Another side of ‘Dark Side’ at Snowmass Mammoth Festival
June 9, 2013
"Dark Side of the Moon," Pink Floyd's enduring, iconic and massively successful album, isn't part of Melvin Gibbs' musical DNA. When "Dark Side" was released 40 years ago, Gibbs was more into jazz, dance music and progressive rock along the lines of King Crimson and was not so attuned to what was happening on commercial rock radio.
"It's a serious classic-rock record. But it doesn't have that personal history for me," the 55-year-old said from New York.
If it did have significance for the teenage Gibbs, it didn't have to do with music.
"All I knew was it was a record to clean your seeds on," he said.
Gibbs counts his distance from "Dark Side" as an advantage in his role as bassist and musical director of Return to the Dark Side of the Moon, an avant-funk all-star group that pays tribute to the Pink Floyd album in its appearance tonight, headlining the new Snowmass Mammoth Festival.
"That's probably good for me. I'm not so reverent toward it. I don't mind messing with it," he said.
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From a different angle, though, "Dark Side of the Moon" is very close to Gibbs' soul, enough for him to say, "For me, and a lot of my friends, this album is almost like gospel."
Part of that is because Gibbs eventually did get turned on to Pink Floyd by some friends of his who were big fans of Syd Barrett, the early Pink Floyd leader who had left the group by the time of "Dark Side." But what really made Gibbs an admirer of the album was when he became intimate enough with it to hear beyond the immaculate production (generally credited to engineer Alan Parsons), David Gilmour's guitar heroics and the trippy sound effects and album cover. What Gibbs heard in the lyrics to songs like "Breathe" and "Us and Them" was a theme that applied to him as a young man, just picking up the bass guitar and stepping into his creativity.
"As a creative person, you can hear that struggle, the pressures, the different way people look at you," Gibbs said. "You can hear that thought process — being creative, being sane. Trying to keep the good parts of who you are."
Return to the Dark Side of the Moon promises to put its own creative stamp on Pink Floyd's original. The group, which has played just one gig to date, in France, and will do more shows in the fall, comprises an all-star cast of forward-thinking musicians. Vocalist Corey Glover was a member of funk-metal pioneers Living Colour. Guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight has played with Parliament-Funkadelic and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and did brief stints with Miles Davis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Keyboardist Bernie Worrell has been a key contributor to P-Funk and Talking Heads. Singer Nona Hendryx was one-third of the soul group Labelle. Saxophonist Karl Denson leads the contemporary funk bands Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, which performs on Saturday at the Mammoth Festival, and the Greyboy Allstars. Gibbs was a member of the progressive metal group the Rollins Band and has played with musicians including Bill Frisell, John Medeski and Femi Kuti.
Gibbs says his parents were very straight and didn't turn him on to much music. But in his Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, there was a wealth of sounds waiting to be turned on to: the island styles played by the West Indian transplants, the first Headhunters album, Nigerian singer Fela Kuti and the first stirrings of hip-hop.
"I was a record collector. I had a music critic's music taste," Gibbs said during a break from mixing a record with one of his bands, Harriet Tubman, named for the anti-slavery activist. "I'd listen to anything once."
Gibbs wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to play, and when a neighbor got him started, Gibbs dived in. He began with congas, dabbled in DJing and at 16 took up the bass. He studied at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, but his most influential lessons were at a neighborhood center called the Muse, where he learned acoustic bass from Reggie Workman and electric bass from a woman he knew as Miss Lucy.
"That's where the real education came from," he said.
The common thread in Gibbs' taste has been the African roots. Apart from the British prog-rock band King Crimson, every influence he mentioned, from P-Funk to Coltrane to Fela, could be traced back to Africa. His current projects, apart from Return to the Dark Side, include a recording session loosely based on Miles Davis' "Bitch's Brew," a collaboration with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and a Harriet Tubman album with Cassandra Wilson adding the vocals.
"African-American music — it's arguably the most important export America has," he said. "What Africans in America created — reggae, the blues, rock 'n' roll — it's gone all over the world and morphed into all these different styles. And Pink Floyd is part of that. The drumming is based off Memphis drumming; the guitar is based off the blues."
Gibbs' recent interest in Pink Floyd was sparked by his desire to explore the classic songbook. He mentions that a foundation of jazz has been the practice of taking popular melodies and then improvising to put the jazz artists' stamp on the tunes.
"For bebop guys, it's a good way to frame your music. These songs are so familiar; they can hear what you're doing with your music that's different: 'They're playing 'Breathe,' and look what they did to it,'" Gibbs said. "That's something we've gotten away from. But it's something I've been thinking about — getting into the pop music of the time. I decided to start at the top."
"Dark Side of the Moon" was conceived by Pink Floyd as an anti-Barrett record, meaning the remaining members of the group wanted to get away from the extended jamming that Barrett championed. Gibbs and his mates intend to add the jam element.
"I decided to make it jammy again, with more parts, extending some things," he said. "The instrumentals will be explored a lot. It's a nice little journey."
The essence of "Dark Side," though, should be intact.
"The spirit and soul are common," Gibbs said, comparing his take on Pink Floyd to the original. "It's like the English language — it can get stretched pretty far, but you can still understand it. I'm interested in exploring that. The balance is the issue."