Big Sam’s Funky Nation: A Lesson at the School of Funk

Michael Hood By

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Big Sam's Funky Nation
Main Stage
Pennsylvania Blues Festival
Blue Mountain Ski Area, PA

July 28, 2012

Among other things, Big Sam's Funky Nation is a walking, talking, funking class in the history and myriad styles of funk.

Classic funk—that most grooving and gritty stepchild of blues, soul and classic R & B—was deliciously played with love and reverence for its forbears during the group's excellent set at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival at the Blue Mountain Ski Lodge.

With a huge, festival sound, the quintet powered through a number of its own tunes with plentiful examples of classic funk grooves rumbling under the solid vocals delivered by Sam Williams (Big Sam) and his fantastic trumpeter, Andrew Baham. While trombone, (Big Sam) and trumpet players can play funky (and they did), only the rhythm section can truly lay down the grooves that shake booties. Big Sam's trio of funkateers included Andrew Block on guitar, Eric Vogel on bass and Chocolate Milk on drums (New Orleans funk fans will recognize the drummer's nod to Allen Toussaint's studio band and later standalone funk outfit). Big Sam's trombone sound in this group is several degrees edgier and brighter than his previous great work with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. His fantastic control of the instrument, especially in the upper register and higher partials was on display throughout the set.

As the set rumbled along, each player let their roots show as they slid easily from one classic groove to another. Some standouts included marrying a stripped-down groove from Funkadelic's "Loose Booty" with the lyric and form of Sly Stone's "Thank You Fallentinme Be Mice Elf Agin." During Vogel's fantastic bass solo, a few quotes from Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music White Boy" winked through his snaky lines. Vogel's wry sense of humor throughout the set was evident, as was his and Chocolate Milk's stellar communication across every tune. Also of note in Vogle's solo was a near virtuosic lesson in "pop and slap" bass style. To hear that technique on display in 2012 was a revelation. Popular from the mid-'70s until, perhaps, the mid-'90s, it's a combination of side-of-the-thumb slaps and pulling up with the right-hand fingers. It was a de rigueur technique for working electric bassists but there doesn't seem to be much call for it these days. Other tunes featured pieces and parts of classic grooves by The Meters, Parliament, Tower of Power and, of course, James Brown, all masterfully combined and even remixed.

When the horns lit into the great Maceo Parker/Fred Wesley line from Brown's classic "Pass the Peas," the rhythm section picked it up instantly, complete with the original drum groove and bass line. Intentional or not, it's not surprising when all five are apparently walking encyclopedias of funk.

Clean and funky rhythm guitar is as key to a tight funk groove as olive oil is to Italian Cooking, and Block's sound was just that—right in the pocket, and never in the way, Block completed the recipe.

The Funky Nation has been described as "improv-based funk with a rock sensibility," and it most certainly is. The funk, blues and jazz lines spun out by all the soloists conveyed a sense of the quintet's delight in—and reverence for—the wealth of styles spilling out, it seems, of every doorway in New Orleans. No wonder The Funky Nation is a master of the style; it's obviously in its DNA.

A big, fun, funky, grooving set on a hot summer day at the fantastic Pennsylvania Blues Festival. Can I get a "Who Dat?"

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