Greyboy Allstars perform at Workplay
The jamband scene is best known for improvisational music, taper-friendly live performances and fiercely loyal fans. But equally prevalent are multiple musical projects that connect many of the scene's high-profile artists. The Greyboy Allstars - a quintet formed on the West Coast nearly 15 years ago - exemplifies this collaborative spirit. Led by keyboardist Robert Walter (Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Frequinox) and saxophonist/vocalist Karl Denson (Karl Denson's Tiny Universe), the band's groove-driven sound is self-described as "70s soundtrack music."Walter feels that participating in multiple projects is a key to creative and artistic growth.
"I think it's a good thing as far as keeping us interested and inspired in Greyboy Allstars," Walter says, speaking by phone. "We get to express some other things outside and we all learn stuff that we can bring to the band. It helps us resist the urge to try and put down every idea into this group, which sometimes can make you lose your focus as a band. This band has a pretty specific function - we're trying to improvise but also be danceable. Some of our ideas may not fit into that and you can express that elsewhere."
Joining Walter and Denson in The Greyboy Allstars are guitarist Elgin Park, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor. Taking its name from visionary West Coast figure DJ Greyboy, the band is currently touring in support of its latest release, What Happened To Television? In addition to performing on two of the disc's tracks, DJ Greyboy co-produced the album with the band.
True to its democratic disposition, Walter feels the band's collaborative ethos is best illustrated in its songwriting approach.
"There are two ways it happens. One is when somebody brings in a song and the band mangles it into our own image. The other way is when we write together. We get into a room and screw around and everyone will have ideas. All of the songs on the new record were written that way - all together. We had a rule that nobody was allowed to bring in anything they made up at home. That's a good way of making everybody feel like they own the music. Nobody's playing a part that somebody told them to play," Walter says.
In playing in a band that exists beyond the scope of commercial radio, Walter sees a give-and-take as technology plays a prominent role in the exposure and distribution of music.
"I can see the downside and the upside of it," he says. "I am personally mourning the LP. I like the idea of someone sitting down and listening to your whole record, whether it be on CD or vinyl. That's how I grew up - you put on an album and you listen to the whole thing. I think the Internet has made it real song-heavy. People download one song and the whole idea of listening to a continuous program is being erased. I think the market is over-saturated, but it's taken the power out of the hands of record companies which is never a bad thing."
Though functioning without radio support could be deemed a negative, Walter enjoys the creative freedom that his projects have been afforded as a result.
"We play in the jamband scene - there are all these bands touring and none of them are on the radio or have big record company support. Someone with weird ideas that doesn't fit into the mainstream can create a touring business and get in front of people. We've lived completely independent of the mainstream music business - that wasn't a matter of high ideals on our part. We never fit into anything that a record company could sell, so we created our own thing. There are a lot of bands like that. You have to give it up to the Grateful Dead for that model of business. I don't feel like I've ever had to compromise artistically," Walter says.
A native of San Diego, Walter relocated to New Orleans shortly before the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. In spite of the devastation brought by the storm, Walter has remained in the city and continues to draw inspiration from its creative culture.
"Things are not back to normal by any means," he says. "But the one thing great about that city is that the music scene will survive anything. That was the first thing happening again [after Katrina]. More and more, everyone's starting to come back. Even right after the storm, there were great gigs happening all over town. Before there was power, they put up a generator at the Maple Leaf Bar and had a gig. That's the one thing in that city that people won't live without."
True to the spirit of his new hometown, Walter thrives on performing live and the improvisational opportunities that await him each night.
"The songs that end up getting played a lot are songs that usually have some sort of open-end thing in the way they're constructed. The songs are built with multiple options. People have been improvising over the blues for hundreds of years now, but it's hard to exhaust all of the options. There's still more to learn about it."
The Greyboy Allstars will perform at Workplay on Thursday, January 31. Back Door Slam will open the 8 p.m. show. Tickets are $20 -$25 day of the show - and can be purchased at www.workplay.com or by calling 380-4082.