Hot Politics creates a movement

by Dave Roberts

“Who’s drunk tonight?”

The question earns Tommy Scifres, lead singer and guitarist of the funk/soul/jam band Hot Politics, a scattered series of affirmative hoots and squeals from the crowd at the Rhinoceros club. Half an hour ago the place was virtually empty, a seeming oddity for 10 o’clock on a Friday night, but now teems with funk and alcohol fans alike in their late 20s/early 30s.

The club itself is bizarrely refined in its décor: the taps behind the bar protrude from a block of marble upon which sits a bronze mermaid, swimming frozen through a pair of candelabra; a row of booths made from freshly polished, cherry-stained oak line the wall opposite, above the length of which runs a bookcase with cloth-bound volumes punctuated by the occasional wine or liquor bottle; the centerpiece is an ornate brass clock flanked by ebony cherubs. Upon first entrance, one might think oneself in a colonial British saloon in 19th century Africa – an impression cemented by the bizarre mechanical contraption running along the middle of the ceiling that does the work of several menservants by waving palm fans back and forth – the kind of place Allan Quatermain might drink in between adventures, if not for the Marilyn Manson blaring on the stereo before the band takes the stage and the sweaty Ultimate Fighters doing each other all sorts of damage on the TV in the corner. The faux stuffed rhino jutting his head from the wall over the band space by the front door appears bemused by the dichotomy. It might seem a strange venue for a self-styled funk band, but Hot Politics’ style derives as much from jazz as it does traditional funk, and their clean-cut appearance is entirely in line with the crowd.

“Only two people? I said who’s drunk tonight?” Scifres repeats his question in a casual manner and is rewarded with a more uniform cheer. Satisfied, he kicks off the set with an up-tempo number dominated by Jason Bullock’s euphonium in the instrumental section that quickly brings out the dancers in the crowd, staking their claim to the territory directly in front of the stage area. Scifres’ singing voice has the same light, casual timbre, reminiscent of the singers in Phish and String Cheese Incident; and though Hot Politics has some jam band influences present in their instrument work as well, they show more direct lineage to funk, jazz and soul outfits, particularly, as they are quick to proclaim, the Greyboy Allstars.

As they break into Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Scifres announces a treat: veteran funk percussionist JP Mitchell is sitting in with them tonight. A spry, light-bearded 59 with a shock of well-groomed white hair, he makes his presence felt on the bongos without being intrusive. A Louisiana native, Mitchell’s relationship with the band predates its existence. His daughter went to high school with Scifres and Jeff Hindson, the bassist, and he remembers them coming to his shows back then.

“It’s pretty cool seeing these kids playing funk,” he will tell me later, during the set break. “I mean, I was playing this shit back when it was new.” Watching him swing dance with his wife later, we should all hope for that kind of energy when we’re pushing 60.

The band’s enthusiasm and energy is infectious. Their rendition of the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” breathes new life into an overplayed classic, during which I find myself dancing in my chair to a song I’d been sick of since junior high. Their interpretation of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” is a bit less palatable. While the instrument work is capable, and saxophone player Justin Pinkney’s vocal impression is close to perfect in its throat-tearing moments, the overall vibe is too mellow for such a high-energy song, and comes across like a soda that’s been left uncapped a little too long: still bubbly, but not quite as effervescent as it should be. Their next offering, an invigorating compliance of a shouted request for Prince’s “Sexy MF,” regains the momentum and the crowd goes wild with joyful recognition as they transition into the first notes of their original song “Sugar Britches.”

Halfway through the first set, Scifres demands, in his lighthearted manner, that we welcome Maggie Coble to the stage. In ripped jeans and a snow hat over long brown hair, she steps behind the mike and belts out a high energy “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman. She did the same song the first time she sang with them on a whim two months ago when they played J. Butler’s, where she was working as a waitress. Though she’s only been with the band a short time they already feel like family to her, she says. As she sings “Writing History,” an original she wrote for the group, the smile on her face says that she’s also having the time of her life.

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