By Sam Devine
Nov 17, 2006 - 12:41 AM
Breakestra Brings the Hip-Pop-Quiz
Like a fool, I’m worried that the show will sell out. I keep trying not to lose my shit like that, going all ga-ga over a group, you know, just caring in general. It’s rarely happened since high school.
But on this foggy September night at the Independent, the Breakestra are playing. Going to a Breakestra show is like final exam time on the Funk/Soul tip. This live band is known for mixing almost every essential groove since the 60’s like an eight-headed master DJ. The tunes fly by and, if you’re like me, your head starts spinnin’ with guesses: “Ooh! James Brown, wait no, Sly and family Stone, wait…. Not James Brown, but James Brown’s Funky People! Yes!”
We get in the door at 9:30, sober as nuns, and sit stage right in the DJ booth listening to old school jams like “Get Ready” by Rare Earth: “Whenever they ask what makes-ah my love real, I say that you do – you’re alright!” At exactly 9:41 this chick walks in dressed in a green sequined flapper costume. This is what I love about live funk. Someone can show up dressed like a flapper – exactly like one – and all that most people think is, “Ain’t it funky nah? Ha!”
The Breakestra hits the stage to rousing applause and MC Mixmaster Wolf warms up the crowd with the obligatory call and response stuff (“If y’all are ready for the Breakestra say, ‘Hell yeah!’” – “Hell yeah!”), until he really has the crowd rapt. “Check this out people…” He says once the band’s in place, a bit of a hush falling over the packed room. “I’d like to tell you that…it goes a lil’…an’ it goes a lil’…an’ it goes a lil’ somethin’ like this! Hit it!”
BAM! It’s on. The band rubs a series of big fat chords with intense flute diddling on top, while the horns and rhythms section hold it down and then slips into a floaty, melodic, flute groove blues. And it don’t, as we say, stop. Seriously.
They play through a groove about three or four times and then slide right into the next jam, Wolf riling up the crowd during grooves breaks. They often sneak in the next groove while the crowd is cheering, too busy to notice the script being flipped. During the night, they’ll go through no less than 64 distinct songs, and that’s not even counting the recognizable melodies the soloists quote (At one point I swear I hear, Dan Hastie, the Rhodes player quote that catchy little McDonald’s commercial theme “Ba-dup bup bup baaaah”).
The night is a comprehensive survey of funk and hip-hop. Most songs are either instantly recognizable or strangely familiar; if you haven’t heard the original tune, you’ve heard it sampled. They play the vintage stuff – Sly and the Family Stone, the JB’s, Roy Ayers – and some new stuff. They play live versions of some new school grooves that the Pharcyde and Jurrassic Five made by samplin' old-school jams. And they play vintage stuff, too – instruments that is. Most of their gear is as old as your momma.
They play some cuts from their new album “Hit the Floor,” too, including “Stand Up,” which fit with the other tracks so well, it’s hard to notice they’re not from the 70’s.
Everyone gets a solo or two, even the drummer who has the most limited kit: hihat (also called a sock cymbal depending on where you live), snare, bass drum and one ride cymbal. He pulls out the classic “Funky Drummer” – boom, kat, kat kaboom kat. His eyes are clenched shut and he’s gritting his teeth. Sweat slides down his shaved head as he focuses on the hihat. It somehow becomes obvious that that’s the key to the beat, the intense shookittashookitashookitashookita of the sock cymbal.
Shortly after, I hear a distinctly mariachi-style horn riff. “Santana?” I think. “No, maybe Poncho Sanchez? Wait…Johnny…Johnny Cash?!”
And that it is – “Ring of Fire” with a backbeat. First the flapper chick and now this. A transsexual midget prostitute could ride in on a purple pony right now and I wouldn’t even bat an eye, just as long as she’s dancing like everyone else. You can throw anything up in the mix as long as it’s funky.
Hastie takes an energetic solo a little later. He keeps adding vibrato and volume while climbing higher up the keyboard. He mashes the keyboard until it sounds like a damned Kawasaki opened full bore. After that, bandleader Miles Thackett takes it down a notch, chilling everyone out a bit with a bowed cello solo.
They finish for the night with the title track from “Hit the Floor.” At the end, the band ritards (slows down), holding big 70’s rockstar horn chords with screaming organ, hitting it just like they did on the top. As you start to clap, you realize: this is the first time they’ve stopped all night.
Grade: A (no “+” because there was one transition that wasn’t totally seemless – ain’t I a stinker?)
Check out Breakestra.com
Sam Devine is a staff writer for OHDANG!, assistant editor for [X]press Magazine and will eat your children for a nominal fee.