In New Orleans, funk is important. They pump it into the water supply like fluoride. It’s as vital as air or étouffée.
And when New Orleans funk is discussed, a few names spring to mind: the late boogie-woogie piano master Professor Longhair, the great R&B bandleader Dave Bartholomew (still going strong at 91), ’70s funk/R&B icons Dr. John, the Meters and the Neville Brothers, second-line brass bands like Dirty Dozen and Rebirth. For the last 20 years or so, any essential rundown of New Orleans funk has had to include Galactic, a limber-limbed collective consisting of one local boy (drummer Stanton Moore), four transplants (bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist Jeff Raines, keyboard player Rich Vogel and saxophonist Ben Ellman), and a host of frequent guest collaborators. Musically, they’ve expanded the funk borders of New Orleans, into complementary genres, including hip-hop and jam-band rock. And new geographies, too. Their latest album, Carnivale Electricos, carries NOLA funk further south, through the zydeco-rich bayous and Mardi Gras Indian-lined streets of greater Louisiana to Brazil, the southernmost nerve center of the Carnival tradition.
“We didn’t want to display some Brazilian music in any, ‘Hey, here are these Americans playing Brazilian music’ sort of way,” said Vogel, from his New Orleans home, a stone’s throw from the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place every year. “We wanted to let some Brazilians bring it into the Galactic matrix, or whatever you’d call it. We realized, and had some sense, that this Carnival tradition, which of course has its own music, is this phenomenon of certain areas of which the northern bowl is New Orleans. It really is a phenomenon of Brazil up throughout the Caribbean to New Orleans.”
You’d have to get pretty deep into colonial history, Vogel said, to describe, from a musician’s point of view, the essential distinctions between NOLA Carnival music and the Brazilian traditions Galactic have embraced on Carnivale Electricos. For a musician who arrived in New Orleans as a student many years ago, you get the sense that Vogel, as well as the rest of the band, has studied up on their hometown’s musical traditions. “We knew we were interested in making a Carnival record,” Vogel said. “We’ve been a New Orleans band for a long time. A lot of people we admired had made records that became New Orleans standards... We thought, ‘Maybe there’s a way we can approach this, kind of a Galactic way, and bring in some of the other parts of the Carnival world.’ Brazil kept coming up, especially through the artists we had connections with. We said, ‘That’s kinda cool.’ It represents the northern and southern poles of Carnival.”
The post-Katrina turnaround in New Orleans is in the process of capturing the pop-cultural attention nationwide, from the HBO show Treme, to the multitude of restaurants featured on the Food Network, to the successes (and scandals) of the NFL’s Saints. Living in and around the city, Vogel and Galactic have had front-row seats to the revival. “Every month and year that’s gone by there’s been some sort of improvement,” he said. “But we had nowhere to go but up. By the grace of God, we’ve been coming up, there’s no doubt about it. It was slow and bitter and hard and discouraging at first. There were a few really shitty years, ’06 and ’07, but what can I say? This is a place that people won’t give up on... We’ve pulled ourselves together.”
At a certain point, distinctions between natives and transplants fall away; college and graduate students, people who’ve moved there for work or recreation, even folks who attend Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest every year will tell you: once New Orleans gets in your blood, it doesn’t leave. If you’re a New Orleans band, the first, second and third questions you get from journalists tend to be about New Orleans. “We are a band where everything we do is rooted in, somewhere connected to and drawing from New Orleans,” said Vogel, “and music and the history that we got fascinated in as a bunch of guys trying to play down here. That’s what brought us all together.”
As young players, the members of Galactic found themselves in clubs and uptown bars. “From seeing the Meters, you’d go see the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s not far away,” Vogel said. “There was a bar called Benny’s... It was a gutted house, the band played in a gutted room, the walls were torn out, the plaster, the studs were still there... We stumbled in there as 18-year-old kids... We had discovered this other planet, and there was one that we knew pretty quickly to part to be a part of, this planet New Orleans.” Galactic have succeeded in joining that world; they’ve chosen not to attempt to play New Orleans roots music in a completely authentic manner, and their sound has taken a number of twists and turns over the years. But Vogel said, at its heart and soul, it’s still New Orleans-based music.
“It’s really about live energy and a show that brings that vitality,” Vogel said. “We saw that, and we saw what it can be like, and we can produce for other people.”
In addition to putting out a great record this year, Galactic played on the Main Stage at Jazz Fest, right before the Foo Fighters. “It was a great set,” Vogel said. “I live near the fairgrounds, and I walked over to play that set. To walk six blocks to the fairgrounds play before 30,000 people, or whatever the number was, it’s pretty amazing.” Jazz Fest, of course, means not only the two weekends of the festival proper but also the endless variety of late-night sets, performed all around town by countless bands, both weekends and beyond. Galactic did their own set of late shows at Tipitina’s, but Vogel said the fairgrounds show was “icing on the cake... Even if your vision is still blurred from the night before, you get by on adrenaline. You finish your set and get something to eat.”
This week, Connecticut residents have three shots at catching up with Galactic, who’ll perform at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Aug. 10 as well as two nights at Norfolk’s Infinity Hall on Aug. 14-15. All three shows feature singer Corey Glover, a longtime member of Living Colour and frequent guest with Galactic. “He brings tremendous vocal ability, range and presence to our show,” Vogel said. “It’s just what the doctor ordered. We’ve worked with various vocalists on recordings and the question arises: How do we reproduce this stuff and have it work and be able to cover a range that’s required?... We’ve literally had two guests vocalists that we’ve taken out on the road, and that’s Corey Glover and the great Cyril Neville.”
Galactic w/Corey Glover, Aug. 10, 8 p.m., $37, The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge, Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org; Aug. 14-15, 8 p.m., $40, $60, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Road, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com