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Published: 2006/03/21
by Ian Zeitzer

Al Howard & K23 Orchestra, The Bunkhouse and Moondoggies West, Las Vegas, NV- 3/3 & 3/4

Popular American music has seen several examples of a link created between poetry, politics and music. Crossover folk stars like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell paved the way for a new generation of bards who extended the notion to rap, a lineage that includes activists like KRS-One and Chuck D. of Public Enemy. Infusing elements of slam poetry into hip-hop culture, emphasizing performance as much as content, newer artists like Saul Williams and Michael Franti have seen jamband, urban, and revolution-minded audiences all respond to both their music and message. Making headway in that same arena is Alfred Howard, from the cultural and political hotbed of San Diego, CA?

Upon further review, San Diego makes complete sense. After all, the city almost wrote a surfer into the mayor’s office in 2004 and has seen its fair share of corruption scandals ever since it blew a golden opportunity for systemic change. Musically, Alfred and his band, dubbed the K23 Orchestra, bare a striking resemblance to the surfing experience. When Al pontificates he roars like an angry ocean, while the Orchestra floats gently by, waiting for his black wave to crash out of breath. He then grabs a tambourine and they all drift out together, riding high a harmonious tide that does not quit until band and audience have surfed the sea well and landed safely back ashore. Almost every song features this two-pronged approach of verse-then-jam, making it a little repetitive, but the music is driving enough and Al’s words are jarring enough to give each song just enough personality to not go stale until at least the end of the second set.

Al & Co. would make their first tracks to Las Vegas on March 3rd & 4th, 2006 in an effort to preach its gospel, convert the masses, and hopefully create an inroad to another major Southwest music market. After all, a band cannot live on Flagstaff and Southern California alone. However ambitious the group’s politics are, planning a two-night run in Sin City is a whole different story. The band strategically targeted two separate crowds in an effort not to extend the city’s small but devoted core jamband scene past its breaking point. The first show siphoned bohemians and local drinkers off the Vegas’s First Friday arts gathering, while the second visited the undisputed home of Sin City wiggle-dancing, Moondoggie’s West.

When he’s rattling off a diatribe against this, that, or the other, the fingers on Al Howard’s left hand flutter like five individual hummingbirds. The concentrated energy in that hand could move mountains, and so could his words if intelligible. Not to fault the sound systems at either venue but perhaps the most frustrating part of a K23 Orchestra gig is trying to understand what Al says. Choruses and each poem’s closing stanzas chant like mantras, but the rest flies by so fast it will have you scrambling for a lyrics sheet. But trying to picture Al Howard in any other career will waste your time, as the man appears born to change your mind via your soul. And while he takes center stage and commands presence through his words and unique appearance, it is keyboardist Josh Rice that leads the group melodically. With guitarist Travis Daudert turned down in the mix and providing mostly rhythmic duties, Rice excels in his ability to lead the charge during all the developing and closing stages of the jamming process.

The Bunkhouse, the scene of Friday night’s crime, has probably seen a lot of crimes in its day. Located off the path of any Downtown rejuvenation/gentrification projects, fans best found parking the in the lot across the street or drove around until someone else left. Inside, the recently redone bar resembles Ted Nugent’s rec room, complete with antlers and a giant screen television for movie nights. Comfy chairs line the outside of the miniature dance floor; only monitors separate the crowd from the performers. The close quarters would have provided a nice, intimate setting had the band not blown the roof off the place with a sonic blast of concentrated funky energy. Through word of mouth, local promoting, or just the fact that the show was free, the joint was packed and the band overwhelmed the many first-timers with an upbeat set of driving jazz/funk (think Galactic with no horn and a more pronounced organ,) and mind-altering rhymes. The group consistently powered through the venue DJ’s request to start his set and henceforth usher in the next band, local surf kings Thee Swank Bastards, as the crowd clearly wanted three more songs when the band only had time for one.

Many of the folks and songs looked and sounded familiar on Saturday night, but the larger venue and smaller crowd showed no obvious effects on the Orchestra. The opener, “Divided Time”, tows a heavy political line against everything anyone should be against in this day and age pollution, slave wages, materialism, Big TV, etc. Some songs are more literary, for perhaps the sake of Al’s own sanity, like “Break Light Eyes”, where he promises, “Mother I swear one day I will make you proud/I will be like you, light breaking through clouds.” “Nick N Dime” is just one of several songs that reference, either by name or by reference, both Al and the group’s influences, which range from Zeppelin and Floyd to John Coltrane and seemingly everywhere in between.

By the time “14 Days” bowed and lights came up for the final time on the Las Vegas run, only the band (specifically skillful bassist Matt LaBarber, whose head bobs in agreement constantly signifying that the music is indeed funky,) had sweated more than the fans. With whatever took so long for the local venues and Jamband Society forgotten, perhaps the two-night was a little adventurous but no less appreciated. From Bob and the Band, to Chuck D. and Public Enemy, to Al Howard and the K23 Orchestra, the torch has been passed. Here’s to hoping the swirls of the Pacific Ocean don’t extinguish it.

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