psychedelic feel – and newly introduced synth modulator effects – provide an interesting contrast to the Hammond’s more organic sound. An obvious Garcia-phile, Coe isn’t afraid of taking risks, sometimes creating momentary discomfort for the listener, as he knows those moments make the band and the audience work that much harder to remain in the present. Like Garcia, he is capable of conveying great meaning with a few notes. Coe has immersed himself in American jazz and African percussive traditions, studying under master players and performing around the world at events including the North Sea and Montreux Jazz festivals. “Andy doesn’t fuck around. He practices his ass off,” says Skerik. “Everyone should check ’em out.”

And so I am back to the wedding. While it was a completely uncharacteristic venue and setting for McTuff, their set was as imaginative, full of feeling and as smokin’ as anywhere they’ve ever thrown down. Know that whenever, wherever, this band is ready, willing and able to unleash some ‘tuff love.

McTuff Tour Dates
10/22/08 Wed Moe’s Alley Santa Cruz, CA
10/23/08 Thu Boom Boom Room San Francisco, CA
10/24/08 Fri Boom Boom Room San Francisco, CA
10/25/08 Sat The Red Fox Tavern Eureka, CA
10/26/08 Sun Sam Bond’s Garage Eugene, OR
10/31/098 Fri Halloween: MCTUFF – The Eastside Olympia, Washington

McTuff – “I Gotta Woman”

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