The thing to know going into a Free Flow show is that, yes, that’s a drum machine. “Don’t get hung up on that,” says guitarist and vocalist Lane “LT” Thaw. “Get past it.”
The drum machine serves a specific purpose for the local R&B and funk band. Since most of the group’s catalog is covers (albeit recast in Free Flow’s signature style and often worked up to incorporate elements of three or four or five different songs), it’s important for a song to be recognizable. “We do songs from back in the ’80s when a lot of stuff was done with drum machine. It’s hard to replicate that with a live drummer,” says vocalist and keyboardist Kevin “Kazual” Collins. “I’m not knocking the live drummer, but when we do Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry,’ and I program that signature drum sound into the samplers, people know what it is right off the top.”
Back in the ’80s, there were only five or six drum machines being used, says Collins. A musician who knew his gear could place a particular drum machine by ear. “With the inception of samplers, you knew where people got certain sounds from. You can recognize a James Brown sample anywhere,” he says. “I don’t normally run loops. I deconstruct it, try to find out what sounds they used and go from there. There’s an art to sampling.”
Collins, who grew up in Asheville, had been in various bands with the same group of guys for years. He joked that they’d only ever play two shows — Bele Chere and Goombay — breaking up following Goombay and regrouping in time to start practicing for the next Bele Chere. About a decade ago, Collins formed Free Flow (with a friend who has since left the group) “to bring something different and do some stuff that people wouldn’t expect.” They quickly added fellow Asheville natives Roger “Li’l Rog” Ware on lead vocals and percussion and Darrel “BNote” Griffin on bass and vocals.
The band’s bio describes Griffin as the heartbeat of Free Flow. “He’s the heaviest-groove bass player ever,” says Thaw. “Sometimes he even breaks my concentration, and I go, ‘What a deep pocket.’” Because of the hefty bass part, Thaw names George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” among his favorites that Free Flow performs. But part of the magic of that selection is that Collins, on a dime, will work in a snippet from another song, or take the whole thing in an unexpected direction.
“Me and Darrell, we know a lot of old-school. He’ll hear a bass line in his head that’ll be in the same key as something that we’re doing, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, you want to go there,’ and I’ll follow. Or he’ll follow me,’” says Collins. He and Griffin go back to grade school. Their chemistry comes from knowing each other for so long and “just having fun. We try to make it fun onstage.”
The band expects its audience to make it fun offstage, too. “We’re not a sit-and-watch band,” says Thaw. “Don’t hold up the wall.”
Originally from Brooklyn, he relocated to Asheville in the late ’90s and joined funk outfit Information Network. While Thaw calls Ray Kelly, that band’s drummer, “a big influence on me,” it’s Free Flow — which he joined in 2006 — that he describes as “the guardians of funk.”
Part of that is because the band draws fans from across generations and social groups. Over the Fourth of July holiday, Free Flow played the class reunion of two black segregated schools. The youngest of that group was in his late 60s, and everyone was still up dancing. Over the years, Free Flow has performed regularly at Tressa’s and the now-closed Magnolia’s; Pack’s Tavern is a new favorite room because the crowd can push back the tables and show off its best moves.
“We’ll pull in new material if we can make it fit in our genre,” Thaw says. Pharrell’s “Happy” is a recent addition to the set list, and at the Montford Music & Arts Festival in May, Free Flow did a version of “Get Lucky” that Daft Punk would likely approve of. But, the guitarist adds, “We’re also not afraid to play some old Temptations.”
WHO: Free Flow
WHERE: Pack’s Tavern, packstavern.com
WHEN: Saturday, July 26, at 9 p.m. No cover