In 1972, when I was just 5 years old, three albums completely blew my mind. The first was Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits. Little Michael and his brothers showed me that a kid could be a rock star, and dammit, that’s exactly what I wanted to be, even at age 5. I didn’t know at the time that they were backed by Motown’s finest songwriters and musicians. That came much later.
The second was Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, which, to me, was the heaviest record on the planet. The combination of Hendrix, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox was lethal, an all-black ensemble that riveted mostly white audiences with a new take on old numbers that each of the members had brought to the Gypsy fold. “Machine Gun,” to this day, remains the most important antiwar song of the psychedelic era. And that album cover is the reason I play guitar left-handed.
Number three on this list was Sly & the Family Stone’s funk masterpiece Stand. The coda to the title track alone may be one of the funkiest moments ever put to tape. The talk box-driven “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” the layered harmonies of “Somebody’s Watching You,” the grubby groove of “Sing a Simple Song,” the funky blues riffs of “Sex Machine” — to my 5-year-old brain, it was all too much. That was the record that made me a fan of James Brown, P-Funk, Fishbone and Follow for Now. I still listen to Stand with awe and reverence.
So, when it comes to funk, I don’t suffer imitators with any glee. The jam-band scene is littered with these rip-off artists, bands that think if they toke hard enough and rock a horn section, they are somehow “funky.” Some are embarrassingly glossy, while others are downright boring. Most just sit there on the shelf, noodling around as their fans engage in something akin to dancing.
When Herd of Watts contacted me about a review, I was skeptical, as any band promoting itself as funky enters my radar low. Add to that the word “jam,” and I am liable to smash a few pieces of furniture. Herd of Watts promotes itself as a “junk” band, a merciless amalgamation of the words “funk” and “jam.” You can imagine the spasms that ensued after I read that email.
After recovering from the “junk”-induced seizure that left me face-down on the kitchen floor, I actually listened to their eponymous five-song EP. In a word, the record falls somewhere between “embarrassingly glossy” and “really good.” I am of the mind that funk should be dirty, a little sleazy and a whole lot visceral. The boys in Herd of Watts — Ben and Matthew Strok (guitar and keys, respectively), Sean Thomas (bass), Corey Peterson (sax) and Jamal “Music City” Wright (drums) — are obviously competent musicians, and work well together. There is certainly chemistry there. But like most schooled musicians I know, they have a tendency to play it too clean.
Track 1, “Right on Time,” is a great example — upbeat and funky, with a sweet Rhodes underpinning and jazzy breaks, but the vocals and sax lines are a little smooth for my taste. The instrumental “Walnut,” on the other hand, is a deep-pocket mood-changer, with a thick B-3 line, a nice guitar-sax unison line and a satisfying groove. The tune is an example of where the band can take music when they dig in.
As I progressed through the EP, I felt like I was missing something, so I looked up a Herd of Watts video on YouTube and stumbled upon their live performance of “Step into the Ring.” Though not quite the muddy funk I prefer, the action on the video is much more representative of what the band can do. The eight-minute vid allows time for development, with several dynamic shifts for the soloist to work it out. There’s an energy missing from the EP, an energy I hope the group will capture for their upcoming second release. I am now intrigued enough to endeavor to catch the band live.
The band has a full slate of late-summer and fall gigs, including Aug. 22 at Flying Iguana in Neptune Beach, Aug. 23 at St. Augustine’s No Name Bar and Aug. 28 at Mellow Mushroom in Jax Beach. The band was also recently announced as part of the line-up for Bear Creek Music Festival, set for Nov. 13-16 at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.