18 Feb 2017: The Warfield Theater San Francisco
The music world doesn’t always go in a linear fashion. Some bands rise and fall, while others generate careers that seem to go in cyclical motions. The New Orleans troubadours of both Galactic and the Funky Meters each seem to fall into the latter category with waves of popularity that appear to renew from time to time. Such is the case on this Saturday night, with Galactic finding themselves back at the Warfield Theater for the first time in some years.
One of the hardest working bands in show biz over the past two decades, Galactic continues to tour relentlessly to carry the torch for the New Orleans funk pioneered by the original Meters in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Galactic first played San Francisco’s fabled Fillmore Auditorium in 1998, again in 1999 and then doubled capacity when they moved onto the Warfield for a most memorable three-set late-night blowout on June 10, 2000 that remains seared in the minds of fortunate attendees (with a third set featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as guests that didn’t even start until after 2 am.) It seemed as if Galactic was making San Francisco its second home and the love affair was mutual.
The band’s popularity with the masses may have plateaued after that, as they soon went back to playing the Fillmore, although often for two nights. But with a string of annual Jazzfest appearances in their hometown in addition to their regular touring, Galactic seems to be moving up in the mass consciousness once again. Bringing along the Funky Meters to open the show here is a great nod to the arc of funk’s space-time continuum since these guys basically wrote the book. The Funky Meters have been bassist George Porter Jr.’s vehicle for touring when other members of The Meters aren’t available, but here the legendary Art “Poppa Funk” Neville re-joins the festivities on keyboards. There’s also a history at the Warfield since the original Meters reunited with a memorable comeback at the venue on November 11, 2000 (for their first show since 1983!) It was such a special occasion that Galactic’s Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio were sighted in the pit, along with Les Claypool.
The Funky Meters crank it right up to top level with “Fire on the Bayou” and “Cissy Strut”, with the Saturday night party crowd reveling in the classic funk. 79-year-old Art Neville doesn’t do much touring these days, leaving Porter and fellow original band members Leo Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste to tour as The Meter Men with a rotating keyboard slot in recent years (often filled by Phish’s Page McConnell.) Whether it’s better to see The Meter Men without Neville or The Funky Meters with him is an open matter for fan debate, but catching “Poppa Funk” in action here feels like a treat.
“He’s the one that started it all,” Porter says when introducing Neville. Galactic’s presence as the headliner here is a testament to how that trailblazing path is still helping to power the modern music scene. The influence of the Meters is in fact downright incalculable. Guitarist Brian Stoltz doesn’t have that kind of pedigree, but he’s been touring with Porter for over two decades now and cuts loose with some melty fire on a “Voodoo Child” jam that finds the band paying righteous homage to Jimi Hendrix. No one can truly fill Zigaboo’s shoes, but drummer Terence Houston finds a deep pocket on “Just Kissed My Baby” and powers a strong set. Porter stars front and center with strong vocals and a wicked groove on a tune originally sung by the great Cyril Neville, capping the set in style on “My Name Up in Lights”.
The audience is well warmed up when Galactic hits the stage with a hot instrumental jam before welcoming sassy vocalist Erica Falls to rock the stage on fiery newer songs like “Right On” and “Higher and Higher”. Trumpeter Shamarr Allen of the Soul Rebels appears to have replaced trombonist Cory Henry on this tour and fits right in, teaming with saxman Ben Ellman like a dynamic duo all night and starring on vocals for the funky hip-hop vehicle “Paid in Full”. The band delivers a blast of swampy blues with “You Don’t Know” as Falls continues to find her groove, but this serves as a mere prelude to what comes next. Falls’ star shines brightest on a dynamic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that finds the band putting a high-powered R&B stamp on the classic tune. The fresh arrangement seems to light a fuse as the band lays down an energetic groove behind Falls’ passionate vocals for one of the evening’s peak moments.
Perhaps there’s some socio-political synergy in play as well. Many progressive music fans who supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign for political revolution in 2016 are now pondering a movement to draft Sanders to form a new political party that truly represents the people. The song’s classic line, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing left to lose” has recently been cited in the context of such online conversation, and so it resonates with a renewed power here for those still pondering political revolution in 2017. Many fans might like to categorize Galactic as a non-political party band, but such thinking fails to look beneath the surface. New Orleans music has long been known for containing a socially conscious undercurrent, such as on The Meters’ classic tune “The World Is a Little Bit Under the Weather”. Galactic has carried on that tradition ever since recording “Something’s Wrong With This Picture” on their debut album.
Galactic’s bread and butter always revert to that instrumental funk, however. Drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist Jeff Raines, keyboardist Rich Vogel and saxman Ben Ellman have been one of modern music’s most consistent forces over the past two decades, delivering a futuristic funk that takes the foundation laid down by the Meters and turbo-charges it for the 21st century as they do here on “Late for the Future”. Ellman stars with a smoking harmonica jam on the high-powered “Shibuya” as Moore and Mercurio lay down a monster groove while Raines delivers some smoldering slide guitar. “Heart of Steel” from the band’s 2010 masterpiece Ya-Ka-May closes the set with a blues powered blast before the swaggering “Dolly Diva” caps the Saturday night party with one last raucous jam in the encore slot.
It’s not the three-set epic they delivered at the Warfield to close their 2000 spring tour, but the fact that Galactic is still going strong almost two decades later is a great sign for the continuing vitality of New Orleans music in the 21st century.