Funky Town: Dumpstaphunk, George Porter Jr. and Jon Cleary headline Aspen’s first post-vaccine indoor concerts and June Experience
What: New Orleans Roadshow Revue: Dumpstaphunk, George Porter, Jr. & Jon Cleary
Where: JAS June Experience at the Hotel Jerome & Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, June 25 (Jerome) & Saturday, June 26 (Belly Up)
How much: $75
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
Aspen’s first major indoor concerts since the pandemic struck and its first major music festival begin Friday night with the launch of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience with shows in seven venues spread about downtown.
This celebratory post-vaccine moment has a fittingly joyous funk soundtrack from the best in New Orleans, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk with funk legend George Porter Jr. sharing the bill with the funk pianist Jon Cleary. These bands play the kind of bass- and organ-driven dance music that people day-dreamed of during the doldrums of pandemic quarantines and those 15 months without crowds and concerts.
The bands, who play four shows Friday and Saturday at the Hotel Jerome and Belly Up Aspen, missed the fans as much as the fans missed them.
“It’s great to be playing with people in attendance,” Neville said this week from New Orleans. “It’s fun seeing people sweating shoulder to shoulder.”
Dumpstaphunk and Porter road-tripped to Florida recently for their first gigs outside of New Orleans, where clubs also just started re-opening. The Aspen shows mark their first outside the region since before the pandemic.
“It’s great to get the immediate feedback from a crowd,” said Porter.
Dumpstaphunk and Porter both have new albums out, produced during the pandemic.
Porter, 73, bassist for the funk pioneers The Meters, said the return to the stage is yet more meaningful because he’s doing it with the members of Dumpstaphunk, most of whom he has known for their whole lives and who are like family to him.
“Dumpstaphunk is like our kids,” Porter said. “Everybody in that band I watched grow up musically and as a human being.”
Guitarist Ian Neville is the son of his Meters bandmate Art Neville and cousin to Ivan (son of another New Orleans legend, Aaron Neville).
“We learn from each other every time we play together,” Neville said. “I love the fact that we get to play with George this weekend.”
‘CRYING FOR HOPE’
It’s hard to imagine George Porter Jr. without a stage to play on. He probably hadn’t had as much time away as the pandemic forced since childhood, and certainly not since the mid-1960s when he and The Meters invented New Orleans funk.
Throughout the lockdown periods of spring 2020 and later in New Orleans, Porter wrote new songs.
“Every morning, I would sit downstairs waiting for my dog to do his morning business,” Porter recalled with a laugh. “And I would just pick up my acoustic bass and I was writing.”
He ended up with seven songs that are included on Porter’s new record with his band The Runnin Pardners, “Crying for Hope,” the first full-length they’ve released in 10 years. he and bandmates recorded it separately during quarantine, collaborating in the cloud.
Porter said he and the band would talk on Facetime regularly, record their parts in home studios and then put them together with Porter serving as the de facto music director. Porter didn’t expect the experiment to yield fully realized and releasable songs, but it did.
“It sounded like we could have easily been in the room at the same time,” he said.
The album includes several all-instrumental tracks in the Porter tradition of “Cissy Strut.” He wrote them with hope in his sights during the grim stretches of the pandemic and to bring people together for nights like this weekend’s concerts in Aspen.
“It’s about getting people back out, wanting to dance, wanting to communicate with each other,“ Porter said.
As the album’s title track says, “The world can bring us down / So, we lift each other up. If there’s trouble all around / Let the music fill our cup.”
The band’s last studio sessions were four years ago, but Porter had shelved those. During quarantine he started listening back to the 20-some tracks from those sessions as he was also writing new songs in his early morning acoustic jams.
“I opened it up and listened to the songs said, ‘Man, there’s some good music on this session,’” Porter recalled. “I called Mike (Lemmler, keyboardist) and said, ‘We should finish this session’ and Mike said ‘Let’s do it.’”
Porter stayed sharp during the long break from live performance with these cloud recording sessions and by playing a weekly Facebook Live gig for fans watching online. He’s accomplished more than any musician can hope for in his career — earning a spot as arguably the best bassist of all time, winning accolades including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy — but the legend still has more to do.
He said one thing he’s never gotten to is to record a proper jazz album. He’s hoping to rope in friends like the guitarist John Scofield.
“A lot of jazz players have gong into jam band world because, I think, it pays better,” he said with a laugh. “The jam band community has welcomed those guys into the community. But I want to make a record and take them back into jazz, into the roots.”
Early on, Porter recalled, gigging around the French Quarter in the early 1960s he had to play a bit of everything, including jazz.
“I learned how to swing and play bebop at 15, 16 years old,” he said.
And Porter is happy to be back to playing gigs in the mountains this summer.
“Colorado has always been very, very cool with New Orleans music,” Porter said, looking back over the years from early Meters shows here to his recent collaborations with the Kyle Hollingsworth Band in Boulder. “I always feel at home there and the audiences in Colorado are receptive to what we do.”
‘WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE’
On a recent weekend in New Orleans the members of Dumpstaphunk rehearsed in-persona and indoors for the first time in a long time. A rush of joy hit frontman and keys player Ivan Neville.
“It felt so good to play and to be in a room together,” he recalled in a phone interview from New Orleans, “like, ‘Man, this is why we do this!’”
Neville has more reason than most to be grateful. He fell extremely ill with COVID-19 at the outset of the pandemic in mid-March 2020 and spent some two months recovering before he could start playing online shows for fans. Soon after that, he and his bandmates started looking at recent recordings and thinking about a new record.
“When the pandemic came, we realized a lot of this stuff is finished or close to it, we need to do this,” he said.
As they prepared tracks for what would become the new full-length album “Where Do We Go From Here,” the band was also called to reboot their 2017 call to action “Justice,” which had been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and recorded with Trombone Shorty. The murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests to battle systemic racism led to “Justice 2020,” which revived the song with a new verse by Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na.
“We want to express frustration anger about these things still going on,” Neville said. “We talk about the sorrow of how unjust the system is, how frustrating it is to see that this constantly happens.”
It’s a powerful and straight-ahead protest song from a group who more often looks for reasons to dance and celebrate than it does address social ills. The new album also includes a cover of Buddy Miles’ “United Nations Stomp,” a hard blues celebration of multiculturalism and music’s ability to cross borders and cultures.
“We think a lot about the commonalities, the common bond we share in music with everybody,” Neville said. “No matter where you come from, people love music. That represented that side of it – we found sound positive messages as well.”
The title track, “Where Do We Go From Here,” meanwhile, is a classic danceable funk groove that also addresses the fears and uncertainties of the pandemic that starkly reminded Neville of his mortality.
“That was about being optimistic about the unknown in the future, optimistic about what the world can be and wanting to come from a place of love at the end of the day.”
But the miracles of Dumpstaphunk have always been rooted in live performance, not in the albums. It’s been leading the pack of New Orleans funk through most of the 21st century, inheriting the mantel of the town’s funk kings and standing among just a handful of acts on top like Trombone Shorty and Jon Cleary, consistently turning out barn-burning sets since Neville put the band together for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2003.
“I’m pleasantly surprised and pleased that we’re together after all these years,” Neville said. “It’s not easy to keep a unit like this together with so may strong personalities and so may amazing musicians that could start their own bands if they chose to.”
He’s not taking it for granted and come Friday night at the Jerome, Neville said, he’ll be savoring every moment of playing on stage.
“We are in an unprecedented time right now where we’re getting back to doing what we always thought we’d be able to do — play music for people, with people attending the show,” he said. “There’s nothing like playing live music. You need an audience. You need feedback from people. It’s a give and take thing. It’s not the same thing to play without people.”
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