I went to see Lettuce last week. Great show. I brought my friend Doober, who hadn’t been to a funk show in a long time. We needed good funk music on this cold night in January, and Lettuce delivered.
It’s one of the great American pastimes, yeah? Dancing to funk music. It’s a phrase that feels pleasing as it rolls off the tongue: Dancing to funk music. “We’re going to go dance to some funk music tonight. Come on, won’t you join?” I don’t know. Maybe not everybody talks like that anymore.
The Cleveland show isn’t up on nugs.net yet, so I’m making do with the Covington, Ky., show from the following night as I’m writing this. The lights of Cleveland’s small collection of towers is filtering into the living room.
Earlier, I was reading Ted Gioia’s How to Listen to Jazz. He mentions Buddy Bolden in the “Origins of Jazz” chapter, and I recalled a brilliant essay written by Luc Sante that I read last year. “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” is a fantastic piece on the cosmic weirdness that led to the early stirrings of funk. Everything fell into place on one steamy night in New Orleans a long time ago. Small moments in a small corner of the planet. Sante describes the birth of an idea, while Gioia describes the cultural melting pot of fringe characters and daring musicians that allowed for the birth of an idea as hot and freaky as “funk.”
The Sante piece is an excellent read.
Many things have happened since Buddy Bolden’s band first got the city all in a tizzy over their scandalous song, “Funky Butt,” but I think it’s worth looking around and relishing the current generation of improv-friendly funk bands on tour these days. It’s a bounty of riches in many cases. Lettuce, Snarky Puppy, Turkuaz, Galactic, Dumpstaphunk, Orgone, The Motet, The New Mastersounds and so on. It’s a beautiful time to catch road warrior bands that are still working small clubs and still hitting rooms in the Midwest with a healthy frequency. This is deep music, and it’s right outside your door!
Funk is a universal language with infinite dialects. It’s a highly personalized experience for both musician and listener. It’s an outsider art form that requires patience, diligence, passion. You’re made to do something when you confront it, whatever it is. You can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.
To move is a human need. We tame the mind and body with meditation, but we revel in our unique, fungal forms by dancing, by running, by loving in slow, timeless motion.
“Buddy Bolden is the first man who played blues for dancing,” said bassist Papa John Joseph, who later died at Preservation Hall in 1965 immediately after performing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and turning around and telling his bandmates, “That about took everything out of me.” Buddy did it, and now we’ve got a century of rhythms and syncopated joy to spin on a wintry Monday evening in Cleveland. It took a few decades for the meaning to coalesce around the signifier, for funk music to become itself, but here we are. If you’re looking, there’s plenty to go around.
And musicians are stashing more of this fine gumbo with each passing show. That’s the point of the tour, to spin new stories in new places.
Funk music is best served live. Don’t miss it!