The Santa Cruz Blues Festival is one of the Bay Area’s Memorial Day weekend traditions, and Saturday’s opening-day concert was a perfect introduction to the season, with a warm sun, cloudless sky, and happy dancing people stripping off winter clothes and starting on summer tans.
There were five performers on Saturday, including a group from New Orleans called Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk.
With a name like that you think of George Clinton and that’s in there, but it sounded more Sly and the Family Stone with an extra bass and a rock-n-roll drum kit, almost like a funk garage band. I even thought about Edgar Winter
a couple of times.
Two of the members are descendants of the Neville Brothers, with Ivan singing and talking from the keyboard like he was preaching from the choir, and Ian on lead guitar moving comfortably from funky counterpoint for the bass lines to guitar hero solos.
Ivan Neville Raymond Weber and Ian Neville
Drummer Raymond Weber played like the guy you want in charge of your Neighborhood Watch – substantial and secure without drawing attention to himself except when necessary.
What makes their sound, though, is that they have two bass players, Nick Daniels (below left) and Tony Hall (below right), and you can spend the entire set completely
absorbed in what they are doing. Sometimes Daniels would put out a
traditional funk sound while Hall would provide a lower rock-n-roll
thump, at other times one line would be a quasi-solo with some wa-wa
while the other was an accompaniment.
They used four-string and five-string basses to give them more range. With the variety in texture and pitch they often found that place between the bass and lead guitar, almost like the way violas sit between the violins and cellos in a symphony. It was always interesting and sounded new.
You’d worry that all this low funk would mean nothing but bass would be coming off the stage but the swirly keyboards and the vocals and Ian Neville’s guitar, sometimes filling, sometimes virtuoso, all shone through. The absence of brass is another thing that gives this band a flavor that goes beyond traditional funk. It’s bottom-heavy but doesn’t get stuck in its swamp.
For the last number Ivan came off the keyboard and picked up the
that Hall had played for some of the numbers. Ian played a solo that
wouldn’t have been out of place in early Pearl Jam and the rest of them
met in that perfect place where only music can takes you and not often enough and with their playing confirmed the
Nietzsche quote about how life without music would be a mistake.
What I liked most about the band was that I felt like I got to know them a little bit. I could imagine them playing around in the studio or a local club. There was nothing about their playing that made me think about market research, or that they built their sound or personality based on what someone told them would sell.
Some bands all you hear is how they sound like someone else, but not these guys. It’s also easy to imagine them fitting into the ecumenical New Orleans soundscape, where the primary requirements are that you get your music to move and that you not be boring in how you do it.