Just getting back into town after a month-long East Coast tour, New Orleans funk-rock favorites Flow Tribe are already gearing up for the next big thing. “We have a couple costume ideas floating around the round table of Flow Tribe right now for Voodoo [Music Experience], but we’re not at liberty to speak about any of them at this time.” jokes John Michael Early, the band’s harmonica player and keyboardist.
Playing the Flambeau Stage on Friday at Voodoo, Flow Tribe has been hitting all the right marks recently with a new album, a successful tour and a packed show at Tipitina’s to close out the venue’s Free Friday summer concert series. Yet, despite their stacked fall calendar and growing status in the New Orleans music community, the band has remained true to their core values—values which include maintaining a good sense of humor on the way up. For one recent gig, inserting a bit of situational comedy into their set offered a way to alleviate the stress of a relentless touring schedule. “We did a zombie show last week, at the end of the zombie run in Kenner,” says guitarist Mario Palisano with a laugh. “[Vocalist/trumpeter] K.C. [O’Rorke] must have changed the lyrics to at least six songs on the spot to be all about zombies. The event planner afterward actually asked us if we practiced all those zombie songs.”
After the release of their latest album, Painkiller, this spring, the sextet took to the road with stops in major U.S. cities including D.C., New York and Chicago. While Flow Tribe is no stranger to a heavy touring schedule, they have only recently begun to reap the fruits of years of labor. “One of the biggest differences from a year ago—which was almost the same tour—was that the venues then were more hole-in-the-wall type places, dive bars, and you didn’t have a great crowd every night,” guitarist Mario Palmisano remembers. “This last tour, every show was pretty much packed and they were much, much better venues.”
All lifelong New Orleans residents, Flow Tribe have come up playing alongside many of the city’s contemporary success stories and have learned from such groups how to manage their music as business. Borrowing certain strategies from groups such as Galactic, Flow Tribe has seen a dramatic increase in attendance on both a regional and national level, a promising trend for a group that has worked hard to cultivate a following outside of New Orleans.
“A really rewarding moment was when we played in Manhattan,” bassist Chad Penot recounts from their summer tour. “There was a showcase on before us and it didn’t end until at least 12:30 a.m., so we were all thinking, ‘Alright, well this is gonna be a bust.’ And then we’re waiting outside after the showcase and people started showing up and talking about Flow Tribe. That’s when we kind of realized that it’s catching on, that hitting these same spots every four to six months is really paying off.”
Ironically enough, the band might have never formed if not for a weekly gig at the beleaguered (and now defunct) Friar Tucks on Freret Street. “Mind you, this was not Freret Street 2013,” Early says, “but Freret Street 2006. One of my best friends was managing Tucks at age 18 on Sunday nights, and K.C. convinced him to let us play on the floor of the bar.”
From these humble beginnings, Flow Tribe matured into a band that takes their music, if not themselves, extremely seriously. By incorporating aspects of funk, Latin, R&B and soul into their ever-growing repertoire, the band has developed a unique, description-defying sound best exemplified in their high-energy live performances. On such strengths, Flow Tribe will soon release a live album recorded from the aforementioned Tipitina’s show has been asked to headline the official Voodoo pre-party at Maison on Halloween. “I still remember playing the Halloween show at Friar Tucks back when we started,” drummer Russel Olschner recalls, “and after that show thinking, ‘Man we made it!’”
After more than eight years, the band that started playing to drunk college kids in Uptown may finally be getting their due. “The good thing about living here is you have this giant musical family—so many brothers and sisters in New Orleans who can show you the ropes and give you advice,” Early summarizes. “It’s not a competition, because we’re all waving the New Orleans flag.”