There are many more ways to get funk wrong than there are ways to get it right. Funk is seemingly simple but in reality it’s a complex dance of contradictions. Like any tributary that flows from jazz, it requires chops BUT it simultaneously demands organic looseness, ass-activating swing AND clear-eyed discipline measured out with intuition and crowd-reading sensitivity. Funk is often best served up on stages, fueled by the heat of bodies and the sweat a band wrings from the audience BUT the best purveyors of funky stuff know how to deliver the goods in the studio as well (see just about every 60s/70s James Brown album as proof). Funk also asks musicians to blur genre lines in a most conversational way, groove being the underlying unifier but growling rock, saucy Latinismo, belly fire blues and more tilt the music in all sorts of directions. It requires players to straddle several realms simultaneously AND still make folks move, and similarly, the lyrical content of good funk needs to be both streetwise-philosophical AND nuanced to accentuate hip grinding movements.
So, with so many moving parts and so many places to slip up, it’s a real pleasure to come across a funk-soul debut like the self-titled inaugural release from San Francisco’s The Humidors. This young, hungry band just gets funk right. Things are tight when they need to be and voluptuously flexible when that’s the right thing. The Humidors play as a unit, and even as single instruments float into foreground – the solos are lean models of how to do this shit without wasting time or showboating – it’s the overall group feel that ensnares one.
From the first rushing notes of “Fat Cakes” – there’s something pleasantly old school about their song titles – it’s nakedly obvious this band is after “it” – the big groove, some truth, a good time, etc. – and they pursue their goals with breathless, focused intensity. Sharpened in Bay Area night spots, this is the refined version of The Humidors’ hopping, downright humid live shows. “Gospel of Funk” and “Funk You to Death” are suitably scorchers, and they show some darker hues on “Filthy Laundry” and “Treason” as well as Latin swerve on “Feel Me Now” and an Ethiopian pop feel permeates“Lust For Life.” Unlike a lot of their soul-minded peers, this band writes memorable tunes with enough flexibility to continue to evolve in concert. It’s one thing to play well – and they do – but to put one’s talents to work on worthwhile material is so much better.
They know their funk history and there are juicy echoes of early Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, 60s Blue Note Records, Tower of Power, and Gary Bartz Ntu Troop. Lead singer Joseph Carter offers a highly appealing mixture of authority and panty-dropping smoothness, and the rhythm team of Eric Podolsky (bass), Junichiro Shimamura (drums) and Justin Abee (congas, bongas, percussion) are an ideal funk line – always where they need to be, riding in the music’s muscles but peppering things with interesting touches that reward the listener for tuning into individual elements. The front line of Bryan Weinberg (guitar) and Benjamin Carrie (keys, Hammond) sting mightily, and the horns are both a strong presence felt and just the right amount of brass interjection. Flow and variety are the hallmarks of the album, and like the best first offerings, it gives one the sense that this band is going to continue to evolve and sharpen their game with enjoyable steadiness.
Though a fairly new group, The Humidors, based on the evidence of this debut and their strong live presence in the SF area, are comers, a band capable of holding their own against established touring circuit/festival acts like Pimps of Joytime and The Monophonics, and it’s to be hoped that forward minded bookers snap them up as a surprise as the band begins to expand beyond its home base this year.