For a bunch of nerdy-looking guys who appear as if they haven’t seen the sun in years, Galactic sure do make a joyful noise.
Galactic plays highly danceable instrumental funk, but unlike some jam bands they don’t allow their songs to overstay their welcomes. They mix up their grooves and make each song its own funky little world. The packed crowd moved and grooved to every song, responding to each change. Some songs stayed smoothly pocketed, others built to tribal rhythms and howls, and the band used effects to flavor, but not falsify, their organic beats and textures.
Though Galactic has been around in one form or another for more than a decade, they’re new to my radar, and if you told me they had never had a singer, I would have believed it. Sax and harmonica whiz Ben Ellman makes a fine front man. When he hangs back to give room to Rich Vogel’s Hammond B3 organ improvisations, there’s plenty of groove to spare too.
Unfortunately I was able to stay only for the first set, since Irving Plaza’s lack of seating makes long concerts difficult to stick out. But that set featured a surprise appearance by an extremely hoarse but still fiery Mavis Staples, who was in town for her own concert with James Brown. I don’t know why her upper register was so gone – she sounds great on her recent blues album – and the band did only a serviceable job backing her up. But it was still a treat to see the legend in the flesh performing (of course) the Staples Singers’ best-known hits, “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”
Though originally inspired by the musical traditions of their hometown of New Orleans, Galactic’s current sound owes nearly as much to Blood Sweat & Tears as it does to The Meters. In fact, when Ellman used his effects and combined with Vogel to create the illusion of a full horn section, I found myself drifting back to my first ever rock concert: Chicago, at Aqueduct Racetrack in the pouring rain, about 1978. (Probably back then I would have been able to stand up for two sets, too.) But in essence, the present version of Galactic is a solid funk band, simple as that. I’ve long found it interesting that the jam band scene is where white kids are exposed to the great traditions of American (and other) music. I don’t think every Deadhead realized what an education she was getting back in the 70s. (I myself first heard of Etta James when my Deadhead friends were listening to her guest-fronting the Dead). I’ve seen the current jam band kids bopping to bands that dress like hippies but play unadulterated polka music, not to mention zydeco, New Orleans funk, blues and soul. It’s great, if you ask me.