Road grooves

Galactic’s steady touring schedule last year “tightened up” the band, reports keyboardist Rich Vogel — but not so much that a little fresh inspiration couldn’t seep in.

On the heels of all that road time, the band’s second release, Crazyhorse Mongoose (Capricorn, 1998) strays from their debut effort (Coolin’ Off — Capricorn, 1996) in ways not so easy to define. Though basically the same blend of old-school funk and acid jazz, Crazyhorse sounds more thoughtful, and perhaps a touch more confident — a logical outcome, notes Vogel.

“We play so much that we can’t do the same thing over and over,” he explains. “We were on the road a solid year before we recorded that album. We were touring five or six nights a week, playing more gigs in that year than we had in the previous four years.”

Galactic’s sound, continues Vogel, was also shaped by what band members were listening to through all those road miles. “Fans who haven’t seen the band in a while might be struck with the fact that there’s a little more of a jazz sensibility.”

Galactic was started by longtime friends Robert Mercurio (bass) and Jeff Raines (guitar), who came to New Orleans for college and quickly opted for a more groove-intensive approach to learning, in Crescent City clubs. At Benny’s (a now-defunct after-hours club on Valence Street) they met their future singer, Theryl de Clouet, a veteran of the New Orleans scene who played with the Neville Brothers before they were even a band. Drummer Stanton Moore and saxophonist Ben Ellman now round out Galactic.

Blending the soulful vocals of a New Orleans native with the eager ambitions of young interlopers is common in the city, says Vogel, who can think of only one term to describe the Big Easy scene. “In a word, it’s vibrant,” he explains. “It’s really happening. A lot of us are transplants; we came to New Orleans under the pretense of going to school. Then there are some great young, serious jazz artists studying in the University of New Orleans program under Ellis Marsalis, and some young funk bands like us doing a similar thing.”

This “thing” he refers to seems to be as much lifestyle as music; by getting their education on the road, Galactic has been able to grow with a hands-on lesson plan that’s included opening for Widespread Panic (sometimes playing before 10,000 people) and performing on this summer’s H.O.R.D.E tour. Traveling with big-name acts has helped Galactic attract its own fan base, an unwieldy but solid lot. And their recent CD-release party (held on a riverboat on the Mississippi) brought home just how varied those fans really are.

“[One attendee] said she was really surprised at the diversity of our audience,” he recalls — a sentiment the keyboardist gratefully shares. “We attract a mix, which is really cool. Because of our association with Widespread Panic, we’ve got the neo-hippie kids –‘Jerry’s Kids,’ or whatever you want to call them, even though our music is nothing like Widespread Panic’s. Then we get the older people, too. And in the bigger cities like San Francisco and New York, where there are DJs spinning acid jazz, we try to tap into that kind of hipster urban scene.”

New Orleans audiences, though, stand apart from all of them, he notes.

“I think of a New Orleans audience as people who are more outgoing and really adventuresome about their music,” says Vogel, summing up that unique beast.

The severely rationed time slots on the H.O.R.D.E. tour forced the band to abort their inherent improvisational urges and deliver expertly seasoned nuggets of sound. While acknowledging their music’s basic incompatibility with such a format, Vogel allows that the tour was a good disciplinarian.

“Usually, we know what song we’re going to start with, then we just feel our way through it, and it just evolves,” he explains. “For the first time, we had to really make a set list — because we only had 30 minutes, and we had to come up with the best way to represent ourselves, give people a little sample. We got better at it [throughout] the tour,” he adds with a laugh.

Maybe so, but the most impressive track on Crazyhorse Mongoose is the brooding, uncontainable “Quiet, Please,” a deeply nuanced groove that stews for more than 10 minutes.

“Nice, concise four-minute tunes can be effective, but sometimes you just have to let whatever happens, happen,” Vogel concludes.


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