Inter-Galactic revelations at Ziggy’s

by Brian Clarey

During daylight hours Ziggy’s music hall in Winston-Salem seems like what it is: a tent out in the foothills framed by raw wood and with a kickass sound system.

On this afternoon, with four fans propped in windows and set to a low groan, dull light streams in from the doors and the air is heavy like a wet sweater.

There’s some frantic repair work going on: club employee Jill Martin says the weekend storms knocked out a few key power lines in the house circuit and right now she’s got a sheen of sweat coating the big five-point star tattooed on her back as she climbs, rewires and tests.

Ben Ellman, saxophonist and harpist for Galactic, the New Orleans funk band that will grace the stage in a few hours, has a little trickle going down the side of his shaved head and he drops a few hints about the band’s set list tonight.

“They’re all New Orleans-based,” he says. “‘Manic Depression’, ‘When the Levee Breaks.'”

And why not? These boys are princes of the Crescent City, its most successful musical output in a generation, though none of them are natives save for Stanton Moore, the drummer, whose childhood in Metairie barely qualifies him as a dyed in the wool New Orleanian.

No, these guys are from Washington DC, from Omaha and LA. But it was New Orleans that fueled their groove machine, that set their meters tickin’. It was the place that made them funky.

And now it makes them sad.

“There’s always some constant reminders,” Ellman says. “It’s a constant thing. You can’t escape the conversation.”

Through one of the club’s doors on either side of the stage you can see a Dumpster overflowing with cardboard boxes. From the other you can see the sleek tour bus the guys rode in on from Norfolk last night. They’re living pretty good these days after the string of successes that began in the early ’90s and has continued to build, making them, perhaps, even more commercially successful than their spiritual fathers, the Meters.

And me, I’m one of those pricks who says he knew them way back when.

Alright’… I’ll come clean: I didn’t actually know them back in the day when they were known as Galactic Prophylactic and were butchering New Orleans funk standards at the Kappa Sig house, but what the hell’… guitarist Jeff Raines went to Loyola with me and I’m pretty sure he was friends with Kirk Branch, my roommate freshman year. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Onstage a techie tests every contact point in Stanton Moore’s drum kit – at least 13 of them, by my count – and the swag table is nearly set. Showtime is 9 p.m.

At night Ziggy’s seems like something else. It’s dark, for one, with a network of ceiling fans, each festooned with a dim colored light, stirring the air. And with the murmuring crowd, the tubs being filled with beers and ice, the booze just starting to flow’… the room effuses with the promise of something special, and it nearly always delivers.

Robert Mercurio, who was studying across Freret Street at Tulane while I was at Loyola compiling the most mediocre college career my parents had ever seen, takes a walk to the courtyard. He’ll be returning to his house in the Fauborg Marigny after a sweep through Charlotte, Myrtle Beach and the Belle Chere Festival in Asheville.

“I’ve been picking up a lot of gigs down there,” he says. “There’s a lot less bass players around after the storm.”

After the first set, an acoustic performance by JJ Grey of Mofro, the crowd thins and a smoke machine shoots a jet of fog from behind the drum kit, backlit in red.

Galactic takes the stage and by the end of the first number – “Tiger Roll,” featured on the Bonaroo 2002 CD – the ground level of the music hall is jammed with boogie dancers and the band is screaming.

The room is screaming.

There are a lot of kids in here (Who the hell else goes out hard on a Wednesday?), college boys and party girls who maybe roadtripped one time to Bonaroo and think they know’… but they don’t know. They don’t know from Superfly, the Tulane guys who started out booking gigs at Checkpoint Charlie’s and moved on to promote after-hours gigs during Jazz Fest (the 4:20 series, shows which began at 4:20 a.m., created a buzz among inebriates around the nation) and went on to found the quintessential modern-day music fest Bonaroo. They don’t know TwiRoPa Mills from the Masonic Temple, and they’ve never seen Mardi Gras tourists with tackle boxes full of party favors’… and God, I’m turning into That Guy, the one who thinks he’s discovered music and everyone else is a poser.

I’ve gotta cut these kids a break. Besides, if they’re here at the Galactic show there’s hope for the future.

And the set rolls on, wrapping up with a few numbers featuring JJ Grey, who’s assumed a sporadic role as their frontman since the 2004 departure of the Houseman, Theryl DeClouet.

So good’….

But by the end of set two I’m tired. I sneak a peek at the soundman’s set list and sure enough the last two numbers are “Sympathy for the Devil” and “When the Levee Breaks.” I want to see them so bad, but for chrissakes I’ve got work in the morning and a 9 a.m. interview and a hundred other things that I’ve got to do.

Sometimes journalistic discipline is forcing yourself to stay to the very end. And sometimes it’s forcing yourself to leave before it’s all over.

Tonight as I pull off I can hear the band playing my favorite Stones tune (besides maybe “Monkey Man”). And I’m glad that the kids are still in there, holding down the groove.

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