There’s a moment when it seems this whole jam-band thing has just gone too damned far. It’s on Galactic’s new live disc, We Love ’Em Tonight (Volcano). Just as the group is about to call it quits for the night, forcing throngs of dizzy and resin-caked fans to finally regain their equilibrium, the New Orleans-based sextet breaks into a song even good ol’ Jerry Garcia wouldn’t have thought jam-able: Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.”
Sure, it’s a stoner ode of the highest order—Ozzy & Co. praising the power of the bud. But it’s more a theme song for high-school burners who drove conversion vans with waterbeds in the back than something the VW-driving tie-dyed kids would get into. Yet here’s Galactic, as funky as a hippie who gave up showers in the ’70s, blasting through the dark lords’ kind classic. Tony Iommi’s snarling guitars have been replaced by a whirling Hammond B3. Galactic’s part-time vocalist Theryl “Houseman” de Clouet sits his honey howl down right where Ozzy’s whine used to be. It almost makes you want to stand up and shout blasphemy.
But then comes the twitch. Your ass starts jiggling. The head starts to move. In just over four minutes, Galactic has you convinced that this is the way “Sweet Leaf” was always meant to be. Try as you might to be pissed, you can’t help but smile. You just have to give in.
“Some people just like to boogie,” says Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio. “We like to boogie.”
It’s what Galactic has always done: roll out butt-bumping blunts of groove that force you into a giddy state of perpetual motion. Ever since Mercurio drew up the band’s initial template—then called Galactic Prophylactic—with childhood buddy Jeff Raines (guitar) in the mid-’90s, the group has been nothing but an ass-shakin’ machine. The whole thing was based on the mostly instrumental grooves of New Orleans funk masters The Meters. The Neville-founded Meters could turn anything—jazz, free-form jams, blues, you name it—into Sly Stone-style family recipe. Galactic took those same basic ingredients, spiced them up with a smidge of jam-band cred and some Booker T. soul, and started force-feeding it to anyone within earshot.
It took a while for Galactic’s concoction to catch on, though. The reason: the lack of vocals. “People aren’t used to seeing instrumental bands in rock clubs,” Mercurio says. “When we first started, people were always like, ‘Hey, where’s the vocals?’ You definitely have a strike against you, especially when you hear people say they can’t talk about the music because they don’t know what the title is or what the words are. You can’t say, ‘Oh, you know that one that goes boom-bap-a-bap-bop?’ It doesn’t work.”
Despite the setback, Galactic began criss-crossing the country, spreading the groove gospel wherever they could. The first two years were a constant struggle. “All of us were crammed into this van that didn’t have any heat or air conditioning and leaked when it rained,” Mercurio remembers. “For like five months we barely got out of our sleeping bags when we were driving. It sucked.”
Things have gotten a bit better lately. With the rise of acts like Medeski, Martin & Wood and acid-jazz pioneer Maceo Parker, as well as the ever-exploding Chicago post-rock scene, people are starting to open up more to the idea of instrumental bands. Even the electronic scene has had an impact on Galactic—DJs and knob-twirlers are convincing more and more people that vocals are just icing on the cake. Throw in Mercurio’s rolling bass and birth canal-tight grooves, and it’s made Galactic underground gurus, pulling in both jam-happy neo-hippies and club junkies looking for an organ fix. Word-of-mouth alone has gotten the band a dedicated group of fans that sell out nearly every gig. Even the implosion of the group’s label, Capricorn, early this year didn’t seem to stop the band. Galactic unexpectedly landed at Volcano Records with fellow Capricorn expatriates 311 and 2 Skinny J’s. “We were just going to put out the live album ourselves and sell it on the road, and the next thing we know the label picked us up,” Mercurio says.
It means We Love ’Em Tonight might finally get the exposure a Galactic disc deserves. Added bonus: People will finally get to hear the band at its best: playing a live set. While the group’s studio discs—Coolin’ Off, Crazyhorse Mongoose and Late For the Future—all have their merits, there’s still a constrained feeling to the music. Galactic just doesn’t fit in the studio. We Love ’Em Tonight catches the band performing at its favorite New Orleans club in front of an amped-up hometown crowd. Like any good live band, Galactic just feeds off the energy, ripping through extended and funk-fortified songs like “Moog Marmalade” and “Baker’s Dozen.” De Clouet adds some serious soul on the boogie-woogie beats of “Vilified.” There’s even a hyperactive instrumental version of Devo’s classic “Working in the Coal Mine.” Oh, and that perspective-changing cover of “Sweet Leaf.”
Of course, Mercurio doesn’t hear any of that. Always hypercritical, he just catches all the mistakes. “I’m never happy with a record,” he says. “It’s hard to be. It’s a permanent thing. It’s hard to always feel great about something that will be around forever. You just have to try to get over it and move on.”
What, did you make a lot of mistakes or something?
“I was flawless. I never make mistakes,” Mercurio says, laughing. “It was all those other people.”
The Rolling Summer Music Festival. Huntsville, Friday Aug. 24-Saturday Aug. 26 (Galactic performs Friday). Tickets available through Smith’sTix: 800-888-TIXX and www.SmithTix.com. Directions and info: www.RollingSummer.com.