words: B.Getz photos: Susan Weiand Photography
The Greyboy Allstars are no strangers to the Bay Area, but you wouldn’t have known it upon our arrival. As we bellied up to the ticket window at Great American Music Hall, bandleader Karl Denson was in the midst of trying to explain to the young lady selling the tickets that he needn’t purchase one. I suppose the huge horn cases on his back were not enough of a dead giveaway, but where I’m from, Denson’s reputation proceeds him. He seemed to laugh it off as he made his way into the venue to the sounds of Mike Dillon’s trademark, punked-up, go-go bombast.
The Greyboy’s hood pass has been stamped ’round these parts. The boogaloo bullies have a long and storied history in the region, dating back to their halcyon days in the late 1990’s on Ubiquity Records. The Greyboy Allstars defined a sound and an era, at once a retrofit ensemble bringing back the grooves of yesteryear, but also breaking new ground in the jam and jazz scenes with their ferocious live sets. There’s a kinetic energy that permeates through the music of Karl Denson, Robert Walter, Elgin Park, Chris Stillwell, and Aaron Redfield, and their chemistry was evident throughout the nearly two hour set last Friday at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
Longtime friend and collaborator Mike Dillon would unleash a curiously aligned version of his Mike Dillon Band to open up. Utilizing players that he’s worked with in a variety of settings through the years, Dillon called on local hero Reed Mathis to play guitar instead of his usual bass duties. Dillon reunited with with bassist Brad Houser from the Critters Buggin days, and drummer Paulo Baldi, whom Dillon connected with in Col. Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. This particular version of Mike Dillon Band delivered an atypically spastic improv set where Mike’s frenetic personality and fantastic percussion and vibraphone were steadily front and center. The mayhem was a definitive juxtaposition to what would come from the headliner.
The Greyboy Allstars led off with “Les Imperials”, and we were treated to a fantastic voyage around the jam, with spirited playing from all five Greyboys. Guitarist Elgin Park slayed his hollowbody with reckless abandon, while Robert Walter was his typical maestro self on Hammond B3 and Rhodes. “Cramp Your Style” was a that Funky Louie classic vibe, while the newer joint “Mike’s Chauffeur” saw Walter, Park and Denson all get busy.
Denson lead the crew into a massive run through Grant Green’s arrangement of “Jan Jan”, a song Miles Davis made semi-famous. Sometimes KDTU keyboard foil Kenneth Crouch joined Walter on the decks for some furious styles, trading barbs on organ and Rhodes like the maniacs they are. Diesel went toe to toe with his buddy Crouch, as the two torched the GAMH with this chestnut from the wayback machine. Denson was charged up all night, blasting tenor and alto, along with heaping slabs of the flute down (“Zebra Walk”).
Mike Dillon joined GBA on an assortment of percussion for the last third of their set. Dillon immediately locked in with bassist Stillwell, and had a particularly potent kinship with drummer Redfield, the newest member of the band with nearly a decade on the skins. Redfield impressed in backing this murderers row, using mallets from time to time to unveil a decidedly hip-hop flavor. The material seemed to center on Redfield’s tenure in the band, with a lot of compositions from newer GBA releases. The band seemed to veer away from traditional boogaloo a lot more often than I’d remembered, and the textures of these selections had a contemporary feel.
From “Chitterlings” onward, Dillon added a distinct dynamic to the performance, always with a nuanced trick up his tattooed sleeves. When Denson wasn’t blasting away on his saxophones, or charming the (few) females in attendence with a lusty flute, he would grab a shaker or the cowbell as he’s want to do and lock in with his longtime compadre Mike D for some percussion consorting. Meanwhile, Walter was his atypical mad-scientist self, catching wreck on the keys with the stoicism of an elder statesmen. Hard to believe it, but these guys are officially legends at this point, twenty-plus years into their stride; I took a moment to admire Robert Walter’s timeless prowess as he delivered yet another astonishing display of his virtuoso.
Towards the end of the rollicking set, we got our only few doses of truly old-school GBA. Beginning with Stillwell and Parks trading axes, this culture club dove into “Szabo”, and the venerable old favorite “Toys are Us.” The boys brought it home with another familiar funkafied flavor, the everlasting “Happy Friends.” It was brought to my attention that they played “Suzy”, a Kenny Burrell song as the encore, as it wasn’t on the setlist. A refreshing way to end a grand ole time at the Great American Music Hall with the cagey veteran groove machine, Greyboy Allstars.
We spilled out into the San Francisco night with more funk on the brain, and we found it, as Crouch played a late night rager at the Boom Boom Room. A certified dance party ensued with Shots Fired, a new band lead by KDTU guitarist extraordinaire DJ Williams. It proved to be a very late evening indeed. Anytime Karl comes to town, it seems to play out that way.
The Greyboy Allstars at Great American Music Hall, San Francisco.
Friday March 16, 2018
CRAMP YOUR STYLE
WHERE IM COMING FROM
JAN JAN- (w/Kenneth Crouch on B3)
DONT CHIN THE DOG
CHITTERLINGS- (Mike Dillon joined for remainder of set)
TOYS R US