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The Motet’s Funk Is Dead comes to Snowmass

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Reed NelsonColorado band The Motet, led by drummer Dave Watts, center in hat, plays a free aprs-ski performance of its Funk Is Dead show Sunday, Feb. 19, at Snowmass' Base Village.
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SNOWMASS VILLAGE – As drummers go, Dave Watts has a genuine admiration for songs – those things with melodies and words that can distract from the drumbeat. Early in his career, as a member of Boston-based Shockra, Watts was the band’s primary lyricist. And as the leader of Colorado’s funk-jazz band the Motet for the past 15 years, Watts’ biggest thrill comes from laying down a thick groove – but a close second has been watching the audience’s reaction when the Motet starts playing a recognizable classic of a song.Each Halloween, Watts and the Motet transforms itself from a loose funk combo into a tighter, more song-oriented group, as they cover the catalog of a particular artist. They have tackled the work of Earth, Wind & Fire, Talking Heads and Prince. What Watts has seen is that songs have a particular effect on a crowd.”After doing Michael Jackson’s songs, seeing the way people respond to those tunes they love so much – that’s what makes it exciting for the band,” he said from his home in Lyons.Watts’ affection for songs has grown to the point where he is now playing songs that he hadn’t even particularly liked. After running through most of the prominent ’80s funk bands that easily lend themselves to the Motet’s groove twist, Watts and company have been interpreting a band not known for laying down the funk. This past October, at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, the Motet unveiled Funk Is Dead, their tribute to the songs of the Grateful Dead. An 11-piece version of the Motet, with three singers and a three-piece horn section, will perform the Funk Is Dead show Sunday afternoon at Snowmass’ Base Village, a free performance in the Aspen Skiing Company’s Hi-Fi Concert Series.Watts says he is “the last guy you’d expect to be doing this. My upbringing was funk and jazz, some classic rock. The Grateful Dead was never in that; the whole Deadhead scene was never part of me. But I love people’s love for the music – singing every word, seeing them light up when they hear a song.”Watts would never have gone for a show that simply had the Motet covering the Dead’s material: “If you said, ‘Motet Plays Grateful Dead,’ I wouldn’t do that. That wouldn’t come across.” But the thought of Jazz Is Dead, a ’90s group that put a jazz-fusion twist on the Dead, came to mind, and that opened a door. “What if we did something called Funk Is Dead and put some kind of concept on it? That could change the whole thing.”Watts is not surprised that funkifying the Dead has been far more challenging than getting funky with the music of Sly & the Family Stone or Herbie Hancock. Watts handpicked obvious songs like “Shakedown Street” – “That was not difficult; it started out with a funk-disco groove,” he said. But other material required imagination.”‘New Speedway Boogie’ – that’s a shuffle, a blues. So what can we do with it?” he said. “We decided to put a James Brown funk shuffle to it. You take it to a James Brown funk, good time place, and the lyrics of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ – that becomes a great combo. You’d be surprised what you can come up with.” Watts kept his distance from the ballad side of the Dead, but did take “Stella Blue,” the stately, poetic Jerry Garcia ballad, and gave it an r&b vibe.Funk Is Dead, which the Motet has taken on the road – with a show next week in the Grateful Dead homeland of San Francisco – has allowed the band to expand its musical reach. “We’re breaking open the box and trying something different,” Watts said. “If we’re doing Michael Jackson, we stick to the vibe that makes sense with his stuff. Funk Is Dead makes us get pretty creative.”Watts is accustomed to broad thinking. He founded the Motet as an ensemble that could embrace funk, jazz, Latin and African ideas; since its formation in the ’90s, the group has had a revolving membership that can include vocalists and a horn section. Three years ago, Watts launched Juno What?! with a very different kind of approach: The group, which played Thursday night at the PAC3 in Carbondale, is a trio of Watts, and two musicians, Joey Porter and Steve Watkins, both of whom play keyboards and talk box, a device that modifies the sound of an instrument or voice. (Probably the best-known use of a talk box is on the intro to Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way.”) But Juno What?! is also a song-oriented group, with Porter doing most of the writing.Watts never saw the Grateful Dead, and says that virtually all of the members of the Motet have had zero exposure to the Dead’s world. But in light of the reception that Funk Is Dead has received – every one of the shows has sold out, and Watts is amazed at how many college students are drawn in by the idea – he has made a full reconsideration of the music. Or at least the songs they created.”My respect for the songwriting has grown tenfold,” he said. “I’ve always gotten lost in the performance, the live show aspect of music, which doesn’t always feature the songs. Once we got into the material, once you play a song, you see what goes into a song. You see a lot of the craft that goes into the song – rhythmically, harmonically, lyrically, melodically.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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