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Published: 2004/12/31
by Chris Clark

Vinyl’s Variegated Hues

Funk is a sound that countless bands attempt; some fail, some prevail. Often, a band will no more than mirror the sounds of their predecessors, with nothing added to the pot but a touch of new flavor and an all too distinguishable resemblance to something else that came before.

Since forming in the Bay Area over eight years ago, Vinyl has progressively proven to be a band capable of achieving and sustaining full-on sweaty dance parties, night after night, with their brand of left coast, upbeat funk. But for the seven instrumentalists, their funk is copiously saturated with tastes of Latin, jazz, Afro-Cuban, reggae, blues, dub and hip-hop to name a few.

"If people aren't having fun, it's a drag," said Doug Thomas, whose sax and flute unite with Danny Cao's trumpet to produce a vibrant Vinyl horn section. "However, it seems to come naturally to us. Once we start a set of music, we get people into a nice frame of mind. As a musical group, of course we want to sound good and be tight musically, but ultimately, we want everybody to be stoked."

Created in 1995 at keyboardist Jonathan Korty's Homestead Valley garage just outside San Francisco, Vinyl has steadily stretched outwardly from the California coast into becoming an easily recognizable name in today's live music scene. "Having grown up mostly in the same scene in Marin, we simply wanted to create music for our friends and their parties. The band formed originally through a series of jam sessions which ultimately led to our first gig at a party in Ocean Beach-for which we were paid with a bag of mushrooms," explained Korty. "We had never heard of the term jamband,'" he added.

What began as a loose collaboration of like-minded friends, jamming together in garages in central California's Mill Valley for the sake of playing has spurned several main stage performances at the High Sierra Music Festival, as well selling out the legendary Maple Leaf in New Orleans during Jazz Fest. Vinyl also performed as Phil Lesh's backing band in 2001 at a packed benefit concert in Petaluma, CA and has been keenly received at coveted main stage spots at Berkshire Mountain Music Fest and the All Good Festival. "Playing music is sure fun, even if one isn't doing it professionally," said trumpeter Danny Cao.

From the very beginning, Vinyl was noticeably influenced by the old school funk grooves of bands like The Meters, while holding a certain flare for Latin, reggae, jazz and dub elements. Drawing upon these old school funk influences, they meld their worldly textures-from South American percussive percolations to West African-with Caribbean reggae, dub and west coast hip-hop. Put it all together with a big smile and a party atmosphere, you have Vinyl.

"We're all over the map influence-wise," said Thomas. "Everyone is very open-minded musically. The seven of us bring our individual tastes to the table to form a smorgasbord. Doug Sahm, Sonny Rollins, hip-hop, reggae and The Meters were all early influences. And of course we celebrate Michael Bolton's entire catalog," Thomas explained with a glimmer of the light-heartedness and humor that characterizes much of the band.

Vinyl's instrumentation boasts a wide array of sounds. Hammond B-3 organ, piano, guitar, sax, trumpet, flute, harmonica, congas, timbales, bass and drums each play important roles, enabling them to seamlessly transverse a multitude of American and world music, all with a fresh approach and unique old meets new, east meets west style. Emphasizing an instrumental approach that concentrates on seven person groove cohesion and moving the music forward, the band has increasingly steered away from padding their stats by trading solos while the rest of the band holds the groove and awaits their turn. Rarely will one hear the band move from sax solo to guitar solo to keyboard solo in such a routine manner. Instead, they opt to push the whole is greater than sum of its parts mentality and trade unnecessary, directionless soloing for a more full, collective sound. In doing so, they have been able to attract new fans while keeping the old ones more than satisfied.

In the live setting, Vinyl is a polyphonic dance party that touches upon an extensive palate of colors and textures. Latin rhythms with pulsating congas and timbales meet soaring horns and wah wah guitar for full-flavored funk that would make James Brown smile, do a little dance and yell, Get up!.' Coupled with their taste for a unique mnge of smooth, head bobbing dance hall dub and reggae, Vinyl brings with them the dance party.

"Live music will be fine as long as people enjoy the company of other people. If people choose to sequester themselves in front of their televisions, and isolate themselves in their homes and cars and expect culture to be brought to them, all they're going to get is brand marketing, ignorance, bad food and the health, social and class problems that go along with the three," Cao continued.

"Diversity is something that is both emphasized and marketed here in the Bay area, so one has access to a wide variety of music. Some of the guys in the band are very conscious regarding the style of music they prefer to direct the band towards while others are more influenced by unconscious inspiration," he finished.

Instantaneously, a funk throw-down will deflate into dub reggae trance as Alexis Razon's precise drumming will team with bassist Geoff Vaughn's vivacious rhythms to drive the moment and shape the sound. Johnny Durkin, former member of Deep Banana Blackout, is a mainstay in the live Vinyl sound, providing a Latin hue to a powerful horn section headed by Cao and Doug Thomas. Korty's versatility on the Hammond, keys and harp team with guitarist Billy Frates sometimes smooth and melodic, sometimes chunky and thick guitar work. Craftily taking on their material with adaptability and diversity, Vinyl thrives with the difficult task of getting seven distinct people and sounds on the same level and producing one, unified sound.

"The band sounds great when there is a circle of energy flowing through all of us at once. It is the whole is greater than the sum of the parts sort of thing," explained bassist Geoff Vaughn. "I suppose all bands aspire to these moments. You can't just snap your fingers and have them; this is where having played together for so long can really help."

Through steady, but sometimes inconsistent touring and a great deal of positive word of mouth, Vinyl has expanded their fan base beyond the friendly Bay area confines and onto the national music spotlight, but still situate themselves in the pristine, central California outdoors.

"We have a strong gravitation to the outdoors and our surroundings are ripe for exploration," explained bassist Geoff Vaughn. "Most of us live in a beautiful area just north of San Francisco which lends itself to hiking, running and biking."

Studio-wise, the band has released two impressive albums. Their debut self-titled album is a glimpse into what the future would hold for a band that at the time certainly had an abundance of talent. Flea Market, released in 2001, is more full-fledged, present day Vinyl. With the help of guest appearances by the likes of Bernie Worrell and Les Claypool, they soar through dub laced funk and chunky grooves to elevate the Vinyl sound and situate themselves for future success.

Cao elucidated, "I'm quite pleased with the quality of our studio albums. Although it may harder and harder to find good engineers and affordable facilities for recording live bands as opposed to synthesized or sample oriented music."

Over the last eight-plus years, the band has released four albums-1997's self-titled debut, 1998's Live at Sweetwater, 2001’s Flea Market and All the Way Live released just months ago. All the Way Live, a double album recorded at a sold-out run at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, further solidified the band as a true contender, not just in their home state of California, but on the national scene. With the help of heavyweight musical friends like Rob Wasserman, Bernie Worrell, Huey Lewis, Sugar Pie DeSanto and Terry Haggerty of Sons of Champlin fame, Vinyl explores many vast territories, from the horn driven funk opening of "Lasiti" to the dub style of "Things I Could Do" to Felonious’ M.C. Soulati and M.C. D Wolf smooth lyrical poetry on "Wax." As a result, the album clearly displays Vinyl’s diversity and aptitude at playing many musical styles, and frankly, playing them well. Not to mention, All the Way Live paints a vivid picture of the party atmosphere that is Vinyl live.

"People like dancing to the music we play," admitted Cao. "We play better when we've gotten absolutely no sleep the night before."

Fortunately for live music fans on the western half of the country, especially for those in California and the surrounding states, heavy doses of Vinyl's old school meets new school funky dub timbale trance can be found on the regular. Sadly, for those on the right half of the country, Vinyl has become an increasingly rare entity. Other than yearly trips to New Orleans in late April for Jazz Fest, (if you're lucky, you may have caught one of their sold-out, sunrise performances at the legendary Maple Leaf) and a ten-date run through the east coast in 2004 in support of the All the Way Live release, loyal fans must either wait, or make the trip out west to cash in on the dance party. The band played only a dozen or so shows on the eastern half of the country in 2004, so if you were at one of the few, consider yourself lucky.

"The progression of the band has been less goal oriented and more geared toward taking advantage of sensible opportunities," said Cao. "In so far as the future is concerned, hopefully the continual evolution of the music will open up new opportunities and provide interest for our long time fans.

"Financially, live music becomes less and less able to sustain itself and it sometimes seems as though live music is destined to become a museum relic supported by endowments, grants and corporate marketing concepts rather than through direct support by the listener," said Cao. "However, I remain hopeful that people continue to leave their living enclosure to enjoy life in all its forms," he concluded.

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