It’s been a long time coming. Galactic, the New Orleans funk-rock-jazz band that plays 100 tour dates a year, is finally making its French Quarter Festival debut.
“We’ve talked to them for years,” Galactic saxophone and harmonica player Ben Ellman said. “But we’ve been out of town almost every time the festival goes on.”
Last April, when Galactic found itself in New Orleans during the French Quarter Festival, members of the band attended the popular springtime event for the first time in years. Purely as spectators, they loved the local music–filled festival, which typically draws more than a half-million people to stages throughout the French Quarter.
This year, the timing worked for Galactic to play the festival’s opening day, April 11. “We’re super excited to add French Quarter Fest to the list of festivals we’ve performed at,” Ellman said.
Galactic’s French Quarter Fest debut follows the band’s November purchase of Tipitina’s, the historic New Orleans music venue founded in 1977 by fans of Professor Longhair. Big news locally and noteworthy nationwide, the purchase helped land Galactic on the cover of DownBeat magazine, NPR’s Weekend Edition and Gwen Thompkins’ WWNO radio show, Music Inside Out.
Despite the February release of Already Ready Already—Galactic’s slamming, guest star–packed tenth album—Tipitina’s is still the elephant in the room during any discussion with the band. Galactic prefers to think of the club at 501 Napoleon Avenue as the unicorn in the room. It’s a place where musical magic happened, the cultural institution where Professor Longhair reigned and classic local acts the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Radiators and generations of succeeding New Orleans musicians performed. Of course, those local musicians include Galactic, plus thousands of touring acts, too.
Galactic bassist and guitarist Robert Mercurio can remember that Galactic debuted at Tipitina’s in 1996. Ellman’s Tip’s connections also date to his first job in New Orleans, working as a cook in the club.
Galactic pursued its purchase of Tipitina’s for nearly three years. “We had been talking about opening a bar or a nightclub,” Mercurio recalled. “Of course, we’ve played Tip’s so many times and we love it. Taking Tip’s over seemed to make the most sense.”
Galactic and select others finally bought Tipitina’s in late November from real estate developer Roland Von Kurnatowski and his, wife, Mary. The couple had owned the venue since 1997. The sale followed recent lawsuits against Kurnatowski that allege he swindled investors in a bond fund out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The suits and Kurnatowski’s other legal issues, Ellman said, “added a lot of stress to the process for us.” “We really didn’t believe it was going to happen,” Mercurio added. “It seemed like a pipe dream—until a few months before we closed.”
Showing much respect for Tipitina’s, an informal shrine to Professor Longhair, Galactic is exercising cautious stewardship. “It’s not a giant corporate business,” Ellman said. “It’s sort of a mom and pop and there’s a lot of history. That side of it and the vibe feel really good now.”
Galactic retained the venue’s staff and management. “Everyone who’s there really gets the place,” Ellman said. “And they love it like we do. That’s important, that they understand the history and what the club means to the city.”
Three months into their ownership, the members of Galactic function as overseers who aren’t involved in day-to-day operations. “The staff knows what they’re doing way better than any of us,” Mercurio said. “We’re making the bigger decisions and advising on booking, but we’re not in there every day polishing the bar.”
Conveniently, Tipitina’s is in the same Uptown area as Galactic’s recording studio, Number C. Opened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the studio gives Galactic members Ellman, Mercurio, drummer Stanton Moore, guitarist Jeffrey Raines and keyboardist Richard Vogel as much creative time in the studio as they want. “Because we’re not on the clock, we can experiment,” Ellman said. “That’s our process. The hard part is deciding when something is done.”
Galactic’s new album, Already Ready Already, delivers a compact, powerful punch—eight songs and instrumentals that feature high-performance funk, neo-soul and rap, all flavored by New Orleans touches. Ellman and Mercurio, the album’s co-producers, went for a contemporary sound in production and songwriting. “Even the instrumentals have separation and tones that lean more modern than retro,” Mercurio said.
As usual, the band members leave the album’s singing to others, a tradition that began with Galactic’s longtime vocalist, the late Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet. The almost exclusively local and female all-stars on Already Ready Already include Erica Falls, the New Orleans neo-soul singer who’s been the band’s touring vocalist for the past four years; soulful YouTube star Princess Shaw; rap-cabaret performer Boyfriend; and previous studio collaborators Ms. Charm Taylor and the Revivalists’ David Shaw.
On the road with Galactic, the versatile Falls sings all of the studio guests’ parts, including the Mavis Staples and Macy Gray songs on the band’s 2015 album, Into the Deep. “Erica can even sing David Shaw’s parts,” Ellman said. “And she makes them her own. We’re just lucky to be in her world.”