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New Groove

Published: 2006/07/20
by Chad Berndtson

NBFB

The first time I reviewed an NBFB show for this site, I was quick to point out the ‘unflappable, unruffled ease of it all.’ From the audience perspective, that’s still the case; the commanding ‘space funk’ quintet from Amherst, Massachusetts has only built upon that intangible sense of guile and excitement.

It’s a balance, really, between staying out of coldly clinical, technique-driven jamming, and also keeping clear of unfocused, visceral flights that are amorphous and too heavy on slop. It’s also being true to influences—Maceo Parker, Soulive, Led Zeppelin, and vintage hip-hop being most prevalent—while fashioning a comfortable sense of groove that’s too professionally realized to qualify as genuflection. A supple groove is a product of chemistry, and to have found that long before they’ve finished tightening their identity was NBFB’s first victory.

The group’s had an interesting go of it. Since forming in 1998 and springing up in 2000 in the Amherst/U-Mass area, NBFB has weathered more than its share of lineup changes and creative starts and stops.

The initials stand for ‘No Bud for Bisson,’ an in-joke that means exactly what you think it means and refers to the band’s original drummer, Dave Bisson. Bisson was one of two key members to depart in recent years—the other was keyboardist Darby Wolf—but the band’s current lineup has solidified: guitarist Ron Peleg, drummer Noah Bond, bassist Dan Rehm, keyboardist Sam Gilman and saxophonist/vocalist Bob Moriarty, with a few other occasional members, associates, and guests.

In the early years, they snagged headlining gigs where they could find them. Later came the festival invitations, the coveted opening slots, the residencies, the local TV spots, and the opportunity to play in some of the Northeast’s more hallowed halls. ‘‘NiBFiB Confidential’‘ (Naked Ear), their third full-length release, pushed the envelope ever further in 2005.

We recently sat down with Peleg—an accomplished local promoter as well as a musician—for a rundown on the band, the scene, getting the word out, and why 2006 is primed to be a banner year for NBFB. There’s lots more information available on the band’s Web site and its MySpace page. *NBFB is a band right at the tipping point, in that you’ve broken out beyond friends, family, and show regulars. You have a healthily growing fanbase, but are not yet a surefire draw for clubs that aren’t local. A lot of bands approach this threshold and wonder what the next move is. How do you guys discuss that? What comes at this point in a band’s life? *
We talk about the music. Since our schedule is not as intensive as it used to be, we maintain a 20-song rotation and try to keep it tight. Our jams get more creative and expansive in rehearsals. We feel each other out and that helps us onstage.
We hope within a year to make it a real day job, and to do that, we need to be playing on the best stages with a lot of people. As clichs it sounds, we truly believe that we make a unique combination of our influences, and put kind of a new spin on them. Either way, we’re starting to get in front of the right crowds and get dirty.
What have you found are the most effective promotional methods?
Well, you have to get yourself into the position to play that right show: either open for that right band or get that right gig. You have to know ahead of time that you’re putting out a product that’s irresistible. It takes money, too, an investment, and you have to be able to afford to get the word out there.
You need an Internet presence and you need a lot of promotional materials, which aren’t cheap, and people willing to do the work for you. The street team is key; most bands like us can’t yet make the band their full time priority. Those people have to be folks that actually dig your music. Any time you think you’ve done enough promotion, you can always do more.
Then, it’s getting the right booking agent. If you can find someone who’s got some degree of power and a great interest in the band—i.e. a true belief in your music—they can use their resources much more effectively than you can. It’s nice to think you can do it all by yourself, but a seasoned professional really makes the difference early on.
Then, the Internet forums. Anywhere where you can get people together to talk about the band—MySpace, the Terrapin boards, the Rhombus. Anywhere where there’s a plethora of people you want to reach out to—it’s important to be on those people’s lips.
What about offering music? Obviously the taper culture has its uses. Where do you stand on giving away your music online?
Giving music away for free can have its limitations, but it can be infinitely positive. In this day and age of Internet and downloading music, I think kids understand that if they like the shit, they’re going to buy it. You’re enticing them enough to go to your show, and they’re going to want everything you have. If it takes a couple of free discs to get them to the live delivery stage, then that’s the most effective way. If you can’t do it live, you can’t really do it. *If there’s another major question mark, it’s how often and where to tour. Some musicians are ‘flood the zone’ types: play the local bars every night they can. Others prefer to play less locally and focus more on cultivating fanbases in a variety of places simultaneously, the rationale there being that if you play an area too often, you’ll breed over familiarity and the idea that not every show is a must-see. *
In general, I feel like both sides are pretty true. It’s a question of how long you’re willing to not make money. As bad as that sounds, you could be from New York, and you’re making $400 a gig once per week and you’re not really paying your band’s rent but you could be playing in front of Maceo Parker’s band at Irving Plaza every time.
But if that doesn’t allow you to take your act down to the Bowery Ballroom a few months later and do it yourself as a headliner, you’re not really breaking in. If you don’t have a good, constant replay strategy, it turns quickly into you just being ‘well, whatever’ and you’ll take any gig that’ll pay your cell phone bill.
A lot of bands go through that, and you have to make sure every person in the band is committed to taking the plunge. My idea? Get in the van with a bunch of PB&J and white bread and do it all the time. Cities are hard, but they’re the right places. In the Northeast, of course, it’s New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Boston is definitely one of the toughest markets to please, so that’s been a good experience for us. And NYC, there’s so much and so many possibilities. You never know who’ll be in the crowd.
At what point do you think the members of NBFB began to make the band a serious priority?
It was after our first show at the Iron Horse [Music Hall in Northampton] in 2001. I never felt anything like that—a feeling of great satisfaction of having a lot of people come and see us play our music. The place was packed, it was our first show ever in an actual venue, and we all agreed, yes, we wanted that again. So we starting pitching to agents and some did some work with us and we started getting gigs.
How do you think you core sound has evolved over the years?
We used to be really kind of hot-jazz funky for a long time, and then we went the darker route, with harder funk and rock. I like all of it, I like the versatility. If our repertoire continues to expand, we fit on a lot of different bills.
In rehearsals, it’s still all of us coming together with our little ideas. We all listen to the same types of music, so we have that same kind of unspoken musical goal. Stuff started to differ among us, but we made it work—that can kill some bands—because we all still knew what we wanted to hear.
The newer stuff is composed the same way as it always has. Somehow we’ll develop a riff and jam it out, push its directions. New songs, though, are much more rock, a more succinct ideology.
What do you think pushed you in those directions?
I think it happened through trial and error musically, and we’ve also evolved as human beings, especially in how we think. We outgrew noodling and self-righteous jamming—believe me, we used to just love vamping for 17 minutes, but you have to draw the line, and not all bands consciously make that effort.
If a band is talented enough, they do consciously make that effort to [pare it down], but they can still maintain sick jamming capabilities. With us, we just made the change because, well, people get bored. You’re not going to sell yourselves on a 17-minute techno jam for people in Bar Harbor [Maine]. *How did you arrive at the current instrumentation? Why five, for example, and not, say, eight? No horns? No second guitar? Not that any of that is odd or necessary, I just wonder often how bands settle their numbers. *
Well, it’s not eight because of logistics, and our music doesn’t call for a horn section. The time it would take to meld two guitarists—it’d have to be two leads—would be a bit much. We originally didn’t have keys, and the inception was two guitars, bass, drums, vocals and sax. We got rid of the second guitarist and then it was just the five of us pretty much by default. *You’re entrenched in a scene known for its guitar superstars. Do you ever feel pressured to be The Guitarist? The absolute, knock-down shredder? How has your own role in the band changed, if at all? *
Well, I know that I’m not what they are. I may be the lead guitarist but my role is different—I’ve become less the soloist and more a texture member. It’s not always a lead, for any of us, and we’re all kind of pushing each other along in the songs. I guess there’s a little bit of pressure, sure, but I feel like I have way more of a responsibility to make the sound full. I can’t stand the way a band sounds sparse when a guitarist is all about his solo time and not contributing otherwise. *So many developing bands deal with lineup changes. This is such a critical time: you’ve graduating beyond playing just for fun and now you’re making a legitimate business decision. NBFB’s dealt with quite a few lineup changes, including two major ones. What do you do when that happens? *
The first thing you do is you get everybody together and say, ‘Do we all want to continue being in the band?’ If one person leaves, there might be doubts with other people, so you need to make sure right then and there that the rest of you are all still good to go.
Then you look at options. If it’s, say, a drummer, you all convene and you talk about it. I don’t think you really want it to be a stranger, although that has worked for some bands. When Noah came along, we had seen him play a few times and he was well educated, so we just wanted to make sure the groove was right and that he could hold tempos with seamless transitions.
If it’s a keyboard player, you’re looking for someone who listens and is cooperative. Sam is a great listener and really pays attention. In a more improvisational, melodic role, you want someone who’s really going to add to the equation. *Being both a promoter and a fan as well as a musician, you have a hand on the pulse of the jam scene, however fractious it is these days. What so-called ‘established’ bands, to you, exemplify real growth? *
Umphrey’s, the Duo and the New Deal might not be musically ever-changing, but they’re getting bigger and they’re always doing more. Those three in particular are the head turners—the way they jam sets them above the rest, but they all do a really good job of serving their own musical needs while keeping it in the audience’s favor.
The Duo in particular expanded themselves—they took a spare thing, organ and drums only, and made it work. They keep people moving they keep them enthralled. Umphrey’s is so progressive and tight and organized, and have these really cool jam sections and releases that let the listener relax and get into it. And they’re all very humble people—they’re normal and they don’t wear makeup, none of that glam shit—they’re good guys. I think they’re happy playing music.
Looking back over the past few years, what shows really stand out to you?
Our CD release party at Harpers Ferry [in Allston, MA] last year. Our Northeast Music Organization (NEMO) festival show last fall with [The Breakfast’s] Tim Palmieri sitting in. Dave Bisson’s last show with us at the Iron Horse. Playing with Soulive in Maine this past spring. Nectars [in Vermont] on April 1 this year.
You’re releasing that Nectars show as NBFB’s first live album.
That show was really a game-changer for us. We take quotes from those jams and all that. Everything—the jamming, the energy, the sound, it all fell into place. We’ve always wanted to make a live album, but we’re sort of cursed, you know, we’ll play a great show and find that the computer has shorted out.
The other shows I mentioned were more for the crowd and the experiences we had—having some new people see us and get down. *Your associations have brought some pretty interesting sit-ins in the past few years. Sam Kininger is a regular with you guys, and NBFB has jammed with Marco Benevento, Tim Palmieri, and whole host of others. *
I like sit-ins because it’s a public showing of community efforts, you know? I like the fact that bands network with other bands. To sit-in is to say that ‘I’m down with you, musically, and I respect you, and now I’m going to share my musical knowledge with you in front of other bands and other fans.’
It can definitely be overkill, but it’s great if done right. If he or she is playing one of the band’s original songs, a good guest plays along to see how the song goes, adds a bit to the verse part and is able to trade off with other players. A good guest is part of the experience—we’re all this particular jam together and you’re not just standing around waiting for your moment.
You’ve got a high profile residency in New York kicking off this month. Tell me about the rest of 2006.
Yes, it’s at the Knitting Factory Old Office, every Tuesday night from July 18 to August 15. We’ll headline each night and every week there’ll be another band or two on the bill. Some of them are already mentioned on the web site.
It’s time to make an impression in the city and then build it with more dates outside New York and Boston. For the past couple of shows, it’s been cool because there have been a lot of kids we don’t know showing up, asking us to play our songs. W e have fans that are there to get down and funky for us. We want people to like our music and dance to it. We want people to know us, ‘cause we know they’ll like us.

_Chad Berndtson lives in Boston. His work appears in The Patriot Ledger, Glide, Relix, Jambands.com, the Providence Journal and other publications. _

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