While local singer/songwriter Josh Blake is enthusiastic Big Money Band (the feel-good folk-rock departure from his regular stint with hip-hop collective GFE), he's sometimes lukewarm about the group's name. What was meant in the spirit of fun, he worries, “might give people the wrong impression about why we play music.”
Not the case. Material gain matters to the musician as much as it can provide a livelihood for his friends and family, but beyond the name it's “because there are so many bands out there with a second job to make ends meet.” (Blake, a member of several local bands and father or three, also runs a side business that puts ATMs in retail outlets.)
That and, “We're big —there's a lot of us on stage — and we're money, baby.”
Blake's Big Money Band is made up of the members of local funk outfit Strut (Patrick Thomas with brothers Casey and Elijah Kramer) with keys player Frank Mapstone and backup singers Melissa Albert and Carolyn Smith. For the upcoming Orange Peel show — a Phish ticket giveaway event for which Blake was hand-picked to headline — GFE bass player Cricket and multi-instrumentalist Matt Williams will sit in for the Cramers.
Diversifying his musical portfolio,
Blake released solo album Seed in 2000 and is currently working at Echo Mountain Studios on Trees, set to drop later this year. Those two discs are part of a larger, box-set vision: Seed, Roots, Trees and Fruits.
“I almost always write under the same umbrella of thought,” Blake says. Concepts of “positive social change” give continuity to the musician's otherwise far-flung influences. Demos for Trees include “Devil's on the Run” (which nods to both The Charlie Daniels Band's “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the Dead's “Friend of the Devil”), the edgy hippy-rock thump of “Aight,” and the funk-meets-soul of “Turn it Around” featuring Soulive's Eric “Kraz” Krasno.
If these songs seem unlikely album-mates, fear not: Blake's nimble touch is apparent in each blare of horn and pop of bass. That's why, when MTV reality series Made contacted Echo Mountain in search of someone to produce beats for a segment on an Owen High School student learning to rap, Blake was the obvious choice. The episode aired on May 14 and can be viewed on MTV's Web site. Though Blake has some misgivings about the show, he chalks it up to experience.
In fact, it seems that all of GFE's members share the view that what each performer does individually strengthens the band as a whole. “It's not like, ‘GFE is breaking up and this member is doing this,'” Blake explains. “Anything any of has to do, we're like, ‘Go get ‘em.' GFE is our tribe; it's what we do.”
Fittingly, GFE follows Blake's pre-Phish performance with a Phish after-party show, also at the Orange Peel, on Tuesday, June 9.
Blake met Granola Funk Express during the mid-90s, when that band was a traveling kitchen (hence the crunchy namesake) on the Grateful Dead and Phish tour circuit. Blake was invited by GFE MCs Cactus and Adam Strange to visit Asheville for one of the group's first shows at the now-defunct 31 Patton. The musician has been here ever since.
Early on, GFE boasted some 20 performers. Shows took place on streets and stages. Depending on which players showed up, the sound ranged from bluegrass-flavored folk to gritty, urban hip-hop. But, during 11 years of touring (often in conjunction with Dead and Phish shows; the reunions of both of these bands will see GFE back on the road this summer) the band paired down its membership and honed its style to the positive hip-hop of albums like Bigger Than It Really Is and Nickel, Nickel, Dime.
Though Blake isn't surprised that GFE is still together (“What surprises me is that we're not bigger yet; that we haven't played Bonnaroo,” he says), he has found that he needs additional outlets for his creative work. “Our shows used to be more eclectic. There was singer/songwriter stuff going on,” he notes. “As those members left, we focused more on hip-hop.” But Blake, who plays guitar as well as making beats (a combination of drum-machine loops and added instrumentation used as a foundation in hip-hop), had a personal objective for his songs that didn't always jibe with GFE's format. He's also dabbling in heavy metal with the recent project Super Collider, which he describes as being “like Bad Brains; definitely not a hair band.”
“I had to get the songs out that are inside me,” he says. Consider Blake's offshoots prime investments in that vision.
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Josh Blake & Big Money Band
what: Phish ticket giveaway show with Diocious and Modo
where: The Orange Peel
where: Saturday, June 6 (9 p.m., $10 advance, $12 at the door. www.theorangepeel.net)