A necessary dose of the funk
As someone whose tastes were shaped or warped, for better or worse, by growing up in the butt-nugget milieu of Stockton, California, I need an occasional ingestion of raw, uncut funk. Otherwise, I start behaving in a fashion that tends to get me in trouble with my surrounding environment. So I’m happy to report that the Trombone Shorty gig at Harlow’s gave me enough metaphorical Thunderbird to run on for at least a week, maybe more.
I got there in time for the last few songs by the Nibblers; my friend Jeff had telephoned earlier in the day, and he had tickets to see the Kings-Timberwolves game at Arco, so he and Jerry and Jerry’s son Eli and I went. I won’t digress into talking about basketball except to say that it was a fun night watching Tyreke Evans, Carl Landry and the rest of that young team do a number on a hobbled Minnesota squad, and by the time I got to Harlow’s I was in a damned good mood. I also won’t digress into talking about Harlow’s, except to say that that particular venue’s historic layer of designer skank left by generations of young urban professionals unhinging on certain stimulants of South American origin was dissipated, at least momentarily, by Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. And I won’t digress into talking about the Nibblers; I will go see that band at the Torch Club before forming any judgment, because whatever I can recall of the Nibblers set was completely wiped off my brainpan by what followed.
Funk is all about interplay; it arises from a shared sense of syncopation. First, you need a drummer and a bass player that can provide the interlocking propulsion of, say Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter, Jr., respectively, which Joey Peebles and Mike Ballard of Trombone Shorty’s backup band, Orleans Avenue, certainly did. And while it is uncommon for a funk band to serve up the funk without a Hammond B-3 or clavinet or Fender Rhodes, Orleans Avenue doesn’t feature any keyboards. So guitarist Pete Murano, playing a Les Paul, had his hands full. I wasn’t all that nuts about some of his soloing, for which he employed an Arista-era Carlos Santana tone, but his ninth-chord vamps and chicken-scratch rhythmic riffs added fine flavor to the mix. The horn section featured Dan Oestericher on baritone sax and Clarence Slaughter on tenor, which backed or locked in with Shorty’s trombone and, occasionally, trumpet work just nicely. And it might be easy to overlook the contributions of conga player Dwayne Williams, because you don’t hear as much Latin percussion these days, but it really helps dial in a voodoo vibe to keep things moving forward.
Which they did. I’d staked out a spot on the dance floor against a vertical steel girder at about 11 o’clock stage left, because, standing well over six feet tall, I tend to be acutely conscious that my size can block sightlines for people behind me. Once the band got jumping, I lost awareness of that, only reminded when someone encroached on the real estate I’d homesteaded, like the mook who backed into me, then started guido fist-pumping; any closer, and I would have been giving him a hillbilly jailhouse cornholing that would have been embarrassing, in such a public context, to the both of us. I’d have preferred my lap navigator in such a bus-driving situation to be one of the nasty-ass females around me whose inhibitions and libidos seemed to have gotten unleashed by the music, akin to the properties of the mythical Spanish fly we used to hear about in junior-high locker rooms. That was some primal shit, and it was difficult to watch, knowing that I’d arrived alone and most likely would be leaving that way.
Ah, but the music — a nonstop cornucopia of funk that swerved from Meters to Parliament-Funkadelic to Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band to the Isley Brothers to the Hi Records rhythm section, with plenty of stops in between — did not let up. Not even when Orleans Avenue locked into a version of the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” that segued into, if I can recall correctly, “Fiyo on the Bayou,” of then shifted downtempo into a nice instrumental version of All Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” then into a sung version of Marvin Gaye’s pudendously stupendous classic “Let’s Get It On.” I mean, if the George Clinton line about funk being its own reward was true, then the audience came out of the transaction quite wealthy.
At their most pedestrian, Orleans Avenue was like Tower of Power on a particularly good night. At their best, they were transcendent. So bonus points for the Nibblers for having the cojones to open up for these guys, which, in Biblical terms, was like Daniel walking into a den of lions. —Jackson Griffith