Holiday shows have always been an opportunity for bands to deliver special events to their fanbase. Most groups put a lot of thought into big music holidays like Halloween and New Year’s Eve. But the solstices and equinoxes are ripe occasions for such shows as well, with these quarterly occasions offering rare portals into metaphysical energies that some find useful for spiritual atonement.
The 2012 winter solstice was one of the most anticipated dates in human history, concluding the Mayan calendar’s 26,000-year cycle known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. To many, the date came and went without the transformational cosmic party that some hoped for (save for those who attended Mayan Holidaze in Tulum, Mexico where STS9, the Disco Biscuits and Umphrey’s McGee welcomed the new age with back-to-back-to-back sets on the beach.) But there are some notable spiritual luminaries and indigenous elders who have suggested that the 2012 winter solstice marked a turning point into a critical era of opportunity for planetary change, a metaphysical wave of sorts still rising.
The announcement of a “Winter Solstice Celebration” show from the Greyboy Allstars was met with great delight in Southern California, with funky sax master Karl Denson once again coming to the rescue of San Diego’s inconsistent music scene. It’s easily one of the top winter solstice shows in the country. Better yet, it’s a Saturday night chance to gather with friends for musical festivities on what’s seen by those in the know as a special occasion.
The Greyboy Allstars specialize in a groovy, acid jazz style that mixes funk, soul, jazz, blues, fusion and a bit of space rock for an adventurous, feel good sound that never fails to ignite a dance floor. They’ve recorded some fine albums over the years, but this band has to be experienced live to get the full effect of blissful grooves that uplift the soul. The band’s live performance at Seattle’s KPLU was recently named by NPR as one of the top 10 public radio studio sessions of 2013. But catching the band in a hometown holiday show is the place to get the complete funk effect.
The first set finds the band in fine form with bassist Chris Stillwell, drummer Aaron Redfield and guitarist Elgin Park (aka Mike Andrews) locked together like a groove machine. Denson always dazzles on the sax, the flute and with charismatic blues power vocals. Keyboardist Robert Walter is the band’s secret weapon, able to elevate a hot groove into interstellar space jam territory with deep sounds on the organ and electric piano. Then Stillwell’s bass lines seem to pop a bit more, Redfield’s snare seems to hit a little tighter and Denson’s horn dazzles even higher. There’s a chemistry with this unit that just refuses to let them drift apart, even if each is involved in other projects.
It’s a strong first set, but the night really comes to life with an epic rendition of the Greyboy classic “Happy Friends” to open the second set. It’s one of the band’s tried and true funky jam vehicles, with Denson blowing sweet sax lines atop the hot grooves. But then Walter leads the band on a surprising left turn into jazzy fusion jam with a spacey vibe that strongly recalls Bitches Brew era Miles Davis.
The new track “Old Crow” gets into a soulful down-tempo vintage sound. It gives the room a chance to catch its breath, yet with an old school vibe that keeps the mood festive thanks to Park’s funky wah-wah guitar. The staccato of “Multiplier” is another groove generator from the new Inland Emperor that finds everyone on the dance floor getting down, including an Indian family of widely varying age. There’s something uplifting about seeing people who are clearly pushing senior citizen status getting a groove on to a band like the Greyboy Allstars. Chalk it up as another win for the power of funk to bring people together.
Stillwell lays down an aggressive up-tempo bassline on “Serpico”, while Denson adds some laid back flute, making for a dynamic blend of tones. Then the band cranks up “Still Waiting”, one of the top tracks from 2007’s What Happened to Television. Denson vents in cathartic style on a smoking jam about losing his girl. There’s great solos from Walter and Denson as the band gels in classic fashion, keeping the dance party swinging while also mixing in impressive solos.
“Toys R Us” seems like an appropriate finale with Christmas just four days away. It’s another hot groove with that stellar Greyboy chemistry between Park’s funky chords, Stillwell’s jumping bass, Walter’s talking organ, Redfield’s tight beat and Denson’s dazzling sax. The place has cleared out a bit here in the second set, which speaks to San Diego’s lagging music scene in general, particularly on a Saturday night. But the diehard fans know that this is indeed a special occasion to be savored until the end with one of the grooviest bands on the planet.