Better clear out the chairs for this band: It’s participation music, with grooves that make you move in ways not always compatible with stable things like furniture.
“We don’t want to do stuff you just have to sit back and listen to, concert-style,” declares drummer Ray Kelly of the Asheville-based Information Network.
No, this group is all about emphasizing the “fun” in “funk,” he proclaims.
Let’s face it: Any old body can drive an audience a little crazier than they normally are, here in the shallow end of the 20th century. But it takes a rare kind of showmanship to make a mixed-class, mixed-race, mixed-generation, mixed-taste-in-music group wiggle their tired butts in unison.
And it doesn’t hurt to have a street degree in interpersonal psychology, either.
“Yeah, it’s hard — you gotta read that crowd,” explains Kelly, a youthful grandfather who’s been playing in dance bands since grade school. “You have to see what their reaction is and what they are reacting to; that’s what we do. And that’s what we’ve been trying to promote.”
Kelly (formerly with Archie Bell and the Drells) reports that Information Network is currently the only African-American band in town. “Oh, yeah, we’ve got a monopoly right now,” he says, a distinct trace of irony in his voice. He witnessed the demise of Asheville’s African-American nightclub scene firsthand during the ’70s.
“There were about four black nightclubs right along Biltmore Avenue, like the Kitty Cat Club,” he points out. “And there was the On Broadway Club. … But when disco came in, it knocked out a lot of bands.”
As prerecorded music replaced live bands, he recalls, it marked the end of an era when African-American stars like Sam Cooke visited Asheville on a regular basis, playing for large, predominantly African-American audiences. And it put local musicians like Kelly on the road or out of work.
About a year ago, Information Network came up with an innovative strategy to open up the music scene for Asheville’s African-American community.
“With nowhere for anybody to play, and the Senior Opportunity Center being where it is, a lot of blacks rent it out for private dances and other functions. And it’s affordable. So that’s what gave us a little tip, that, ‘Hey! This is about the only time we can play in town to get blacks out to dance.’ So we started renting it [for shows]. … It’s B.Y.O.B., so you can bring your own booze, instead of paying $5 a drink. And we don’t have no dress code, just come as you are.”
The few performances they’ve organized at the little-publicized venue have been successful gigs for the band, as well as for the local African-American community. But Information Network wants to spread that experience around large, to anybody and everybody who likes to get funky.
Kelly says the band is thrilled — and encouraged — that some local club owners share the vision of an expanded music scene encompassing a more diversified audience (the group now plays regularly at Stella Blue, as well as occasional stints at Vincent’s Ear).
When Information Network juiced up the opening ceremonies for this year’s Goombay Festival, the band’s rendition of the-artist-formerly-known-as-you-know-who’s “Purple Rain” had the crowds on their feet in a rockin’ frenzy, just across the street from police headquarters. (And that’s no small feat in this town, where a Mountain Xpress reader was recently accosted by a cop for merely dancing a jig across a vacant lot.)
Primarily a cover band, Information Network plays music ranging from James Brown to Boy George, blending R&B, Motown, acid funk, and ’70s and ’80s rock. “But I don’t label music,” Kelly insists. “I just say we play a lot of music that has a bass line and that good back beat. That’s how we pick it out.”
This band (also featuring Keith Hassel on keyboards, Howard Jefferson on guitar, Ricky Morgan on bass and Bill Morman on vocals) is tighter-than-tight — their music, honed keen as a knife, cuts an audience loose.
As bass and keyboards dig a groove as deep as a subway train underneath the dance floor, Morman sings with his hips as well as his lips, transforming wallflowers with old-fashioned soul power. Psychedelic locomotion on Jefferson’s lead guitar, and drum beats that get the skeleton shakin’, team up to leave audiences feeling like they’re hang-gliding over a flash-flood of funk.
Oh, one more thing: There may be no dress code at the Senior Opportunity Center, but wear your happy feet. Because, as the man declares, “We want you to dance!”