There's no rule that says funk and soul bands have to be big. But I think we'd all agree that it helps.
Consider the history of funk: Kool and the Gang, who've sold more than 70 million albums, swelled well into double-digit membership; George Clinton's various Parliament/Funkadelic lineups, or the heyday of Earth, Wind and Fire, the same. Once musicians get a taste of the big-band sound, it's fair to say they rarely go back to playing trios and quartets (unless they need to, for financial reasons). There are sonic reasons for bigness, of course, but it's partly about ganging up on your audience, overpowering them with grooves until they're forced to dance. (Also: if nobody comes to your show, at least you've got your own party onstage.)
West End Blend, a Hartford ensemble engaged in a Thursday-night residency through he end of May at Hartford's Arch Street Tavern, has 14 musicians: one singer, one rapper, two guitars, bass, keys, drums, two percussionists and a five-piece horn section. One of the guitarists, Jesse Combs, and drummer Sam Horan were the early catalysts for getting the players, who all lived in Hartford's West End, together in the first place.
"Eight of the members were living on the same street," Combs said. "Eventually, it turned into everyone getting together to play music."
The players also loosely congregated around the University of Hartford's Hartt School, some as performance majors, others studying recording techniques or audio engineering. (As of this month, they will all have graduated.) Horan, Combs said, is the de facto leader. "He's been working really hard to promote and book the band," Combs said. The other guitarist, Mike Dipanfilo, handles recordings and other duties. "But we all consider Sam to be the leader," Combs said.
For about a year, West End Blend performed every Thursday at various downtown Hartford venues, learning the ins and outs of rump-shaking. "We were trying to get as much material into our set as possible," Combs said, "just learning songs really quickly and not getting a lot of time to work on originals. To be honest, with that many people, we thought we'd be lucky if we just had a good time and made some beer money."
But with a profile that's quickly escalating — thanks in part to a recent NPR feature and a finalist slot as Best New Band in the Connecticut Music Awards — West End Blend now sees themselves as an ongoing concern, one with a solid future.
"In the past four or five months, we've realized it's now a happy accident that this is more serious than we could have ever thought," Combs said. "It's a lot of fun, and even more fun knowing the audience gets to look at a band that big."
West End Blend sounds like the funk giants mentioned earlier, but it's closer in spirit to the more recent acid jazz: the Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Digable Planets and others, who pull together various strains of funk, soul, hip-hop and jazz. Vocalist/rapper Tangsauce and singer Erica Bryan play off each other perfectly, the party's two hosts. Combs and Dipanfilo weave subtle funk lines, rarely overstepping, and keyboard player Paulie Philippone has a range of sounds to add, from warm electric piano to ambient synths, occasionally taking extended leads. The rhythm section — Horan, percussionists Alex Heaton and Andrew Cusanelli, and bassist Tom Sullivan — are as rock-solid as any you'll find in the state, and the horns — trombone player John Mundy, trumpeter Mike Bufando and sax players Zack Bartolomei, Mike Oehmen and Vicky Medieros — well, who doesn't love horns?
In Bryan and Philippone, West End Blend has two talented songwriters. An EP comes out later this summer; two songs — the neo-disco "Speak" and "The Split," a jazz-inflected slow-burner — are already up on their SoundCloud page.
The market for big-band funk in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Combs said, is surprisingly bullish.
"There's a resurgence of throwback funk bands," Combs said. "It's great, because if other bands are doing well, it's great for us too. It's such a tight-knit community [of funk groups] that anytime we get to make friends with other bands, we'll do that… We've opened for bands that have a bigger following than us, and we really see the potential for our own band. We couldn't be happier with the response to the music."
WEST END BLEND performs on Thursday, May 22, and again on May 29 at Arch Street Tavern in Hartford. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $5. Information: archstreettavern.com