When Galactic was first touring through California in the late ‘90s, there was no way to know what a perennial force on the national concert circuit the New Orleans band would soon become. They were a funky outfit that liked to jam, a welcome addition to the blossoming late-20th century jam rock scene. It’s over 15 years later now and the former young guns are now veteran scenesters who have become their generation’s top ambassadors of New Orleans funk.
The band has also developed their songwriting chops, becoming not just a jam band but also a group that can deliver some memorable songs. Galactic continues to call the Big Easy home and has even appeared as themselves on HBO’s Treme, cited as “those white boys who think they’re the Meters.” California has long served as a second home to the band, with some of their top performances taking place in San Francisco. This left some fans in San Diego lamenting how the band always seems to visit the Belly Up on a Wednesday night, since the band’s ultimate gigs tend to be late-night weekend affairs.
The San Diego music scene just doesn’t have the quality of venues or as big a fanbase as bands like Galactic can find in the Bay Area though, so Wednesday nights on the way up north will probably remain the case. But the Belly Up was packed once again with party people who were ready to get down. An early jam on Afro-Cuban jazz classic “Manteca” during their own “Funky Bird” got Phish fans in the audience going, thanks to the opportunity to hear the rare gem that became legendary after a memorable New Year’s Eve 2010 bust-out at Madison Square Garden. The seminal Dizzy Gillespie tune from 1947 is a staple in the jazz and funk scene of New Orleans, and one could therefore credit that scene with a key role in the development of the modern jam rock scene.
Galactic bridges the past and future of the New Orleans music scene like no one else, playing a key yet often overlooked role in modern music. No one else is keeping the proto-funk influence of the Meters alive more than Galactic. The band has gone through several vocalists in recent years, but seems to have figured out a winning formula. Their last two studio albums both used a series of guest vocalists to set templates that can be expanded upon by any touring singer with some blues mojo. Maggie Koerner from Shreveport, Louisiana is the latest to fill the bill and she fits right in with the Galactic krewe. The blonde firecracker hit the stage here after a couple of instrumental numbers with “Hey Na Na”, from 2012’s Carnivale Electricos, and instantly displayed a bluesy firepower that felt legit.
Koerner starred further on the new “Dolla Diva”, another gem with that classic Galactic future funk swagger that exemplifies the band’s talent for mixing funk, jazz, blues and classic rock into their own special gumbo. Saxman Ben Ellman starred on the blazing instrumental jam that followed, going to town over a hot groove from drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio that had the crowd hollering for more. Guitarist Jeff Raines and keyboardist Rich Vogel were all over “Blackeyed Pea”, a staple funk jam and long a key weapon in the band’s arsenal.
Brushy One String from Ocho Rios, Jamaica had opened the show and returned to lead the band on “Chicken in the Corn”, a gritty blues rocker. Koerner continued to star on tunes from 2010’s Ya-Ka-May, nailing the bluesy vocals on “You Don’t Know” and “Heart of Steel” with spirited conviction. She cranked her blues power to another level on a cover of “It’s a Man’s World”, which instantly resonated with the audience. It was here where it became clear that Koerner has some serious mojo of her own, as well as on the new track “Higher and Higher”.
The band paced the show well by alternating segments of vocal songs with the instrumental tunes where they could stretch out some more. The common denominator through it all is the ever groovy rhythm section of Moore and Mercurio, always deep in the pocket.
Trombonist Cory Henry adds yet another flavor to the mix. He got the party people worked up over Mercurio’s fat bassline on “From the Corner to the Block”, with some hip-hop vocals and “who-dat” shout outs. The collective groove united on “Church”, with the band falling into a flowing mid-tempo jam that had the room swaying in bliss. Raines delivered some timely psychedelic guitar, followed by tight unison horn lines and a smoking sax solo from Ellman.
The band played like a championship basketball team throughout the night, passing the ball around and racking up assists to make sure the squad would have balanced scoring with great shots that came from the flow of the offense. Koerner was back at crunch time for a double encore where she not only helped sealed another victory but also covered the spread with her multi-dimensional range. Her star was shining bright on a “Does It Really Make a Difference?”, connecting with the crowd on the cathartic soul number.
Galactic could have run the clock out there with victory well in hand, but they threw down another slam dunk with a raging rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”. Koerner belted out Mick Jagger’s lead vocal with a dynamic power to conclude the show in style. The show ended at what might be considered setbreak time in San Francisco or New Orleans, but there was no doubt that Galactic brought their full future funk power to the stage in the two-hour set.
// Notes from the Road
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