[24 November 2009]
It’s another Friday night in the “live music capital of the world”, so dubbed because Austin has more music venues per capita than any other town. But suppose you’ve had an epic Halloween weekend of music and multi-day partying, and would have been perfectly content to spend the following weekend chilling on the down low. But when New Orleans acid jazz funk masters Galactic are in town and it’s your only chance of the year to see them, are you really going to stay home? Not an option.
Austin’s geographical location also means that outdoor shows at Stubbs can continue well after the outdoor concert season has concluded in the Northern two-thirds of the country. The sweltering summer in Austin is beastly, but the flip side is that it sure feels nice to be standing outside drinking a cold beer on a balmy November evening as Mike Dillon’s Go-Go Jungle warms up the stage. Dillon is an ace drummer/percussionist and he’s got a funky ensemble jamming out, combined with some dissonant strangeness recalling his unique work with the Dead Kenny G’s, his punk jazz trio. One song is introduced as being about “redneck gangsters”, with Dillon proclaiming “And speaking of redneck gangsters, we’re gonna get Stanton Moore out here.” The Galactic drummer then takes over the kit while Dillon moves to xylophone and percussion for a groovy jam that ensures the crowd is fired up and ready to rock.
I’m joined by a like-minded friend, both of us being San Francisco-to-Austin transplants who saw Galactic a number of times back in The City by the Bay (their de facto second home based upon how often they’ve played there). We reminisce at set-break about the band’s stupendous June 10, 2000 show at the Warfield Theater in SF, where Galactic paid the venue extra money in order to play a monster three-set show that featured The Dirty Dozen Brass Band sitting in for a mind-blowing third set that didn’t start until after two a.m. The band’s popularity may have plateaued since then, but there’s something to be said for having some of your favorite bands stay at the large club/theater level where the intimacy that would be lost at an arena level can be maintained.
Galactic is a band that can always be counted on to pull in any possible special guests to enhance a show, as well to tailor their set lists based on location and vibe, so you never know exactly what you’ll get. Rebirth Brass Band trombonist Corey Henry has been enlisted into the proceedings here and he elevates the party in multiple ways. Hearing Henry’s trombone added to Galactic saxophonist Ben Ellman’s sound is a treat, with the brass harmonies creating an exponential increase in funky horn power. The band comes right out of the gate with a high energy level that never seems to wane throughout the two-hour set. They’re also joined midway through the set by Mike Dillon on a second drum kit and the percussive interplay between he and Moore is yet another special treat of percussive goodness that elevates the sound further.
Galactic will often throw down a funk-ified classic rock cover to mix things up, but here they throw down at least three such tunes in what seems like perhaps a nod to the college town vibe where such familiar favorites always go over especially well. The first is a scintillating rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”, with Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio laying down a thick groove while guitarist Jeff Raines unleashes the guitar God within. Raines dials in a truly cosmic tone for some ripping melty leads, while Ellman and Henry lock in with the horns to propel the tune higher still. This is a keeper version of the Hendrix classic.
The dance vibe receives another boost later when a torrid version of “Jungle Boogie” gets Stubbs shaking, with the horns really enhancing the funky groove. Keyboardist Rich Vogel’s organ work does the same, making this one a particular hit with the ladies. Later in the set, we take another trip to classic rock heaven when the band launches into a surprisingly hard-hitting arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. Moore goes absolutely “Bonzo” as he pounds away like John Bonham circa 1969, while Raines lets loose again with more of the shredding riffage that he often holds back in service to the funk on the N’awlins-oriented material. But as he shows here, he can rip with the best, especially when Moore and Mercurio are laying down such a mean groove.
Henry leads another highlight toward the end of the show when he throws down a rap on “From the Corner to the Block”, the title track to the band’s most recent album. With the crowd energy reaching another peak, Henry dives in for some crowd surfing and gets passed from front to back and back again. He just barely makes it back to the stage, clearly exhilarated as the band continues to funk out.
Henry is one of many New Orleans-based players who will appear on Galactic’s impending new album, YA-KA-MAY, due in February. The band hasn’t lost a beat over the past decade, and in fact only seem to grow tighter and funkier as the years slide by. With contributors like Henry, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, Walter “Wolfman” Washington and more, the new album appears to herald a very funky 2010.