Small-town band Little Hercules is big on funk | AspenTimes.com
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Small-town band Little Hercules is big on funk

Stewart Oksenhorn
Minturn funk band Little Hercules performs a Wintersköl concert Sunday, Jan. 15, on the Snowmass Village mall. (Courtesy Little Hercules)
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Cristian Basso, a resident of Minturn since 1998, has found his adopted hometown to be a place that nurtures open-mindedness and freedom of expression. “Minturn lends itself to opening up and doing what you want,” said the 34-year-old Basso, a New York City native who earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture and practiced landscape design in Vermont before settling in Minturn. “And that goes for any profession.”Basso’s profession happens to be music; specifically, he is the bassist for Minturn-based quartet Little Hercules. (He also continues to work at landscape architecture.) Being an old railroad stop, with a small-town flavor that carries on despite its location a few miles from the mega-resort of Vail, Minturn would figure to be an ideal spot for, say, a bluegrass or old-timey band that specializes in traditional railroad tunes. But here’s where the importance of the town’s openness comes in. Little Hercules, which was founded in 1998 by singer-guitarist Scott Kabel, is a funk band. And at least on its 2003 self-titled debut CD, Little Hercules leans toward the hard-core end of funk with moments of rap-style singing, shrieking guitars that connect to funk prototype P-Funk, and consistently aggressive beats.It is the sort of sound one would associate with an urban area. And Little Hercules – which also includes keyboardist Jeff Armistead, who relocated from Detroit, and drummer Brian Loftus, a recent addition who came from Santa Cruz – does have deep connections to more citified funk scenes. That’s especially true of New Orleans. The band has played the world-famous Jazz and Heritage Festival four years running, and takes the opportunity of the gig to spend extended time in southern Louisiana. Little Hercules has also become affiliated with some of New Orleans’ funk kings. Leo Nocentelli, original guitarist of the Meters, tapped Little Hercules to be his band for a Colorado tour in 2001. He and June Yamagishi, another notable New Orleans guitarist, contributed to the “Little Hercules” album. Last week, Little Hercules opened for a pair of New Orleans giants – the Radiators, and ReNew Orleans, which features another Meter, drummer Russell Batiste – in Boulder. The band also has ties to the San Francisco and Chicago funk scenes. But for now, and probably the foreseeable future, Minturn will be rocking, from valley wall to valley wall, with in-your-face funk.”We love to be around what’s happening, and hear other artists,” said Basso, who joined Little Hercules six months after Kabel founded the band. “But I think one of the biggest advantages is being able to focus on our music and our sound.

“Minturn is a platform for us to develop new sounds. A lot of mountain towns, you don’t get a sense of community. But Minturn has been very independent; it attracts artists. It breeds a certain type of thing, a type of restaurant, bar, art gallery you might find. There’s a sense of history; there’s a backbone to build off of in life, generally.”Basso said the band doesn’t feel all that removed from the rest of the funk world. Minturn is a minute off I-70, and under two hours’ drive from Denver, making travel easier than it would be if they lived, say, in Aspen. In any event, for their latest venture, Little Hercules doesn’t need to do much roadwork. For the early part of 2006, the band is taking it easy on touring to focus on recording their second CD. (Touring for the moment is limited to Colorado ski towns; among the dates is a Wintersköl appearance Sunday, Jan. 15, at 2:30 p.m. on the Snowmass Village mall.) The album will be recorded at Little Hercules’ Minturn studio.The group is in what Basso calls the “sketching” stage of the CD project: “getting the new material sketched out, arranged and massaging it, so that when we get into the studio, we don’t waste time,” he said. “We’re working with a Grammy-winning artist out of Chicago” – Basso won’t give a name, as the agreement is not finalized yet – “and we don’t want to waste his time. Or our money.”Basso expects that the next album, which he hopes will be finished by April 1, will be a step forward for Little Hercules. The debut album is a pretty polished piece of funk itself, especially the catchy tune “Hoochie Boots.” But Basso says the group has absorbed much from the musicians they have rubbed elbows with over the last few years, and from the places they’ve visited. He says that the new recording should more deeply reflect the members’ different interests aside from straight-ahead funk.”We find it easier to express our creativity in funk and rock. But the root, the inspiration, behind each musician is a little different,” said Basso. “But we also love blues and rock” – Little Hercules backed Bo Diddley on the blues legend’s 75th birthday tour a few years ago – “and you find that in our song structure. We like to keep it funky, keep people on the dance floor. But we’re not afraid to explore the slower stuff, to shift up the vibe.”You can hear Jeff’s Detroit influence, his DJ appreciation. He involves that in samples and loops and the way he adds his parts to the music. Whereas Scotty has a blues and jazz appreciation, and for people like Zappa. If you dissect that, you can hear it.”If Basso’s mother, a classical pianist, had had her way, Basso would be bringing a classical music influence into the band. But early piano lessons didn’t take, and Basso’s first love was drums, a pursuit which didn’t go over well in a Manhattan dwelling. Basso finally did take piano seriously, as well as trumpet, before discovering his next love, the electric bass. And while his bandmates extend their reach into other styles, Basso is more of a purist on his instrument.”Myself, I’m a funk lover,” he said. “I’ve always had an appreciation for old-school vibes – James Brown, Larry Graham, Funkadelic. I found that that expression is truest to my soul.”And Minturn remains a place that nurtures that passion. The subject of moving, said Basso, is “a topic of conversation that comes up. But we find a lot of our inspiration comes from where we are, and fruitfully. So it comes up, but only in passing. Minturn just happened to be the spot. There’s a whole lot of inspiration to be tapped.”

Michael Franti has never held back his politics from his music. “Stay Human,” his 2001 release, was a concept album that weighed in against the death penalty, as well as Big Business and Big Politics. On 2003’s “Everyone Deserves Music,” he blasted the war machine: “We got Bush War I, Bush War II / They got a war for me, they got a war for you,” sang the musician also known as Spearhead on “We Don’t Stop.”

Lately, Franti has found another outlet for his social views. “I Know That I Am Not Alone” is a 95-minute film documenting Franti’s experiences in the Middle East. Franti took to street corners, hospitals and military installations with his guitar, engaging whomever came by in conversations about war and life.Franti comes to Aspen March 25. The night at the Wheeler will feature a screening of “I Know That I Am Not Alone,” a Q & A session, and a solo performance. The Thunder River Theatre Company got its permanent home with last month’s opening of the theater building in downtown Carbondale. And the valley’s music fans got a promising new venue out of the deal.Folkie David Wilcox plays the first concert in the 99-seat black box, Feb. 3. Former Leftover Salmon frontman Vince Herman, who played with the Vince Herman Trio last week in Snowmass Village, brings his Great American Taxi Project to the Thunder River Theatre Feb. 18. Jazz Aspen presents the CU Jazz Faculty & District 8 Honor Students Concert March 3. Tim O’Brien, master of many instruments, leader of numerous combos, and possessor of the finest voice in roots music, is set for March 17.

Newly added to the Belly Up schedule: a two-night stand by Grateful Dead cover band deluxe Dark Star Orchestra, March 20-21. The two gigs give the band a good chance at making amends for last summer’s Belly Up gig, at which DSO re-created the Dead concert from Dominguez Hills, Calif., May 6, 1990. What Deadhead wants to relive a 1990 show? The good news is that March 20 is the vernal equinox, so maybe this time we get a special treat, say, a ’69 Fillmore West or a show from the fall ’79 tour.Also added to Belly Up’s bursting lineup: California’s Hot Buttered Rum String Band (Feb. 13); New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band (Feb. 17); the North Mississippi Allstars (March 14-15); UK reggae band Steel Pulse (March 22); and blueswoman Shemekia Copeland (March 24).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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