The Fillmore Auditorium
February 4, 2017
All photos by Paul Piazza.
The Motet have grown into one of the best live funk experiences in the land. On a recent weekend, the illustrious Colorado septet headlined San Francisco’s Fillmore and turned the legendary room into a nonstop, grooving dance party from show’s start to finish. The group’s origins date back to 1998, when drummer Dave Watts, started a weekly jam collective. After a couple of years, and many personnel configurations that ended in -tet (think quartet, quintet, etc.), Watts decided to dub the group-The Motet.
They’ve since established themselves as a staple on the jam and funk circuit and have lately started to grow into the headliner role at larger, more considerable venues. That’s quite an accomplishment for a bunch of guys that used to get together for a Wednesday night jam.
Last year, they headlined the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater outside of Denver for the first time, just after releasing their excellent record Totem. This June, they will headline Red Rocks again with a bill that includes Oakland’s California Honeydrops and hip-hop masters Jurassic 5. In between, there will be late night excursions at Jazz Fest in New Orleans and numerous adventures at festivals all over the country.
We caught up with guitarist Ryan Jalbert a couple days after the Fillmore show as he was getting a brief respite from touring. On this day, he was prepping to tutor guitar students at his home in Boulder, CO. Jalbert has been with the group since 2005 and is the essence of top-notch professional rhythm master. His group is making their mark during what many are calling a “funk renaissance” which includes, among others, influential bands like Lettuce and Turkuaz.
“Funk is alive and well,” said Jalbert. “We want to play funk vs. funky music. It’s not that we want to limit ourselves to sound like the bands we were influenced by, we want to push the envelope and want it to be authentic.”
That is something the band achieved on last year’s Totem. The twelve-track record is a great achievement that shows the band paying deep respect to the past while looking forward to the future. However, finishing the record in early 2016 became somewhat of a challenge as the group’s longtime singer Jans Engber decided to leave the band near the beginning of the recording process. It was an amicable parting; Engber’s percussion is featured on all 12 tracks. However, this went down at the very same time the Motet were counting down to that Red Rocks headlining gig. “It was a little stressful making a record while our singer was leaving and we’d already had a Red Rocks show planned,” said Jalbert with understatement.
Suddenly, the band needed to find a new singer. Through a process of networking with fellow musicians, and perhaps a little divine intervention, they ended up connecting with Lyle Divinsky, a young singer from Portland, Maine. The energetic frontman was living in New York at the time and prepping an album of his own, when he and The Motet connected. Divinsky shelved what he was doing and jumped in right away. Things seemed to click pretty rapidly.
The band gave him a track to work with and Jalbert was impressed with how quickly Divinsky finessed it. In fact, it turned out to be the album’s opener, “The Truth.” It’s a song that is propelled by ridiculously sharp horns, a percolating rhythm that which is reminiscent of Tower of Power’s swagger, and was finished off with Divinsky’s smooth-charcoal vocals and gritty feel. According to Jalbert, when Divinsky returned the song, the vocals were recorded so well, and the song sounded so good, that nothing else needed to be added.
At The Fillmore, the band laid down many great tunes from the new record including “Danger,” “Fool No More,” and “Back It Up,” which, along with some other Motet classics, combined to get the groove going and the room shaking. Onstage, the band is anchored on one side by the adventurous keyboardist Joey Porter and funky bass sage Garrett Sayers. Sayers is considered one of the top bassists in this current funk revival. On the other side of the stage resides the exquisite horn section of trumpeter Gabriel Marvin and saxophonist Drew Sayers, who is Garrett’s brother. Jalbert and Watts are situated in the center of it all -steering this funky beast.
On this special night the band were blessed with a couple of special guests as well – the talented trombonist Natalie Cressman of the Trey Anastasio Band and percussion maniac Jason Hann of the String Cheese Incident. Each played brilliantly, with Hann shining in an epic drum-off with Watts midway through the night.
Characterizing The Motet as merely a funk band would be unfair. Their sound fuses strong elements of Afrobeat, jazz, boogaloo, disco, and soul to name a few. And they do all of it so damn well that there aren’t really too many that compare. But damn, it all came together during “Damn!,” a track that fuses together many elements of what The Motet do best. It’s a special kind of love dedication to those who are able to be true themselves and let their freak flags fly. It has a bit of a classic Kool and the Gang feel along with organic elements that breath space and time into the jam. It also turned out to be one of the great crowd sing-alongs on this night, with the Fillmore crowd exhorted by the music and Divinsky’s enthusiastic boosting.
While a live Motet performance still alternates between playing instrumental-only jams and tracks with vocals, Divinisky has asserted himself as a larger than life presence on the stage. While the band percolates, the smiling, bearded big man is a dancing fool who invites all to join him. He constantly engages the crowd by stepping to the edge of the fray, executing flawless jive and juke moves, all the while singing in perfect pitch. In terms of crowd engagement, his style is reminiscent of a smoother version of another whirling dervish, the legendary Neil Fallon of Clutch. At press time, there was no confirmation on whether he enjoys beer to same degree though.
Jalbert is the quintessential funk guitarist. You’ll rarely hear a great funk guitarist take a big solo. They play to complement the rhythm and then find their spaces to shine, dancing on the groove. The guitarist, who names Niles Rogers and Phelps “Catfish” Collins as influences, regards his role as supportive and percussive within the funk setting. Jalbert holds a jazz degree from Westfield State College in Westfield, Massachusetts and applies his broad knowledge of jazz and discipline to his art in a way that meshes well with the structure of The Motet.
“Funk guitar is not a lead role. What’s paramount is the groove and the party. We want to make people dance. Each person has a turn at the lead role,” said Jalbert.
Late in the show, the band broke into Prince’s “I Feel For You.” That one drenched the dance floor with a renewed round of perspiration. One of The Motet’s most endearing skills is that they crush the cover tunes like no one else.
The best format in which to witness this is when they do what they call a Mixtape set. This became a tradition years ago for Halloween shows and over the years, the band has explored deep cuts by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power, and Herbie Hancock. The band is still revered for their legendary Jamiroquai set at Placerville’s Hangtown Halloween Ball a few years back. Last summer, they blew minds at the High Sierra Music Festival with a set called Mixtape 1979, where they explored deep cuts from that year along with pop staples like Michael Jackson’s “Workin’ day and night” and Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” It was easily one of the best sets of the festival.
Earlier in the evening, Skerik’s Bandalabra were absolutely scintillating as the openers. The quartet, who hail from Seattle are incredibly sharp players. Bandleader Skerik is an in-demand saxophonist, who sits in with the likes of Primus, Les Claypool’s solo projects, Charlie Hunter, Galactic’s Stanton Moore, and many others.
Bandalabra, which is self-described as “Fela Kuti meeting Steve Reich in rock’s backyard” by Skerik, was just that. The quartet are all sharp players who ripped through a 45 minute set that had everyone buggin’ out to their great sounds. The group is rounded out by Andy Coe on guitar, Dvonne Lewis on drums, and Evan Flory-Barnes, who blew some minds with his runs on the stand-up bass.
And on this great night at the Fillmore, The Motet asserted themselves as not only a solid headliner, but perhaps, more importantly, the future of funk. And the future looks pretty damn bright.
For more information about The Motel, check out their website.
Find out more about Bandalabra here.