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Published: 2003/10/12
by Chad Berndtson

Bomb Squad, Harpers Ferry, Allston, MA 10/4

I recall a Jambase feature from a while back in which a writer interviewed heavyweights and elder statesmen of funk, among them George Porter Jr., Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste and Bernie Worrell. When asked what "funk classics" had really been outplayed and over-covered over the years, Worrell replied (to paraphrase), "None of it. All of it should be played and keep being played."

That idea is so poignant and accurate a description of funk, because of its ambiguous simplicity. The slow death or, worse, commercialization and packaging of funk styles pioneered by The Meters, James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone and all the rest is the result of trying to nail down funk as some sort of formula or being of some sort of specific set of tenets. The very idea of funk its purity: the only real requirements are a groove and mine free of creative boundaries. "Formula funk," to employ a crude phrase, is what eventually stymied the greats, like Stevie Wonder, and is a disease that's currently wreaking havoc on several of the jam scene's most popular funk or funk-related outfits. Even the mighty George Clinton and his funk mob, the P-Funk Allstars, have become dangerously predictable in both setlists and stage antics (although, to be fair, the free mind prerequisite of pure funk is one thing that will never in a million years be lost on Clinton and his cohorts).

It is with this dilemma in mindthe emergence of "formula funk"that we arrive at the Bomb Squad, a group clearly at the most crucial crossroads of its relatively short career. Unfamiliar with their original material and in the end, able to judge better because of that fact, I trekked down to venerable Harpers on a musky, muggy Boston Saturday to see what all the hype was about. After two delightful hours, highlighted by some killer grooves (one tune, "Sophistafunk" was especially chunky), some Maceo-channelling and a fine reading of "Shake Everything You Got," it's reasonable to assert that the Bomb Squad will either become one of the hottest and most explosive funk ensembles around, or swan dive into the depths of commercial funk imitation, and there won't be a middle ground.

The one detractor that threatens the integrity of this band is also the one thing that its members currently are most excited aboutBomb Squad has advanced to the finals of the American Music Awards' New Music Award contest. Is winning this thing really the best goal for a band so healthily steeped in the funk gods of yesteryear? Isn't it a little soon for a band still feeling out its improvisational chops and ability to groove as a full unit? The fact that former DBB vocalist and diminutive bombshell Jen Durkin plugged the event almost as much as she sang detracted from the overall performance at Harpers, which is not to say that the Bomb Squad should not be anything less than proud of its accomplishments, but perhaps they should be a bit more wary of what the age-old "too much, too soon" could do to their raw funk energy. For a band that formed spontaneously and obviously commands the same energy of James Brown's best backing ensembles, the Bomb Squad is dangling awfully close to a world that suggests pure formula.

All that said, they may be able to transcend this rapid career advancement and preserve every explosive funky element. Perhaps it's good then, that a raw, unhinged band like the Bomb Squad is about to flirt with commercialization. Either way, the experience will reveal the band's true personality, not so easily determined from just one show. The Bomb Squad are either serious funksters or flashy imitators, and they will prove their mettle by flirting with the very thing that is gutting the musical ideas that they obviously hold dear to their hearts.

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