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New Orleans band grows funk in Greensboro

by Brian Clarey

In a world-famous bar known as the Maple Leaf, just outside the borders of New Orleans’ Pigeontown neighborhood, a man named John Gros was asked to get up and play.

Gros, a practitioner of the Hammond B3, came up in the New Orleans funk scene through the Runnin’ Pardners, a wildly popular band in the city led by the bass player for the Meters, George Porter Jr. John had time in his schedule to host a jam at the Leaf on Monday nights, so he called a few friends from the scene and put something together.

Within a few months the loose group of musicians had a name: Papa Grows Funk. And a band was born.

‘“This band grew out of those Monday night jam sessions,’” John Gros (pronounced ‘“grow’”) says by telephone from Baton Rouge, where he’s helping family members deal with the disaster. ‘“We started screwing around on Monday nights and the phone started ringing six months later.’”

Gros stacked the deck with veteran bass player Marc Pero and saxophonist Jason Mingledorff. For his lead guitarist, he solicited the aid of expatriate Japanese national and New Orleans resident June Yamagishi, who gets his own paragraph as follows.

Yamagishi was a member of the first electric blues band in Japan, the West Road Blues Band, and has played with BB King, Dr. John, John Mooney, Bobbie Womack and Shuggie Otis. He spent time recording in LA before moving to New Orleans in 1995, playing with now-deceased Michael Ward’s band, the Reward with future Galactic frontman Theryl ‘Houseman’ De Clouet. He eventually joined Big Chief Bo Dollis’ Mardi Gras Indian band the Wild Magnolias and became an honorary member of the tribe. His knowledge of the guitar and its music is encyclopedic, and his chops are admired by all of the heavy hitters in town.

‘“I met [June] in the Maple Leaf of all places,’” Gros says. ‘“I said, ‘Hey, you wanna do a couple gigs?’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ [When] the opportunity for this Monday night jam session came along, I said, ‘June is the guy I want to play with.’

‘“He’s turned into one of my closest friends, one of my mentors. He’s seen and done everything in the music business,’” Gros says with affection. ‘“He’s very wise.’”

The band quickly became a fixture and a draw, not only at the Maple Leaf but at other, larger venues in town. They earned the endorsement from the city’s premier funk band, the original Meters, when they played at that band’s reunion show in November 2000, when Gros reunited with Porter, his former bandleader, and was acknowledged by the undisputed master of the New Orleans funk genre, Art ‘Papa Funk’ Neville.

They’re going to be at the Blind Tiger Saturday night. And they’re going to blow it out.

‘“We do it Maple Leaf style,’” says Gros. ‘“We prefer to play a two-hour show, no set list, no thought process involved. We just get up and start working out a tune, and one tune leads to another and to another. There’s little pockets and grooves, and by the end of the night everybody’s sweating and exhausted’… if we get it right.’”

Gros and company are one of a huge number of New Orleans bands that are suddenly without a home base, without the stability of regular gigs in their home city, in some cases without even the instruments they need to ply their trades.

Gros considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.

‘“My neighborhood is fine, but the city is devastated and it’s gonna take a long time to rebuild it,’” Gros says. ‘“It’s important to keep it in the papers and on the news so people are aware of how much rebuilding needs to be done in this town.’”

Gros and his band were in Japan for the month of August, he says, and he wasn’t able to get back to the city until about two weeks ago.

‘“I got to my house,’” he says, ‘“turned everything on, grabbed my piano and went to the Maple Leaf. I just plugged up and started playing.’”

The Maple Leaf, he says, is one of the few bars in New Orleans that has reopened for business. But business is anything but brisk in the flood-ravaged town where residents are trying to reestablish the culture of the city and at the same time deal with the economic realities of the disaster.

He says of his recent Crescent City gigs: ‘“It’s more of a community service thing than actually trying to make a living with it right now. To me it’s our responsibility to keep doing what we do in town, just to show people that our culture is alive and well, that it’s not going to be killed.’”

This is the band’s first gig in Greensboro, but if they get a good reception, we may be hearing more from them in the future.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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