The funky flavors of jam

"Please don't consider Galactic as just another 'jam band,'" a Capricorn Records publicist requests in a letter that announces the April 4 arrival of the New Orleans sextet's "Late For the Future" album. The disc (the group's third) is another deeply grooving affair, with saxophones, keyboards and guitars slicing slinky riffs through the sticky, Crescent City rhythms pumped out by mighty modern-funk drummer Stanton Moore. Theryl "Houseman" de Clouet adds supersonic soul vocals to five of the 14 tracks and Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band injects his gritty baritone saxophone into two tunes.

No, we never did think of Galactic as just another bunch of tattooed backwoods guitar slingers, ready at a moment's notice to thrill themselves -- and maybe others, too - with endless dueling guitar jams and paeans to the Southern way of life. Nor did we quite peg Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist Jeff Raines and the rest of the squad as sunshine-mellow musicians intent on devising the perfect musical accompaniment to psychedelic experiences. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

As demonstrated by their convincing recordings and raucous, bracing shows, Galactic instead occupy a sort of middle ground between groove-jazz territory -- as exemplified by Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charlie Hunter and the Jazz Mandolin Project -- and the realm of bona-fide jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler. (Galactic has shared stages with several of the neo-Dead types on the H.O.R.D.E. tour and elsewhere.) Even more integral to the group's concept is the irresistible urban funk practiced by the Meters, James Brown and the '60s soul-jazz artists who were signed to the Blue Note label.

"It depends on how you define 'jam band,'" muses bassist Robert Mercurio. "‘Jam band' means Southern hippie-rock to a lot of people. I don't think we're like that at all. We tour a lot, play long shows and try to improvise a lot. That's where I think we crossover with the Widespread stuff."

To Mercurio, Galactic's penchant for regularly departing from a tune's road map to explore uncharted terrain is the chief trait the band has in common with the new-school jammers. "That's the essence of a jam band," he asserts. "I think it's more about that than it is a particular style. Some nights it'll be really raging and the next night it's really mellow. It's really about what comes out."

Moore -- a New Orleans native who hooked up with the Washington, D.C.-bred Mercurio, Raines and organ/piano man Rich Vogel in the early '90s -- has a similar take on the "to jam or not to jam" question: "We definitely don't think it's a musical connection," he declaims. "It's a similar approach where you just hit the road as much as you can and develop a large fan base without the help of too much radio or MTV. We consider ourselves a New Orleans funk band who happen to tour and improvise on stage. We try to allow that spontaneity to happen, as opposed to just getting up there and playing radio hits."

Airplay, however, may be a real possibility this time around for Galactic (whose growing list of supporters includes Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Sean Lennon, Jon Bon Jovi and actors Matthew McConaughey, Vince Vaughn and Emilio Estevez). The potential for big-time exposure is keyed to the harder-edged sound -- and increased emphasis on vocals -- heard on "Late For the Future," a record produced by knob man Nick Sansano (Sonic Youth, Manic Street Preachers).

With its mutating horn section now trimmed to saxophonist Ben Ellman, the sextet opens the CD with the six-string scorch, juicy Hammond B-3 melody and percolating rhythms of "Black Eyed Pea," which originally appeared on 1995's "Is That Jazz" compilation on acid-jazz label Ubiquity. "We kind of reworked it, and gave it a new tone and sound," Mercurio says. A gritty two-sax section anchors the sounds of "Baker's Dozen" and the Middle Eastern-tinged "Hit the Wall," the former a direct nod to the best-known of the modern Crescent City street bands.

"That's a little shout-out for the Dirty Dozen," says Moore. "It's cool that Roger Lewis came in and played on it. It kind of gave it the seal of approval." Drum loops and other effects are heard on the free-leaning "Two Clowns."

The Houseman, a permanent special guest since contributing two tracks to "Coolin' Off," Galactic's 1996 debut, lends a sense of impassioned urgency with his in-your-face singing on "Thrill," "Century City," "Running Man," "Vilified" (a duet with ex-Anders Osborne Orchestra singer Theresa Andersson) and "Action Speaks Louder Than Words."

De Clouet's profile within the band has gradually risen over the years, and his voice was heard on three tracks from 1998's "Crazyhorse Mongoose." But there's never been a vocals-versus-instrumentals debate within the band, Moore says. "That's just been a natural progression," he testifies. "We worked a long time on the vocals for this one and really got it to where we felt comfortable. We kind of enjoy both aspects of it. I think a lot of people like the variety."


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