Judging from the adventuresome two-hour set The Greyboy Allstars played at Higher Ground April 20th‚ their reunion last year turned into a rediscovery not just of their love of the music they prefer‚ but the pleasure of playing together. The quintet didn't just parlay their pastiche of '70s funk and R&B in South Burlington; they stretched it out.
If it were not for the abiding affection The AllStars hold for The Crusaders‚ King Curtis‚ and James Brown‚ among others‚ they wouldn't sound like anything but precious posers. But this quintet knows its strengths and weakness and how to balance them. Vocals are almost a necessary evil‚ as frontman Karl Denson only mimics The Godfather of Soul‚ while guitarist Elgin Park is far more interesting to follow when he plays than when he sings‚ whether it's his Fender or a hollow body instrument.
Thankfully‚ the Greyboys did not resort to strained exhortation of their enthusiastic Vermont audience‚ but they didn't have to. Boogaloo coursed all around the floor because the group's rhythms were so sure‚ thanks to bassist Chris Stilwell‚ who never stops once he starts playing‚ and drummer Aaron Redfield‚ who gets the most out of a minimal kit. Meanwhile. the soloists know how to trade off and play to their respective strengths.
And that's where the big surprises came in. "Pigeons Underwater" was the first of three extended improvisations where GBA moved deep into space and sound‚ led‚ not surprisingly‚ by keyboardist Robert Walter: his electric piano‚ crisp as it was‚ opened up spacious realms into which he shot synthesizer sounds that played off the echo-plexed textures of Denson on sax and flute.
Clearly‚ both those men have brought their experience outside the Greyboys (Walter with Stanton Moore and Bobby Previte‚ Denson in his jazz trio) into the AllStars. Which is a good thing‚ considering the group's not that strong at composing original material‚ given their choices from last year's Whatever Happened to Television‚ such as "How Glad I Am." Little wonder they covered that The Impressions' "Check Out Your Mind" and the Burt Bacharach chestnut "Walk On By‚" though they proffered the latter at such a rapid clip it was hard to recognize.
Despite Denson's joke about The AllStars returning to hibernation after this tour‚ they have too much going on not to keep pushing themselves to expand individually as well as collectively. And push themselves they did Sunday‚ effectively bookending their lengthy single set with tightly arranged tunes‚ the jams in the middle‚ ending the evening with yet another extended improvisation.
When the group returned for an encore‚ they offered the shrinking yet faithful audience three more tunes! The Greyboy Allstars circa 2008 obviously want to be more than just a contemporary urban musical myth‚ and it shows.
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