Very few bands make their audiences work. However, at the Maple Leaf Bar on March 5, local funk/rock band Flow Tribe had the audience earning its entertainment. The group opened with their brassy rendition of “Iko Iko” and the audience sang along for the whole number. Lead singer and trumpeter K.C. O’Rorke let the chorus slide through his Southern drawl, and then prompted the audience to chant it back. The bar was packed and everyone seemed to dance as one unit; the audience clearly didn’t mind doing its share.
“I think what makes us stand apart is our live shows are full of energy, and we try to get the crowd super-involved,” O’Rorke says. “Once the crowd is with you, it’s almost like having a seventh member.”
The guys of Flow Tribe were high school buddies at Brother Martin, and they started jamming on bassist Chad Penot’s back porch the summer after their graduation. Along with O’Rorke, Penot and drummer Russel Olschner were Blake Quick on guitar and vocals, Bryan Santos on guitar, and John-Michael Early on harmonica. “We started playing and getting some different things together,” O’Rorke says. “Gradually we were like, ‘Okay, this has evolved. We’re actually making songs and stuff.’”
Unfortunately, the band almost ceased to exist just as they were beginning to create their sound. After 2004, the group split up because they were attending different colleges. To add to that, Olschner was deployed to Iraq and left for boot camp in August 2004, made a brief return that November, and was deployed in January 2005 with the 141st Washington Artillery out of Jackson Barracks. “I didn’t have a [drum] set over there,” Olschner says, “so I missed playing for a year.”
What should have been a joyous return home for Olschner was instead one of heartbreak. He got back to New Orleans on September 16, 2005, a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina left devastation in his city. “Damn, it was hard to come home to that,” he says. “It was a rough time for all the guys in my unit and our city.”
What could have ended Flow Tribe only inspired the guys to work harder. “It gave us renewed focus,” O’Rorke says. “It really just made us think about what our goals are going to be for the band and how hard we wanted to pursue it. Everything we’ve done since 2005 has been making sure the band was doing everything we could to get it off the ground.”
The six friends picked up where they left off upon Olschner’s return. They started jamming again at his parents’ gutted house in Algiers. Flow Tribe then started playing at Friar Tuck’s on Sunday nights in Spring 2006. “It was such a relief to get that musical fix,” Olschner says. “From there, we never stopped.”
“There’s the one kind of funk element that unites all of us,” O’Rorke says. The group sees itself as part of the New Orleans tradition, and they want to stand on the shoulders of that tradition. “We want to represent New Orleans, but at the same time, we don’t want to just be a ‘New Orleans’ band. We want people to enjoy the music for what it is, even if they’re not familiar with New Orleans.”
The group acknowledges that standing out as a modern-day funk band is tricky, but they try to differentiate themselves through their influences, which include Sublime and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in addition to the Meters and Dr. John. “There’s a way to play funk by the numbers, and I think for us, everything originates in a jam,” O’Rorke says. “What we have to do differently is think about how is this going to affect people. What makes this song special?”
One member of MTV’s The Real World considered Flow Tribe special in 2010 when the show last filmed here. Sahar Dika of the New Orleans cast asked if she could sing a few songs with the group. After a jam session, the guys invited her to sing at their Tipitina’s show, which they parlayed into some national exposure on MTV. They recorded this show for their live album Now You Know, and Dika sings along for two songs on that album.
Currently, the group is working on the challenge of capturing what they do in the studio. “We’re just such a live band, it’s difficult to bring that energy into the studio,” O’Rorke says. “But I think we’ve worked it out to where it’s going to be something really cool.” Flow Tribe is working with acclaimed producer John Snyder on the album, which they hope to release around May. In the meantime, they will be playing festivals and touring nonstop. “People in New Orleans get it, and it’s great. When we go other places, it’s cool because we get to show them our influences. It’s cool to share that with people.”
At French Quarter Fest: Friday, April 8, 2 – 3:30 p.m. Coca-Cola Esplanade in the Shade Stage at the U.S. Mint