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Published: 2003/11/18
by Ian Zeitzer

Granola Funk Express, North Star Bar, Philadelphia, PA- 11/10

The cards were severely stacked against Granola Funk Express as they rolled into Philadelphia on a chilly Monday night. First, any live hip-hop band entering the City of Brotherly Love will face immediate comparisons to the grandfathers of the scene, hometown boys the Roots. Also on this night, GFE would rumble head-to-head with the sports world, as the city glued itself to an Eagles appearance on Monday Night Football. While those variables might have affected the crowd size (approximately 100), the energy remained high, both literally and figuratively, as GFE ripped through a trademark set of rap, reggae, funk, and groove rock.

Call it or gimmick or genius, Granola Funk Express aim to cash in on the hippie hip-hop market. While many contemporary and underground rap acts appeal to dredlocked jam fans (noting Jurassic Five’s and the aforementioned Roots’ many festival appearances), none appeal to the community on such a homegrown visceral level as GFE. An all-white twentysomething ensemble, the band performed in every incarnation between trio and neuftet, each member playing multiple instruments and vocal roles. Literally every band member performed on at least two different instruments throughout the evening, even if for some the effort far exceeded the result. All combinations of the four emcees would eventually rock the mic, and they feature more drummers than Spinal Tap. Keeping score of the players proves futile, as the community nature in which the band formed in the mid 90s as a part of the Rainbow Gathering movement carries its way on stage every night. The group even opened the show, as it does every show, with a calming hum/chant.

The North Star, a corner bar that looks 110% nicer on the inside than the outside (and get there early to park in the smallish lot, for safety’s sake), smelled like Bob Marley’s hair well before the headliners took the stage. A smattering of fans lined the edge of the balcony, the land that security forgot, but most lingered by the back bar until the thumping hip-hop beats drew them slowly out of their chairs and closer to the action. Openers Natural Mystic warmed up the crowd but the place did not fill up until 3 songs into GFE’s 2-hour plus set. Coincidentally, it was just in time for the first memorable moment of the evening, as the band showed its instrumental chops with a intro and freestyle featuring a driving bass, steady percussion, and effect-laden guitar.

The band split its set with equal parts boastful party anthems and message rhymes. Leaving little to the imagination, "Vice Squad" riffed on the police, and "Fat Cat" nailed the rich. Tom thanked his favorite Philly graffiti artists before launching into "Petty Crimes", a salute to graffing, pot, and all the other little victimless crimes suburban white kids do to show defiance. Vocalist/MC Nature handled vocal duties on the island-tinged reggae numbers, but the "Revolution!" chants felt empty. Their rap and reggae forefathers wanted real revolution; GFE would probably be content with marijuana decriminalization and a less visible police presence.

Making up in speed and metaphors what they often lack in message and lyrical prowess, GFE best hits the mark with the music. Their beats resemble the most ominous of Dr. Dre and the funkiest of Spearhead, and their jams would sometimes reach seven minutes with all guns blazing even when the vocals drop out at minute three. "Pocket", an instrumental off their upcoming album Bigger Than It Really Is, was the highlight of the evening for those expecting more jam and less lip service.

They rely on the art of freestyling, so even if they never tighten up the flow they could still seriously compete on the national touring circuit based on sheer musical ability. They aren’t the Roots, and the Eagles played their most exciting game of the season to date, but Granola Funk Express still represented at the North Star for those more interested in toking than touchdowns.

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