Full disclosure: I’m interviewed in this documentary. And it’s impossible for me to be objective about Papa Grows Funk. I watched this band from its inception and was a fan (I don’t mind saying it) of keyboardist/vocalist John Gros, guitarist June Yamagishi and drummer Russell Batiste long before the group got started. They were immediately a New Orleans supergroup, with connections from the Meters (Gros with George Porter Jr’s band, Batiste with the funky Meters), the Wild Magnolias (June) and Galactic (saxophonist Jason Mingledorff). Their Monday night shows at the Old Point Bar did not at first break any new musical ground but they consolidated an existent style and brought it forward into a new generation. PGF were the harbingers of a lot of the young funk/jam bands that emerged in the new century.
In Do U Want It? filmmakers Josh Freund and Sam Radutzky do a solid job of telling the band’s story through interviews, live performances and animated sequences, showcasing its live strengths from a fan’s perspective. They also track the band’s growth into something more of a jam band—a group with two remarkably good songwriters in Gros and Batiste. Eventually Batiste left and was replaced with another giant on the New Orleans drumming scene, Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander. The band shifted its Monday date to the Maple Leaf and Gros continued to flourish as a writer, along with Mingledorff, whose presence became more and more important as time wore on. Again, the filmmakers offer live-action proof from Maple Leaf gigs and Jazz Fest footage.
The band’s fifth album, Needle in the Groove, marked a quantum leap in production values (with Allen Toussaint and Better Than Ezra’s Tom Drummond splitting duties). But internal pressures were splitting them apart. Tours were arduous and not very rewarding financially, and work on the album was often tedious for the players despite the excellent results. In the end they went their own ways. Yamagishi remains one of the most respected guitarists in the city. Mingledorff has a high-profile gig with the touring band St. Paul and the Broken Bones and a funky Monday gig when he’s in town with King James & the Special Men. Gros has flourished as a solo act and subbed for his inspiration, Art Neville, in the funky Meters while staying in demand around town in a variety of gigs.
Did the PGF breakup leave a hole in the New Orleans music scene? No. The musicians are all still contributing, and Do U Want It? ensures that PGF will be remembered for a very long time.