Two clubs give holiday stragglers a Tour DuFunk

by Ryan Snyder

It most assuredly happened unintentionally, but two of the most popular live music venues in Greensboro went toe-to-toe over the weekend with two acts of undeniable similarities — both led by remarkably charismatic frontmen, both backed by first-class collections of musicians and both just as downright funky as they could be. With Big Sam’s Funky Nation making a tour stop at the Blind Tiger on Friday and the Soul Brothers coming together for one of their notoriously sporadic gigs at Greene Street Club on Saturday, fans of earth-shaking grooves had their calendars full over the holiday weekend. Though the similarities between the two bands are evident, from the cover-oriented nature of both to the unstoppable energy of their respective centerpieces, their differences are noteworthy. There was the obvious distinction that the Funky Nation is a recognized national touring act, while the Soul Brothers are all local musicians that collaborate for the occasional show, but there were also some minor cosmetic differences. Standing at over six feet tall and around 230 lbs, it doesn’t take 20-20 vision to see how the former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist “Big Sam” Williams earned his nickname. However, the slightof-stature Jeremy Johnson, renowned for his pinpoint James Brown portrayal, would certainly never be confused with Big Sam. In any event, his band’s tribute to the Godfather of Soul was just as impressive as the Funky Nation’s urban take on New Orleans’ classics on all fronts. Few frontmen utilize a more unconventional instrument than Big Sam, and with brass in hand, the only things working harder than his trombone slide were his feet. If he didn’t wear his NOLA heritage on his sleeve with his quickstepping secondlines, his unreserved fondness for Meters’ tunes were a dead giveaway. He took their standards “Just Kissed My Baby” and “Hey Pocky Way” into uncharted territory, as Eric Vogel (no relation to Galactic’s Rich) worked the unmistakable bass lines from origin to all-out jam to some rather unexpected, yet richly nostalgic forays into classic hip hop. To say the least, it was a welcome surprise to hear Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” make its way into the set, a song that most probably haven’t even thought about in the last 10 years. Like a musical proctologist, Big Sam reached even deeper into the annals of early ’90s R&B lore with another quirky cover, this time with Bel Biv DeVoe’s “Poison.” The Funky Nation weren’t an outright cover band, however, as they did work a few of their own cuts into the set, such as “We Gon’ Do It,” though the general lack of recognition led them to be absorbed into the brassy, bassy chaos. Still, it was the treats that they threw in for the astute music listener that made their performance compelling. Those paying attention to their playful phrasings and tempo changes could have seen Otis Reddings’ “Hard to Handle” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” coming well before Big Sam’s trombone tore into the vocal melodies. Not to be outdone on his end, Johnson put in overtime to give a venerable tribute to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. From the moment he ran through the crowd and jumped on stage with “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” Johnson was like a ball of fire both behind the mic and in the crowd grinding on every woman within 10 feet of the stage. With Daniel Mascali on guitar, his six-piece backing band nailed the furious groove that carried the Famous Flames into funk legendry. The triple-sax salvo of Keenan McKenzie, Christian McIvor and Allan Buccola relieved Johnson’s screaming vocals and afforded him the opportunity to step away from the microphone and showcase his spot-on take on Brown’s imitable floor burning. So did one show outshine the other? Absolutely not. The adequately-sized crowds that skipped the holiday traffic in favor of great music had to have been thrilled with either result; to wish for anything more would have been irrational and selfish. Both Johnson and Big Sam were sweating like Patrick Ewing in the fourth quarter only minutes into their sets and both left every ounce of energy they had on the stage. For the handful of prudent music fans that attended both, it was the easy choice over traffic jams and crowded beaches.