Galactic, Ogden Theatre, Denver, CO- 4/6
Sometimes, You’ve just got to get funky, and when you need the funk, nothing else will do. This very sentiment was in the air at Galactic’s show at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, as fans slowly filtered in from the bitter cold night. As people milled about, one thing became obvious. Almost no one knew who the opener, Papa Mali was, and that’s a damn shame in my book. Papa Mali, born Malcolm Wellbourne, is a funky, nasty bluesman who seems to be almost as all over the place as Warren Haynes. I’ve been a Papa Mali evangelist for some time now, so all my energy was going towards converting those who had never heard of him. However, my efforts encountered their first obstacle when not only did he not take the stage at 8:00, the scheduled start time, but he failed to come on after the newly established start time of 8:30. It was almost 9:00 when Papa Mali and his band walked on stage, and, to be honest, they weren’t worth the wait.
I’m a fan, so I’ll forgive the group this one, but there were numerous problems with the short, six-song set. The vocals were mixed far too low, and the instruments tended to far overpower anything he said. Almost every time I’ve seen Mali before, he either part of a larger band (ie. Rhythm Council) or backed only by drummer Robb Kidd. The addition of a bassist to the band seems to have been the mistake, and this was probably the least funky I’ve seen of the furry hat wearing bluesman. But that’s all past, and the reason I was there, the reason everyone was there, was Galactic. The group was coming off what was apparently a stellar show in Aspen.
We were most certainly not disappointed as the band, with a ghostly tree motif behind them, came in and tore into “Blackbird Special.” Bodies started moving and gyrating all around the room and continued during a great “Crazyhorse Mongoose.” Thet “Clockstopper” that followed was just that, all badass bass and massive climax. After this, Papa Mali was brought out, and how different it was from his solo set. His vocals were actually audible here, and Galactic somehow responded to him better than his own band. After a fun, lively “Bottle Up and Go,” the group launched into the oft-covered Al Green classic “I’m A Ram,” and it was pure, salacious nastiness. After “Ram,” Mali left the stage, and Galactic was really grooving.
They started off their first-set post-Papa Mali segment with what was arguably the highlight of the whole night, “Sunday Araq.” The band was in sync, the groove was somehow tight and fat at once, and Ben Ellman was wailing away on the saxophone. But this was no ordinary sax-excursion. The effects were laid on heavily, to the point that Ellman sounded like he could easily have fit in with the cantina band in Star Wars. The sound was expansive, incorporating Middle Eastern tones, spy music, and straight up space funk yielding a song that would have been equally at home as a theme to the best James Bond knock-off ever made or as the music dripping from the sound system of some alien strip club. It was that good.
The set continued at this super high level into the next song, “Bongo Joe.” This specific song was, in fact, my first real exposure to Galactic, and it has changed considerably since that version played at Bonnaroo 2004. The samples that make it so distinctive are much lower in the mix, and, in addition to the searing harmonica coda that defines it, Ben Ellman also plays the Baritone sax. The band was really cooking with this one too, dark and danceable as Robert Mercurio made the bass thick and heavy and Stanton Moore went to town on the drums. Rich Vogel was also bringing it on the keys.
After “Bongo Joe,” a transition was made into the first surprise of the night, an instrumental cover of “Kashmir.” The band drew on the same Middle-Eastern flavor that drove “Sunday Araq,” and it was suitably huge. Ben Ellman imitated the warbling of Robert Plant on his saxophone, and the groove was straight-up crushing. After this, the band walked off stage, promising a hasty return.
They came back to start the second set with “Linthead,” a decent version that kept the crowd moving, but not the fireball explosion of funk that started off the first set. Still, the crowd was more than happy to grind along to a couple more such songs, all solid, but falling a little short of the high bar placed by the first set. These three instrumentals also suffered a little bit from a lack of restraint, and the solos would tend to go a little bit longer than would have been perfect.
Papa Mali once again emerged for the fourth song, this one Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” Then came one of my most hoped-for songs of the evening, “Walk On Guilded Splinters,” that legendary piece of Dr. John’s voodoo jazz. Surprisingly enough, my feelings on it were mixed. The song was suitably spectacular, big and dark and ominous, sounding like it came out of a dank bar, deep in the bayou, populated by night trippers, voodoo priests and zombies, but it felt a bit too slow, too percolating to keep up the energy that they needed to stay on their game.
After “Splinters,” Papa Mali left the stage and the band set into “Baker’s Dozen.” It was certainly a passable version, but after that, the set lost a lot of its luster. A general lack of energy took a lot of the fun and a lot of the funk out of the last three songs of the set, as well as the first of the encore, “Licorice.” Galactic seemed to finally really regain their footing as they played the last song of the night, a cover of “Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.” But even if the spirit was flagging a bit by night’s end, there were some spectacular moments during this very solid show from some of the funkiest men on the scene.