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Galactic at the Dingo

By Julie Birnbaum

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  A lot of suspense built up before New Orleans-based Galactic finally made an appearance at the Dingo Bar. For one thing, their two prior scheduled gigs were canceled at the last minute due to problems like van breakdowns and illness. Most likely, this worked in their favor in generating a good turnout on Monday--they'd received three times as much publicity as they would have. Also, the three-year-old acid jazz group has collected praise at home as well as nationally, having been featured several times in Billboard magazine along with much bigger-name bands. New Orleans' Offbeat magazine named their Fog City Records album Coolin' Off as the best Rhythm & Blues/Soul/Funk album of the year.

After such an extended drum roll, I expected to be blown away when Galactic began their set. In fact, my favorite part of the show was the sound check, as the musicians took turns improvising solos and balancing their instrumental harmonies. Rich Vogel played a funkified set of keyboards with a wah pedal, Robert Mercurio and Jeff Raines switched bass and guitar, and Stanton Moore couldn't stop grinning as he warmed up the drums.

Admittedly, appearance-wise, Galactic doesn't exude New Orleans soul.

"They look too boy-rock" one critic said, who is quoted jokingly on the band's Web site.

When the set began, the fun, original groove the band was laying down was still pretty interesting. The Dingo was relatively crowded, especially for a Monday, and after a few songs the dance floor filled up as well. The sound was an unusual breed of modern funk and a New Orleans-style party jazz, with alternating tenor and baritone sax melodies taking the lead and a solid bass and guitar line. After a couple of minutes, though, I realized that the great grooves they set up weren't actually progressing much. The sound was entertaining enough for a background, but a closer listen left me underwhelmed, wishing that the first minute of each song would build to something new. Instead, the musicians stuck to the musical line, fit appropriate solos into it and stayed there. Dancing was fun for a while but got boring quickly as the same chords and progressions were repeated.

The problem was clearly lack of inspiration and energy rather than lack of talent. The band's recent success has drawn large crowds and sold out shows at much bigger venues than what they played in Albuquerque--maybe they didn't take this performance as seriously? The band has been compared to improvisational acid jazz group Medeski, Martin, and Wood, but though some aspects of the sound were similar, I heard little of the creative, spontaneous playing that makes Medeski, Martin and Wood great. Even between songs, the interaction with the audience was dull; guitarist Raines would announce the track number from the Coolin' Off album of what they were about to play, and that was it.

The show was given somewhat of an energy boost by the appearance of vocalist Theryl deClouet. His deep, raspy voice, reminiscent of Maceo Parker, erased any trace of "boy-rock" from the band and added to the upbeat, party atmosphere of the performance. Again, though, I didn't hear much that was unique, or an element that would take Galactic beyond a party band.

Playing the type of jazz and blues-inspired funk that Galactic creates probably isn't easy to reproduce night after night with artistic spark. From Monday's performance, I got the feeling that they have the potential to produce outstanding music. With the impulse to build a richer array of sound into the grooves they play well, I think they'll create it.

--Julie Birnbaum

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