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Monday, July 9th, 2007

Galactic's New Orleans funk evolution

‘Infect me! Do something to make me spit fire through the saxophone!'

Saxophonist Ben Ellman isn't exactly saying that he doesn't care what audiences think.

But when his group, Galactic, performs each night, he's most concerned with impressing the men on stage — the guys he's been making music with for more than a decade.

The crowd? Any seasoned musician knows how to push a crowd's buttons.

"I know I feel like I've had a good night when I feel like the band is reacting to something that I did, compared to the audience," Ellman says. "I just know that the band is always listening. I can't always say that about the audience, and I don't expect them to."

Fans do not sit down, stroke their beards and study the musicians' interplay at a Galactic concert.

People boogie to Galactic. They drink to Galactic. They freak out to Galactic.

"You get into the moment and let the spirit move you however you want," Ellman says.

That heady atmosphere — celebratory, sweaty, carefree — is a direct result of Galactic's Mardi Gras-region roots. Based in New Orleans, the group has been playing traditional funk for years.

But Galactic, which also includes drummer Stanton Moore, guitarist Jeff Raines, bassist Robert Mercurio and Hammond organist Rich Vogel, continually pushes to evolve. Galactic's sound has grown to include rock, jazz, electronica, even hip-hop over the years.

Until 2004, Galactic featured a gritty, soulful vocalist: Theryl DeClouet sang on about half of Galactic's tunes, while the other half were instrumentals. After DeClouet left, Galactic shifted to an all-instrumental gear and became increasingly futuristic.

"None of us are really great singers," explains Moore, who also plays in the Stanton Moore Trio, Garage a Trois and a brass act called the Midnite Disturbers. "None of us really wake up in the morning, like, ‘Hey, let's write some killer lyrics today.' We felt like we had pushed that as far as we could."

Consequently, Galactic fans may be surprised by the group's upcoming studio CD, "From the Corner to the Block," which will be released Aug. 21 — and is bursting at the seams with words. Arguably, it's the most vocal-oriented CD of the band's career, featuring an arsenal of guest MCs such as The Coup's Boots Riley and Blackalicious' Gift of Gab. Co-produced by Ellman, it's a loose concept album connected to the idea of a neighborhood street corner.

"A lot of people might think since there's MCs on it that we made a hip-hop album," Ellman says. "But to me ... we didn't really change stylistically. I just think it's the next step forward for us."

Galactic plans to take some of the guest MCs on the road, but the Boise show will focus on the group's instrumental jams.

Studio albums are fun, Ellman says, because they allow musicians to redefine themselves in a controlled environment. His bandmate Moore doesn't write off the idea of an even more vocal-oriented CD someday.

"We can always call up Bjork and get other singers and stuff and do something crazy like that," Moore says. "You never know!"

But on stage, Galactic can't help but slip back to its funky roots. "Playing, there's a certain spontaneity and spark," Ellman says.

More often than not, finding that spark comes from playing with terrific musicians. Fans may not always listen. But Moore — who also gives drumming clinics and writes for drum magazines — is all ears, all the time, Ellman says.

"If I syncopate something a certain way or play something a certain way, if I repeat it, more often than not, Stanton will be there with me," Ellman says. "He's not just concentrating on his beat; he's listening to everybody else. And the same thing goes for everybody in the band.

"We're looking for that excitement all the time," Ellman explains. "Like, ‘Infect me! Do something to make me spit fire through the saxophone!' "

Michael Deeds: 377-6407

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