The Freaks Ball VII, Southpaw Brooklyn, NY- 1/27
In its earliest incarnation, The Freaks’ Ball was a true gathering of the tribes. The New York City Widespread Panic fans had dubbed themselves the “NYC-Freaks,” and they decided to throw a celebratory bash, extending invites to the local Galactic fans (galacticny) and String Cheese Incident devotees (NYC-FOC). All three tribes huddled under one Tribeca tent to hear the gospel preached by this kid with a fiery pedal steel. Some of us had heard Robert Randolph before, and we knew everyone had to get there early to catch this phenomenal opening act. Well, the Freaks were blown away by what they heard, CDs were frantically mailed across the country, and suddenly Mr. Randolph was catapulted into stardom. He stayed on the bill for several subsequent Freaks’ Balls, before a little-known act named The Duo took their turn and stole the spotlight.
The Freaks’ Ball has become a January rite of passage in New York, gradually growing in popularity for not only its ability to play musical kingmaker but also for its intimate, party-amongst-friends vibe. As the seventh annual installment approached, many wondered which of the eclectic acts on the bill would use this opportunity as a springboard to the next level, while the rest of us just wondered if Southpaw had stocked enough Maker’s Mark.
After an opening set of old school funk and Northern soul from Freak DJ Mark Burnell, The Dansettes got the festivities rolling. I had never previously seen any of the bands on this bill, but I was really looking forward to catching The Dansettes because I’m a sucker for all things sixties. With their loud print dresses, stylized choreography, and boogaloo backup band, these three young ladies looked and sounded as if they had stepped right out of a 1966 episode of the UK’s ultra-groovy Ready Steady Go! The beginning of this set was a tad uncomfortable, as the band and audience struggled to feel each other out. When the organist repeatedly requested the audience to join in a soul clap, he had no idea he was committing a major faux pas because a few prominent NYC-Freaks have taken a very vocal stand in opposition to audience unison clapping. People didn’t quite know what to make of this retro act, which sometimes resembled more musical theater than musical ensemble. As far as the backing band goes, they were tight, soulful, and funky. Unfortunately, the vocalists couldn’t quite match the band’s fire. While each of the young women displayed some power when singing lead, the backup vocals were severely lacking in confidence. Moreover, only two-thirds of the trio were truly committed to the choreography, with the third member often appearing as if she were standing at the intersection of Bored and Aloof. I certainly expected a woman with what looked like a “Mortal Kombat” logo tattooed on her inner elbow to be a little more feisty. Nevertheless, there were some nice moments as the band got down and dirty on the Allen Toussaint-Irma Thomas number, “Hittin’ on Nothing,” and the organist fired everyone up with a spirited vocal turn on “Monkeyshine,” a driving blues chart that sounded as if it came straight from The Animals’ canon. By the end of the set, The Dansettes had relaxed a bit and released their nervous gaze from the back wall of the room, occasionally making eye contact and connecting with their audience. It was only then that the true potential of this band was evident, and everyone started to have fun. Right now, they are green and inexperienced, but once they stop trying to put on a show and start making this music their own, The Dansettes will become a rock-solid, soulful act.
Chris Harford and the Band of Changes were next on the docket, and they wasted no time in launching into their 90s by way of the 70s grungy rock. Harford’s band is appropriately named because of its ever-changing lineup, but four songs into their set, this current assemblage of musicians really began to jell as if they had been playing together for years. From the opening notes of “Raise the Roof,” the Band of Changes put everyone on notice. They weren’t fooling around. This shit was serious. Dean Ween and Scott Metzger unleashed a filthy double-pronged guitar attack that combined perfectly with Dave Dreiwitz’ thumping bass and Joe Russo’s thunderous drums. If your fist wasn’t pumping at this point, you were probably standing in the crowd, mouth agape at the stunning sonic assault that was ripping you a new one. Of course, I should note that the entire set was more than just raw power. “Holding On To You” had an addictive alt-country groove, while “Dragonfly” playfully bounced on a skiffle-like theme. There even was a sensitive side of these guys on display, as vocalist Harford showcased ample charisma in delivering the Hendrix-ish ballad “Satellite Angel.” Regardless, it was the pure, unadulterated rock that made the Band of Changes a thrilling act to experience.
There’s an unwritten rule that says you can’t gather a crowd of more than 300 people in Brooklyn without an ample representation of hipsters present, and Saturday proved to be no exception. The holier-than-thou stylish set poured in right before their beloved Apollo Sunshine took the stage. The third of three bands that were new to my virgin ears, I was quite surprised to enjoy them as much as I did. Judging from the soundcheck, I figured they would be loud, but I wasn’t quite prepared for them to re-write the definition of “deafening.” Ear-shattering volume aside, what I heard was a wild mix of pop, prog, psychedelia, punk and funk. At times, their aggressive and experimental sound reminded me of early Funkadelic, with those mind-melting funky jams that shredded on a hard edge. Sporting two basses for much of the show, the power trio frequently switched between synthesizer, guitar, bass, double-necked guitar and bass, percussion, and pedal steel, often playing multiple instruments in one song. It was one heady musical brew that aimed to wreak havoc on the frontal lobes. On the other hand, this crazed atmosphere was contrasted by their acoustic-driven pop number “Magnolia,” which is recognizable from a certain scotch commercial. Clearly Apollo Sunshine seemed to be rather relaxed, even inviting a belligerent audience member onstage to sing a painful karaoke version of “Phone Sex.” Thankfully, they quickly shifted from this horrid display to the optimistic rockabilly of “Today is Your Day.” Someone jumped onstage in the middle of this upbeat number to play a credible harmonica solo before frontman Jesse Gallagher head-butted him into the wings. All Hell was breaking loose, and before the set was over we had shirtless hipsters in the crowd and sweat everywhere.
The final entree was delivered by a Dean Ween-less Band of Changes. There was a little fire missing from this set, and the audience had thinned down to a small number. The “Evil Twin” opener was a rather bizarre blues ballad, featuring Dave Dreiwitz handing his bass to Harford in favor of a piccolo trumpet while guest Hub Moore handled guitar and vocals. After Moore exited, things came back to normal on a driving cut of “Does It Turn You On?” With Dean Ween offstage, Chris Harford supplied the second guitar, and he proved to have just enough dirtiness to keep things rocking. Highlights included the ELO-ish “Hold Me Hold You” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Rain” which sounded as if it had been filtered through the Velvet Underground. By the time the lengthy “Leaf of Fall” closed the show, those remaining in the crowd were truly spent.
While the musical acts of the evening ranged between interesting and enthralling, my favorite part of The Freaks' Ball occurred when there was no band onstage. A friend and I had gone outside to inhale the rarified Brooklyn air, and when we returned, we were greeted by the sounds of Freak DJ James Craemer, who was somehow sober enough to be spinning a killer Jackson 5 version of "It's Your Thing." Instantly, my friend and I dropped our coats and busted into a full-on boogie-down freak-out. As we grooved with reckless abandon, hips shaking and appendages wildly flailing, I looked around and saw nothing but giddy friends. In my opinion, this brief moment captured what The Freaks' Ball is all about: grabbing one last slice of careless joy with a few hundred of your closest compadres before ultimately exiting into the cold New York night. Mission accomplished.