New Groove of the Month: Wise Monkey Orchestra
Wise Monkey Orchestra’s recently completed tour through Colorado and Nevada successfully covered eight shows in as many towns over the course of an action packed ten days. First stop was the mountain town of Crested Butte at the “Eldo,” an upstairs nightclub with an open balcony that provides a great view for people watching on the busy sidewalk below or star gazing from over 9,000 feet up! This was WMO’s return visit to the ski resort bedroom community and a good crowd was ready and waiting for the much anticipated funkengruve fest.
Playing tunes from both independently released CD’s as well as new material slated for their next recording, the Monkey’s infectious horn and percussion grooves seemed to have a little extra “pop” at the Eldo. Maybe due to the altitude, but more likely a reflection of the band just being primed for this tour.
Self-described as a “seven-headed monster,” WMO has been building a strong following in southern California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado over the past few years. This year, WMO ventured to the East Coast for the first time, headlining shows at the Wetlands and other New York area clubs.
Over the years, line-up changes always left the monkeys stronger. The core of the group has been together for years. Some members have relationships that go back to childhood, and in the case of husband and wife, Chad & Alley Stewart (bass/vocals) and Chad’s brother Reed (manager), it’s a family affair.
As the “Red Rocks and Bright Lights” tour approached, WMO was playing better than ever. All pieces to the puzzle, including the chemistry both on and off stage, were in place for the first time in the band’s history. As a finely tuned groove machine, WMO now appears ready to grab the elusive golden banana, sometimes called “the big time.”
Overcoming a broken down vehicle before even playing a single gig, as well as a lengthy road trip to start the tour, WMO was no worse for wear and tear at the Eldo. In fact, the band played consistently well throughout the tour. Lots of CD’s were sold, and most importantly to the band, hundreds of new fans and friends were made along the way. The highlight of the Rocky Mountain swing was a magical evening at the San Juan Room in Durango. A crowd of over 450 people shook their bones as WMO let it all hang out with some of the most spirited jams of the tour. With more gigs like this, WMO could stay on the road indefinitely!
The final show of the tour was at Legends Lounge in Las Vegas, WMO’s “home away from home” when they’re not in San Diego. A fitting venue for the tour’s grand finale, Legends always seems to be a proverbial barrel of fun for the Monkeys and their loyal neon city following.
Standing onstage in front of a huge tie-dye tapestry, Scott Hollman, the newest member of the band a mad professor of jazz-funk guitar, noodled next to his amp as he waited patiently for the rest of the band to get ready. Appearing energized from the extended dose of high mountain air, Hollman’s performances have shown an increased confidence and his playing has gone to the proverbial “next level.” Hollman’s solos are becoming stop-what-you-are-doing-and-check-it-out head turners that add yet another dimension to WMO’s already multi-textured sound. Wow!
Robby Helm, a tenor sax player and former band member, flew in from his southern California home to sit-in with the band and was all smiles as the funk got thick once the opening instrumental jam started rolling.
Situated stage left, rather than in the rear like most drummers, Ed Fletcher clearly enjoyed his unobstructed view of the dance floor as syncopated polyrhythms pulsed from his drum kit. On bass, toward the rear middle, Chad Stewart is all business, working up a sweat as he pumps out WMO’s funky bottom end.
Andy Geib on slide trombone and flute bops from stage right, smiling like he just remembered where he put that missing $100 bill, as he finds non traditional spaces to weave a sublime rhythmic horn groove. When he’s not punctuating the rhythm, Geib is blowing solos that’ll make you wonder why John Coltrane never picked up the trombone.
Situated front and center behind his tall red congas, Tim Pachecho’s face is a non-stop, animated screen saver as he peers from between his long dreads. Pachecho’s passionate rhythms are a projection of his emotions as the music flows through him. In a quiet moment between songs, Pachecho will be the one to interact with the crowd. He has a from-the-heart enthusiasm for the power of music and his sense of humor and general stage presence are a big part of the WMO’s world.
Although Sean Hart is onstage at the keyboards when he’s not mixing the sound, he is also a behind the scenes techno-wiz. Oz-like, as he quietly goes about his business without drawing much, if any attention to himself. An intense, dedicated musician and recording engineer, Hart is a tone scientist, a music alchemist for the new millennium if you will, and the man responsible for that keeping WMO’s sound at the cutting edge of technology.
With the most intriguing smile since Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Alley on lead vocals bellows deep and soulful. She’s also the band’s lyricist and her powerful voice is exceptional. Not limited to lyrics however, Alley frequently mixes in her unique brand of improvised scat, becoming another lead instrument in the band’s ongoing interplay. Whether she’s singin’, struttin’ or simply “smiling that smile,” Alley is a star!
Like a Peterbilt-semi truckin’ down hill, WMO continued to pick up momentum during this blistering two-hour-plus grand finale performance. Toward the end of the night, Legend’s tie-dyed walls seemed to breathe in time with the waves of sound that resonated throughout the lengthy set. The floor in front of the stage was busy with dancers ‘til the end and even the most rhythmically challenged in the crowd found themselves monkeying around the bar with a new found confidence while the music was in the air.
Somewhere around 2am WMO left the stage, spent from the all out jam and perhaps the tour itself. Worn out dancers finally getting a chance to rest their bones, flopped onto the old couches along the bar’s side walls or found a barstool to relax and catch their breath.
The room was still buzzing from the extended dose of high-energy, tightly woven psychedelic-funk as the inevitable breakdown of the stage gradually progressed. Everyone seemed exhausted as the room emptied, while hugs, hand shakes and “see-you-soons” were exchanged. Another night, another show. Another blowout for WMO!