There are thousands of bands in America right now struggling to get noticed. Many, if not most, harbor rock star dreams of playing to packed houses, having wild Behind the Music worthy adventures full of groupies and hallucinogens, and landing on the cover of Rolling Stone. While achieving all of these milestones may be the ultimate aim, few reach even the most modest goal of becoming a successful touring band that makes enough to continue the pursuit. What is the blueprint for becoming a successful touring band then? There are several successful New Orleans bands able to create logjams at club doors throughout the country, but none has done it as quickly as the fledgling star-studded ensemble, Papa Grows Funk. In just three years, they are already seeing their performance sweat bear fruit. While not necessarily a direct prequel to having their faces emblazoned on Rolling Stone, beating out funk heavyweights Galactic and Jon Cleary for Best Funk Band at the 2002 OffBeat Music Awards definitely turned heads, and a headlining slot on the Sprint Stage at this upcoming Jazz Fest (last year was their Jazz Fest debut) solidifies their place as one of the great local success stories in recent memory. With their second album, Shakin’, coming out just in time for the festival season at the end of March, Papa Grows Funk are poised to take an even bigger step towards reaching the hallowed halls of rock stardom. How did they do it? The following is an in-depth timeline of the ascension of Papa Grows Funk.
MARCH 2000: THE SEED
The group’s founder, keyboardist John Gros came upon the idea for a funk band because of a breach in his usually busy gigging schedule. Gros had been a veteran of dozens of bands since his early days as a music student at Loyola University. Unashamedly, he admits that originality was not his initial forte. He played in cover bands all throughout the ’80s and ’90s playing at house parties in New Orleans East, Chalmette, Metairie, and later hitting Uptown college bars like Madigan’s as a member of Rum Boogie (with whom trombonist Mark Mullins was a member). Most of his band members wouldn’t be recognized in today’s scene. Gros describes them fondly as “guys who slug it out, week in, week out, that nobody knows about.” It was in these low-profile gigs where he learned to perform. “People come to celebrate life or get away from it. Your job is to help them do that. My first bandleader, Rockin’ Jerry of the Spice of Life Band, taught me that.” Gros then got a coveted gig on Bourbon Street at the Tropical Isle, where his performance education continued [Gros has remained loyal to his Tropical Isle gig playing a weekly gig when possible]. Eventually after many years in the “trenches” he was recruited by funk pioneer George Porter of the Meters in 1995, and became a key member of his Runnin’ Pardners band. It was during a dry spell with the Runnin’ Pardners in March of 2000 that the stirrings of creating his own funk band began. Says Gros, “I had to take responsibility of my future…as much as I liked the solo piano thing (at Tropical Isle) it didn’t satisfy me musically.” Gros had been previously approached by Dale Triguero of the Old Point Bar in Algiers Point about starting something up at the now infamous West Bank watering hole, and Gros now decided to take him up on the offer. “I told him I wanted to put something together that was similar to the vibe at Benny’s, where it was real loose, and you never knew what to expect. A funk hang-out.”
Gros started thinking about possible kindred spirits in funk and immediately drummer wunderkind and fellow Runnin’ Pardner Russell Batiste came to mind. Affirms Batiste, “Papa Grows Funk came about while John and I were waiting for George Porter to book us for another gig. He just threw together a band, a jamband really.”
Russell Batiste comes from one of the über-families of New Orleans music. He took to the drums early. Recalls Batiste, “I could play the length of a record by the age of 3. I used to sit on the drummer’s lap. I’d play the top half, tappin’ all over the cymbal and the snare, while he’d play the bottom.” Russell’s father, David Batiste, led the popular band the Gladiators and also filled in for Art Neville in the Meters when Art joined up with his brothers to form the Neville Brothers. “Everybody you could possibly imagine came to our house to play. It was the best education. My school was in my house.” Since there was always music and musicians in his house, Batiste learned several instruments and began composing at an early age. “A lot of the tunes you hear in Papa Grows Funk I wrote on bass when I was like 11 or 12.” Not one to be dragged down by modesty, Batiste declares, “I’ve never had lessons, I’m just naturally gifted.” Batiste became an in-demand drummer at a young age and eventually landed gigs with the funky Meters and George Porter’s Runnin’ Pardners, where he met up with John Gros.
With drumming sensation Russell Batiste in the fold, Gros invited Japanese guitar slinger June Yamagishi, already making waves for his work with the Wild Magnolias, to join. As a former member of an early incarnation of Galactic and a veteran with bands as diverse as Crescent City bluesman Mem Shannon, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers Brass Band, and even a touring stint with country superstar Clint Black, saxophonist Jason Mingledorff was an ideal candidate for the gig as well. Baton Rouge native Marc Pero, who put time in with Funkhouse and Smilin’ Myron rounded out the supergroup on bass. Because Pero has a job as a chemical operator, he could only make half the gigs. After using a revolving door of bassists such as Tony Hall and George Porter on the off weeks, Gros settled on Mem Shannon and Cyril Neville veteran Peter V. to be the alternating bassist with Pero. The band was now relatively set.
APRIL-OCTOBER 2000: WILTING IN THE HEAT
John Gros and his comrades then began their weekly jam session at the Old Point Bar in April of 2000. The first five weeks went incredibly well, getting over 125 people to come to their first show. Says Gros, “The first gigs went great. We just played covers. I gave them all a tape to listen to the week before to prepare, but I don’t think anybody even listened to it. Still, it felt right from the first note.” As great as it felt, the first Monday night shows were more of a jam session than a band performance. “There were never any expectations to become something. We weren’t even a band,” recalls Gros. Much of the reason for the early success was timing, as they began their stint at the Old Point right as the Jazz Fest momentum was beginning. Soon after, however, Camelot began to crumble. “It dropped off after Memorial Day. We’d get like 25 or 30 people to show up.” As their audience seemed to dwindle, John began to wonder how much longer their jam session experiment would last. One night in particular gave him a small glimmer of hope. “There was one night at the Old Point that we call the Jägermeister night. By 11:00 no one had shown up to hear us play, so we started drinking Jägermeister and thinking of packing up.” Fortunately for the band, two people showed up who had taken a cab across the river to hear the band. They walked in and offered to front the money for the band to play so they wouldn’t go home empty-eared. They obliged and within a half hour, 50 people had shown up, officially rescuing the gig. “That was one of those nights that the band could’ve fallen completely apart. Ever since that night we had the feeling that somehow the band was going to keep rolling.”
NOVEMBER 11, 2000: FUNKY FERTILIZER
By most band members accounts, landing the high profile gig of the after-party following the historic Meters reunion in San Francisco is what turned them from a incredibly talented jam session band to a full blown tightly knit unit. Gros had some contacts through his tenure with the Runnin’ Pardners, and when the organizers of the after-party were looking for a New Orleans band to follow the Meters they approached John. To say their performance went well is an understatement. Says bassist Pero, “First of all, it was an honor just to be asked, but the crowd’s response was amazing. It was then that I thought that this could actually do something.” Adds Gros, “That was our first milestone, the night we felt we became a band.” The voluble Batiste actually believes the turning point had already occurred. “Who else could have possibly played after the Meters, host an all-night party and be funky? Whatever band they got, they knew they had to have Russell [Batiste] on drums. And who else could go after Art Neville? Who has that rep? John Gros.” Soon after the San Francisco gig (their first outside of New Orleans) they began getting calls from clubs on the East Coast. The buzz was beginning.
SPRING 2001: AN ORIGINAL HYBRID
Because of their success and positive response in San Francisco, John Gros booked studio time in January of 2001 to create an album that would be ready in time for the festival season. Instead of relying on tried and true Meters and Allen Toussaint covers, Gros wanted to have all original tunes. They had already built up a small but effective set of original tunes in their live performance. It had become their strongpoint. “We just jammed at first, but when we played our original music, people just started freakin’ out…I’m proud and fortunate to say that from the beginning people responded to our original music. There’s no better feeling than playing your own music and watching people go off on it,” says Batiste. It was the creation of their own repertoire that truly gelled the band. They began thinking of Papa Grows Funk as their main gig when their identity as a band started to develop. “When we realized we could fall back on this gig and not wait around for George [Porter], I said ‘Let’s keep this band together and play our music.’” John Gros concurs, “From Day One, Russell has said that the most important thing we do is write our own music. We’ve all had careers playing other people’s music.” Delivering on this promise, they released their all original debut album Doin It in the spring of 2001. They continued their tenure at the Old Point through the spring of 2001, but because of misunderstandings and a “lack of trust” as Gros puts it, they made their final Old Point appearance after that Jazz Fest. Their next residency was at the famed Maple Leaf Bar in Carrollton, where Gros and company retained their Monday night slot. Their regular gig may have moved, but their audience clung to them and multiplied like Gremlins in water. “When we moved to the Maple Leaf and our first gig was packed,” says Batiste, “that was the real turning point. The Old Point is a nice club, but the Maple Leaf can hold twice as many people.” Soon they would be packing clubs like the Maple Leaf around the country.
FALL OF 2001-FALL OF 2002: CROSS-COUNTRY POLLINATION
Any band with ambition beyond making enough money to pay off the bar tab must become road warriors, and despite each member being pulled by various projects, they managed to hit Colorado, San Francisco and the East Coast several times throughout the year. Alex Andreas, owner of the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco as well as concert production company Boom Boom Room Presents describes their initial run through San Francisco. “There was a little bit of a buzz about Papa Grows Funk when they first got here, but not a lot. Still, we were able to blow up two consecutive nights well enough that we added a third night. The next time they came around we sold out all three nights. We moved them to the Great American Music Hall [a much bigger room and capacity] their last time out here and we sold 590 tickets at $25 a ticket. All of their shows in San Francisco have sold out so far.” Similar fantastic showings occurred throughout their tours in Colorado and New York, especially. Where are these people coming from, and how do they know of this upstart funk band from New Orleans? Andreas believes it is a number of factors. “Obviously they are talented, every member. Aside from their raw talent, what’s impressive is their individual musical histories. People are seeing that June is from the Wild Magnolias, Russell is with the funky Meters, Jason Mingledorff’s formerly of Galactic. They come partly because of the association.” Mingledorff himself agrees that their associations with established acts have helped, but is wary of that easy answer. “I didn’t want people thinking we were some kind of superjam, because those are usually a disappointment. When we started touring we were a tight unit with original music.” Adds Pero, “A lot of times when you put a whole lot of super musicians together it’s hard to pull off because it can be overkill. We give each other space…We hold together as a band and don’t sound like we’re thrown together for one night.” John Gros believes their success is due in part to timing. “There has been a void of New Orleans funk on the club circuit…Muscially we are the closest thing in the lineage to the guys who wrote the book on New Orleans funk.”
FUNK SPRINGS ETERNAL
Filling clubs and small theaters seems to be easy compared to the daunting task of keeping all the members of Papa Grows Funk happy and together. Because of the relative quickness of their popularity, their bass situation remains revolving and tenuous. The odd arrangement of alternating between two bass players seems bound to cause tension. Gros admits the toughness of the situation. “Both guys want to work all the time. Mark is just as integral as Peter. Musically they offer two distinct styles. It keeps us completely fresh. We play to the person’s strengths.” Says Pero, “If we don’t have a problem, than I’m sure the audience doesn’t mind since they get to hear the band two different ways.” The fact that most members of Papa Grows Funk keep busy with other high profile gigs and individual projects puts a question mark on the future of the band. Russell Batiste has more than enough gigs to juggle around with the funky Meters, Vida Blue (with Phish’s Page McConnell), PBR (Porter, Batiste, Stoltz), and Bonerama among others. Displaying a rare moment of humility Russell declares, “Really, they should just rename the Jazz Fest Russell Fest….I’m everywhere!” All joking aside, Batiste doesn’t believe Papa Grows Funk will be stopping anytime soon. “We’re looking forward to sticking it out…We have so much music waiting in the wings that people will have to hang around a long time to hear it. There’s no limit to how far this group can go.”