Review by Rich Messmer
Photos by Alexander Maso
Anyone who is even faintly acquainted with Portland, OR would likely agree with the assertion that there is nothing particularly arousing about the dreary month of February. Luckily, thanks to the organizers of the annual Jazz Festival, Portland transforms into the “horny”est town in the Northwest for at least a week each year at the end of month. If getting through winter in Portland is anything like a heavyweight boxing match, February is only the seventh round. February is where it gets tiring. The ominous grey shroud that cloaks our city is gloating in the other corner. You just want it to be over, so you naively look up at the score card — only to be reminded there’s eight more rounds to go. This is why for many, the annual deluge of world class jazz that soaks our city streets is a welcome reprieve from the incessant drizzle.
On Saturday, Feb. 23 I was lucky enough to attend what was perhaps the most widely anticipated show on the slate, when the legendary funk group Galactic took the stage at the Crystal Ballroom. For those of you who don’t know, Galactic has been a perennial tour de force in the funk scene for nearly two decades. Hailing from the birthplace of jazz and jambalaya, these New Orleans natives have been grooving harder than almost anyone out there since the mid 1990s. Listener beware: This is not your dad’s funk band. These guys have truly shaped a genre of their own, masterfully blending elements of hard rock, hip hop, jazz and fusion into their filthy funk stew. Those in attendance Saturday night were exposed to the entire arsenal, as well as a few unexpected surprises.
The core of Galactic consists of five permanent members: Leader Stanton Moore on drums, Robert Mercurio on bass, Richard Vogel on the Keys, Ben Ellman on saxophone and harmonica, and Jeff Raines on the guitar. The quintet has served as a solid foundation upon which a constant shuffle of additional musicians have helped build over the years. The incarnation that came to Portland was simply spectacular, with Rebirth Brass Band trombonist Corey Henry, and legendary Living Colour front man Corey Glover lending their talents.
Anyone that has seen this group in action before knows that when Galactic enters a building, a party ensues. It was to no detriment to the atmosphere at the Crystal that the group was touring in support of their most recent album, Carnivale Electricos— a record inspired by both the Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations. Less than two weeks removed from Fat Tuesday, the beads and costumes adorning many members of the crowd added a Bourbon Street feel to the already electrified ballroom. Just before eleven o’clock the band took the stage to a packed house, and the celebration began. The group opened up with the tune “Karate,” a cut off the new album. The album version of the song is a bright and boisterous horn piece—reminiscent of something you might hear the marching band play during halftime at a Louisiana State University football game. For the live performance, they tightened it up quite a bit, turning it into a round-robin funk fusion piece, allowing each of the instrumentalists to show off as they traded solos. It was a superb opener, getting the crowds hips to start shaking the moment the first beat dropped.
The second song was another instrumental piece; this time bringing out the hype-guy and singer extraordinaire Corey Glover, to warm up the crowd before leading into one of Galactic’s heavy-hitters, “You Don’t Know.” The powerful funk-rock anthem elicited a giant roar from the well warmed crowd. Glover plowed through the soaring chorus with a grit and effectiveness that makes it unfathomable to believe that this song (as well as many others) weren’t written with him in mind. This was followed by another fan-favorite off of the new album titled “Hey Na Na.” “Hey Na Na” is about as effective as a live song can get for a funk band. It’s an infectiously fun call and response tune, which Glover masterfully navigates. Between his verses, Glover beckoned the refrain of “hey na na na hey” that nary a soul in the Crystal refused to partake in. If there was a body in that room that wasn’t dancing during this tune, I would wager that they probably find joy in things like doing taxes and organizing decades worth of “Home and Gardening” magazines.
Between all of the hits, Galactic never let the intensity wane. If they didn’t have the crowd dancing harder than a giraffe in an earthquake, they had them hypnotized and mesmerized with next-level soloing from any of the equally talented gentleman on stage. Usually it was both. The first real surprise of the night came on the seventh tune, when Galactic busted out the Beatles psychedelic classic “I Am The Walrus.” As the iconic first notes escaped from the Keyboard and infiltrated the crowds ears, you could see a collective moment of “wait are they about to play….. Yes, yes they are” being shared by the audience. This unforeseen surprise was a welcomed one, and the crowd sang along to every word. Perhaps to assuage any concerns from the audience that “Elenor Rigby” was coming up next, the band dug right into a hit of their own, ripping through “Heart Of Steel.” Some more highlights came a few songs later when Galactic brought out the two members of the opening hip-hop group Latryx, giving each their own chance to lend a hand on two of Galactic’s hip-hop influenced tunes, “Whatcha Need” and “No Way.”
As the night wore on at a break-neck pace, the hits and the surprises just kept on coming. Trombonist Corey Henry took over front-man duties in a warm and soulful version of an old Stones tune “All Over Now.” Henry isn’t nearly the vocalist that Glover is, but he brought a genuine swagger that effectively engaged the crowd whenever he took the spotlight, both as a singer and soloist. He’s fun to watch, and his solos are down-right mean. On one tune, he blasted out a pugnacious one note solo that was as effective as any performed during the evening. This guy knows what cool is all about.
The main set ended on a screaming crescendo. Following “All Over Now,” the crowd was slapped in the face as the guitar and drums blasted out the opening riff to Living Colour’s super-hit “Cult of Personality.” It’s hard to imagine a universe in which this song doesn’t rock harder than a row-boat in a hurricane (except maybe one where ABBA plays it), but with Galactic behind him, Glover had this song sounding as strong as it ever has. This led into the last song, another high energy Galactic favorite, a cover of the Toussaint-written Pointer Sisters classic “Goin Down Slowly.”
The band left the stage following “Goin Down Slowly,” but the crowd didn’t let them go far. After just a few short minutes of high decibel beckoning from the crowd, the group returned to a deafening cheer. The first song of the encore was the most soulful of the night. It induced a shoulder swaying sing-a-long from the crowd as Glover repeated the one line refrain “Does it really make a difference” over and over, sweetened all the more by the backing horn section. It was a perfect set-up for the final song of the evening, a very unexpected cover of Paul Simon’s, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”