Adding a female voice to an established funk/roots band can be tricky — but it took about half a song for Maggie Koerner to win over the crowd on Friday.
Galactic at House of Blues, Boston
By Brett Milano
There are at least fifty shades of funk in New Orleans, and Galactic seems determined to absorb them all. When the band first appeared in the mid-’90s, they were a proud throwback to the slinky, rhythm-centric sound of the city’s funk trailblazers, the Meters. (Indeed, Galactic loved the Meters so much that they sometimes moonlighted as a tribute band, the Cheaters). Galactic’s original singer, Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet was an old-school soulman, quite a few years his bandmates’ senior, who had a foot in vintage Crescent City soul along with Memphis’ Stax/Volt sound.
When DeClouet split the band in 2005, Galactic took the cue to shake up their formula. At first they didn’t get another singer at all, working instead with a revolving cast of DJ’s and rappers (including the cross-dressing Big Freedia, well before her acceptance by the mainstream). At the time Galactic’s organic jams gave way to heavy use of loops and samples. The next phase began in 2010 when they took on former Living Colour frontman Corey Glover, who brought in a heavier approach. Now the band was covering classic-rock chestnuts like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.” And with a beefed-up horn section, even their instrumental jams got darker and denser.
But a brand new phase was underway when they played to a packed House of Blues on Friday night. Glover’s now back with Living Colour, and Galactic’s new singer couldn’t be more different: Shreveport native Maggie Koerner. Adding a female voice to an established funk/roots band can be tricky — just ask Little Feat, whose fans never quite warmed up to Shaun Murphy — but it took about half a song for Koerner to win over the crowd on Friday. Petite, blonde and exuberant, she took control of “Hey Na Na,” a carnival song that dates back to Glover’s tenure. Later she added a new cover tune, James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s World” — a song that female singers have done before, usually with way too much irony. But Koerner was one of the few who got the real gist of Brown’s lyric, that women have the true power after all.
As usual a good half the set was instrumental, and the horn section is now down to founding saxophonist Ben Ellman and regular trombonist Corey Henry, with the latter sitting out a few numbers. This meant that open space was back in the jams, with the rhythm section coming back to the forefront; and a couple of instrumentals were revived from the band’s early days. “Shibuya” allowed guitarist Jeff Raines, who often gets the thankless task of cranking out rhythm riffs, to step up and shine on slide guitar while Ellman blew harmonica. But the band’s instrumental star remains drummer Stanton Moore, who’s absorbed the propulsive grooves of New Orleans street parades and thrown in just enough of a rocker’s touch borrowed from Zeppelin’s John Bonham. (His kit now has a second, double-sized bass drum that allows him to shift into Bonham mode). Every time I see the band, Moore’s drum kit seems to move a little bit closer to the front of the stage. As well it should.
Koerner returned for the final encore, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” — another song with a New Orleans connection, as Crescent City native Merry Clayton originally sang the female part. Koerner took both her and Jagger’s vocal parts on Friday and instead of jumping in at full-throttle, she paced it so the tune’s ominous mood could come through. That’s one way to make a chestnut tune fresh again, by paying a little attention to the lyrics.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.