In the words of Frank Sinatra, “It Was A Very Good Year” for funky music, 2015. The following is a long-form discussion and dissection of the many pieces of musical news in my world; it’s big but hang with me there’s lots of substance to talk about. We got new albums from Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, and a new festival right in my backyard brought some mean groove to the Texas countryside. And. I made some pretty fresh music myself, if I don’t say so. The Funk is alive and thriving although I’m pretty sad to chronicle it: Bear Creek was cancelled this year.
2015 In Funk Pt 1: The October Bear Creek that wasn’t
This year the Legendary Bear Creek Music Festival which I’ve written about time and time and time again was initially rescheduled about a month earlier than its traditional mid-November timeframe, which was a tantalizing proposition for literally hotter dancing and brand-new-good-old times, however due to undisclosed complexities, the organizers cancelled the fest this year which was… devastating news. According to at least one trusted source the odds are not favorable that it will return (although never say never). This is pretty sad news for the feet and the spirit….
About one year and some weeks ago my friend Bill and I were taking a breather after a long day of soaking in the incredible vibes at Bear Creek 2014. We were sitting by the edge of a pond to let our feet rest and I said to him, ‘you know some day they’re going to stop putting this fest on, for one reason or another, and we’re going to look back at this time period like it was some kind of utopia or a golden age for music like this.’ Little did I know at the time how prescient of a thought it was. I wish it hadn’t been.
Me, I hate to wear bracelets so as soon as I got home from the fest I clipped mine off and kept it to put inside the frame with the festival poster I had picked up. But Bill loves to keep his on as a daily reminder of the fest. When I heard the news I texted him right away and you can see his reply in the screenshot here. When I talked to him on the phone about it later he said “Man, I wore that thing to work every single day… every business meeting.”
It’s a testament to the power of what happens when everything goes right at a fest and some incredible magic is created which can only happen there, away from the business meetings and the grind of existence. Something ‘big’ enough that it becomes part of who you are. Bear Creek inspired me to push off in certain direction with my own music for sure. With the concentrated dose of pure funk, jazz, and soul I think that fest tipped my scales toward a certain sensibility much more than an eclectic fest could have done, and drastically more than a series of small concerts peppered througout the year in a drip-feed. If you love this kind of music, if it speaks to a certain thing inside your being, Bear Creek was a lightning strike to the soul.
These days there are tons of great fests out there, and plenty of them offer what feels like an escape to some alternate reality, or at least a vacation from your typical reality. But Bear Creek was that and something more. It was a meeting of the minds. A congress of groove-seekers unmatched. It was a place where the headlining acts were Lettuce and The New Mastersounds, a place where heroes of the genre got to really get up there and rip it at 200%, boosted beyond the normally possible range by the energy of this crowd. Everyone could feel that vibe.
It was a place where, when the final act had finished, the crowd chanted for an encore by singing a looping rendition of the chorus from the Parliment anthem “We Want The Funk”. Replete with the falsetto “ooohhh weeeeeee” it went on until the musicians came back out and fired up the jams once more. We Want The Funk.
Word, Bear Creek. Word.
2015 In Funk Pt 2: Top Tier Inspiration on the Stereo
Within the last month, two superb albums have dropped and I feel it’s worth discussing them together. 1. Made For Pleasure by The New Mastersounds and 2. Crush by Lettuce. These two bands are sort of like two sides of the same coin. They both are well-established and highly-talented groups of musicians making original funk music although they’ve each got a different philosophy on how. Lettuce is pushing further into their own direction with a huge number of members in the band, lots of effects, a clean/modern mastering sound, and complex song structures. Their identity is still evolving. The New Mastersounds are rooted in their quartet playing tunes of simple structure, mastered with a vintage/analog sensibility; all of which have been refined to such a beautiful richness that there’s really no need to start flipping knobs around. NMS are pretty well “dialed-in” as far as their identity and what you might expect from them, but they do manage to toss in plenty of treats for their returning listeners.
A common theme between these two albums is the studio-implementation of things they’ve been doing live for quite some time now. In the case of the New Mastersounds, I’ve seen them perform reggae grooves as far back as 2008 but until “Made For Pleasure” there’s never been a proper reggae tune on one of their albums. Adding to the novelty is the fact that it’s a cover of the Iggy Azalea tune “Fancy” transplated into a reggae groove with the lyrics “I’m so Irie”. That’s perfect.
A very welcome additional treat for this listener is the presence of the peppy and crisp West Coast Horns on four of the album’s eleven tracks. In particular their trumpeter adds a hot sizzle to the action which I really love. In the words of my friend Vince “try as I might, I just can’t get into Mastersounds with vocals” and I will echo that sentiment. The tunes with Charly Lowry, on their own, are a great soul tribute that would feel good on an album of their own. But sandwich them between the high-level instrumentals at which the Mastersounds are so adept and cranking out, the the vocal-driven tunes feel like a sideshow, a distraction.
“Pho Baby” centers around a chord progression style which feels abnormal for the Mastersounds, but in a pleasing way. I imagine that tune would feel great toward the end of a festival set. “Let’s Do Another” gives you a dose of vibraphone, tabla, and horn section on top of the mastersounds which was a wholly unexpected combo that continues to please on repeated listens. But my favorite track is definitely “Cigar Time” which is a no-frills tune that simply delivers what the mastersounds do best: a steady groove with that magic ratio of funk and jazz behind some superb-sounding guitar and organ solos that compel you to nod your head. How these guys keep producing such quality material album after album is a marvel to me, one I plan to continue studying indefinitely.
And then there’s Crush, the 4th album from Lettuce. This record’s got a lot of meat and a lot of attitude, as you’d expect from the boys. I gotta admit, I’m not sure I’m totally a fan of how they mastered this album. Compared to other offerings in the genre (as described above!) this album sounds thin and digital to my ears. In particular the obvious noise gate on the beginning of “Phyllis” is a confounding production fail, if you ask me. One thing I AM totally (read: predictably) loving about this new Lettuce album though, is the amount of effects on the horns! In track 2 “Get Greasy” Ryan Zoidis has a killer solo using what sounds like envelope and a synth pedal. it’s making me want to dig into my own synth pedal capabilties…
This is also the first studio album with trumpeter Eric Benny Bloom and he fills the large shoes of Rashawn Ross nicely I think. Rashawn’s high range is… formidible. Bloom takes the “screamer” dial to about 80% of where Rashawn had it, but he makes up for the rest with his much more thoughtful solo capability. The sheer firepower of his successor was always a thrill but given a choice I’d take Eric. Plus, this guy is into effects and I have… let’s say “more than just a casual penchant” for that. In 2014 he was present for Bear Creek and I got a taste of his approach.
That year’s fest was also the moment in which the stylistic shift on this record was first displayed. There were a lot more spaceout/dubout moments than ever before, which I think is a fantastic counterpoint to the “Rage” funk. In so many different ways, musicians of all genres try to take their listeners up to a high place then give them some breathing room to cool off. That’s the essence of dynamics since staying planted at 100% all the time turns into a grind.
I’m glad to see Lettuce taking this new direction. My friend Bill had a more tepid reception to the change and prefers the tone set on their previous record Fly. I’d argue there are still plenty of in-yo-face numbers here, in particular “The Lobbyist” stands tall for me, and “The Force” is a spectacularly dramatic opening theme. I’d love to see them open a show with that, and maybe reprise it once before the end.
2015 In Funk Pt 3: Art Outside
As chronicled previously, the incredible Bear Creek music fest was cancelled this year, leaving an opening for some other musical experience to fill. Fortunately for our heroes, right here in our Texan backyard there was a gathering called Art Outside which had a very enticing lineup of both funk and electronic music. I had been badgering my wife to come along with me to a music festival for a long time and the variables had lined up to persuade her to join in. Only problem was the weather. Hurricane Patricia was just making landfall in Mexico and the effects would soon be sweeping across the state, leaving just enough of a window for two glorious days before the drought-cracked soil of Rockdale TX would get all the moisture it could handle and more…
The New Mastersounds had the closing slot on Thursday night where the elite crew of 4-day warriors kicked off the festivities. Having seen them over a dozen times now, I’d say it was a lovely festival set with a great song list. Summercamp with it’s delicate and sparse breakdown flowing into a 4-on-the-floor dance groove was a favorite for me, as well as their rendition of “Hey Fela” with West African master percussionist Weedie Braimah from the Nth Power imbuing the tune with an afrobeat feel. Eddie Roberts seemed a bit reserved that night, opting for cerebral jazzy phrases and never really rocking out full-tilt the way I know he can. I’m not certain but I’m pretty sure they played a dubbed-out cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Well Dressed Man” in which Roberts actually used a delay pedal; a common piece of guitar equipment he purposely eschews.
Having seen these fellows at their finest there was a feedback loop which never connected that night–Eddie seemed visibly annoyed at times with the lack of crowd reaction to push the band higher and likewise the crowd never really went wild because the band never really took-it-there. “Are you all still awake out there?” he asked at one point. That aside, the set delivered the goods in a mellower way for sure. I did a lot more standing and listening than dancing, but my ears were thoroughly engaged for the entirety of their set.
The Friday itinerary was a sandwich stacked high with lots of wonderful ingredients. The Easy-Star Allstars performed their reggae cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety along with a smattering of Micheal Jackson, Radiohead, and The Beatles. As a last-minute surprise to close the set they broke into Led Zepplin (could it be foreshadowing for their next album??) and out of nowhere 4 or 5 people in the crowd started throwing long streamer ribbons which zigzagged the audience in a web of colors. That was a very cool festival moment.
Coming off the Easy-Star streamer surprise we caught Nightmares on Wax, who opened up with “Les Nuits” one of my all-time favorite downtempo tracks. In a live setting it felt totally different than it does on the stereo at home though! His set was surprisingly packed with soul-tunes: “Sir Duke” from Stevie Wonder, “Give The People What They Want” from the O’Jays, and a very memorable Marvin Gaye “Inner City Blues” remix. The sound was bone-jarringly loud and we kept telling ourselves we were going to move back ‘after this track ended’ but his DJ set kept it locked and there was no good time to come up for air! It feels weird to say it but even among all the other great artists, this set was my favorite moment in the fest. The buzz of the crowd, the tune selection, and the DJ mixing from NOW was on-point. The dome stage which wrapped around the audience definitely added something as well.
Third heavy hitters on the Friday night agenda were Lettuce, touring the country to promote their aforementioned new album. The show was a fun time, I’d even say it was great, but after talking to 4 different people about it at length, the jury agrees unanimously that something was… off. First off, Eric Krasno wasn’t there. Lettuce has about all the musical firepower that you can wish for but Krasno really is a soloist of unusual caliber. His sound, soaring above the raging rhythm section and searing hornlines, is what has sent many a Lettuce jam over the top. Without him, something just feels missing. Chatting about this at a party, I later learned that Krasno is only playing certain Lettuce shows these days. That’s a pretty unfortunate changeup. But all that aside, they did play a crazy-fast version of Lettsanity, many of their older classics including Squadlive, and the new tune “Sounds Like A Party To Me” which I was feelin. Nigel Hall hooked it up there.
Finally the last show that we stuck around for was a Bonobo DJ set. Gotta say, I liked what I heard. I’ve seen Bonobo play a live set before, with drumset, horn soloists and the whole nine yards and it had just felt… low energy. So my expectations weren’t very high. His set sort of started out with a simmering energy and gradually built up, with a lot of rich-sounding atmospheric tracks that had a steady 4-on-th-floor beneath it all. I honestly didn’t think Bonobo had what it took to keep the dancing masses moving from 2-4am, especially after a Lettuce set, but he proved otherwise.
After Bonobo handed the turntables over to the next act we adjourned for the night, pausing to grab a slice of late night pizza on the way back to our tent, and that’s when it hit: An incredibly loud thunderclap signaled the flipping of a switch in the atmosphere above us. About five minutes after that sound a steady, strong downpour began which did not relent until perhaps two days later. By sunrise the grounds had been utterly drenched and the soil turned from cracked and hardened into a mud-pocalypse the likes of which I had never been involved with until that weekend.
2015 In Funk Pt 4: Onward and Upward in the Living Room
This year has been an incredibly great period in my own musical development and productivity. It saw the creation of a new project, The Acropolis Of Soul and the conclusion–on a high note–of my long-running group 100% Juice. I’ve refined my recording and mastering techniques along the way and finally started to produce a few YouTube videos as well, something I’ve long wanted to do. I also became a member of PedalGenie.com which is an effects pedal rental service, allowing me to try out lots of new sounds. And of course, we had lots of great jams which allowed me to grow as a player. Listening back to these moments has been enjoyable on a visceral level but also deeply enriching on a cerebral level as well.
I was sad to hear the news that Bob Saviano, the drummer for 100% Juice had decided to move to Colorado, but the silver lining was that it gave us a push to polish up our songs and have that two-day recording session we’d been talking about for a long time. 6/27 and 6/28 produced several top-tier improvised jams and a few “best-ever” takes on songs we’ve been playing for a long time. The fact that these would be our last sessions also gave me a blank check to spend as much time as I wanted on post-production to clean everything to a spotless finish and add all the overdubs I might want. Adding overdubs–that is also another thing I had always wanted to do but didn’t begin until 2015!
In retrospect, 100% Juice has been one of the best musical projects I’ve ever had in terms of personal development into the kind of music I want to make. I’m feel very proud of the sounds that came out of it, even though I can still nitpick my own playing to death. We did some video recording on 6/28 and there are still several tracks remaining to publish from that day. As of this writing, two tracks are completed and published to YouTube. The video below is our take on the Lettuce tune “Blast Off”. For this video I took our multitrack recording and bounced it to quarter inch tape on reel to reel to get that analog warmth. Again, another thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Hear it for yourself:
My musical partner in crime, Vince Chihak has joined up with our new group The Acropolis of Soul, which first met in February of this year. Over the year we’ve had 11 sessions and there’s been some killer stuff to come out of those. Our soundcloud page is accessible by clicking on the cassette below:
Schedules have been a challenge with this group since everyone has busy lives. The Acropolis will probably never become as prolific as 100% Juice was, but the flip side to that coin is that it gives me more time to work on the production for each session and add overdubs more often. To reflect all these nice things that have been happening I made a few updates on the music section of Microcosmologist which now has links to my soundcloud and YouTube pages as well as links to download some of my favorite recordings under the Trumpet section.
One never knows what the future may hold but right now at the end of the year, looking back, I’m feeling fantastic about everything that’s transpired musically, thankful for my excellent counterparts, and couldn’t be more jazzed to see where the adventures take us next… on to 2016.