It’s been a year since Galactic parted ways with Theryl “The Houseman” deClouet and it seems the effusive fivesome is still trying to figure out how to handle vocals and lyrics. Seemingly unwilling to give itself over to the idea of a fully instrumental group, many of its shows since the start of its Ten Year Invasion tour this year and its initial, post-Houseman outings last year, have featured guest vocalists. And while guests are nothing new for Galactic–they’re some of the most generous stage sharers in the business, and their Rolodex of friends, go-to collaborators and like minded jazz funk conspirators has to be Warren Haynes-ian in breadth by now–it would behoove them to settle on something more permanent.
That seems almost churlish to say, though–if anything, not having a full time vocalist has driven them deeper into the swampy thickets of their best instrumentals, and their weapons-grade improvisations have been every bit as mindblowing and multifaceted as they’ve always promised. He’s always been out front and a dominant, extroverted presence in the group, but saxophonist and harp ace Ben Ellman has more recently emerged as the band’s unofficial frontman–its most ostentatious soloist and designated intros-and-greetings man–and something feels fundamentally missing when he leaves the stage. And that’s to steal nothing from keyboardist Rich Vogel, guitarist Jeff Raines, bassist Robert Mercurio or especially, the human drum machine known as Stanton Moore. If anything, the way the group attacks and acquits these tunes as an ensemble is as vibrant and realized as ever. Whatever their identity next evolves into in the post-Houseman years, it seems hard to believe they’ll ever lose that type of integrity.
It was with such that they arrived for the first of two night’s at New York’s Irving Plaza, and they played a stirring two sets as a terrific band in transition, a stop off on. While it would be RANA’s Scott Metzger who turned in the most compelling guest sit-in (a gale force instrumental in Set Two), Galactic also indulged opening act Lyrics Born, the gravel-voiced, crowd-stoking emcee and an integral component of brainy, inventive Bay Area hip hop label Quannum Projects. Along with another Quannum staple, DJ D-Sharp, the rapper hopped aboard for “Shake It Off,” “Pack Up,” and then, late-game, the encore of “Change My Mind.”
Ultimately, however, it was the way Galactic burrowed into its signature tunes that left bruises and scorch marks: the deep funk of “Crazyhorse Mongoose” and a torqued up “Bongo Joe” from Set I, especially, and the later crush of “Clockstopper,” the New Orleans classic “Blackbird Special” and a meaty “Hot Pants Road.” What makes the singer question so especially heady is that the group doesn’t even necessarily need a vocalist. In the end, it’s best to let them figure it all out, and in the meantime know that 10 years in and long past the typical shelf life of many of its jam-funk peers they have many more peaks to scale and strides to hit. Go to a Galactic show, feel the moment in “Shibuya” or “Crazyhorse” or “Dump Truck” or “Metermaid” when the whole place is bouncing and the jam is boiling over and Stanton stands up to smack one of his high cymbals and you’ll know all you need to know.
Photos by Robert Massie