Funk and groove music is meant to be a fun, freeing experience, usually best enjoyed live, in person and a few drinks deep. That sense of exuberance is audible in the songs of the Grooveliner, a sextet that mixes instrumental grooves with cheery group-sung vocals — but that doesn't mean that the songs come effortlessly.
"This band is a difficult or challenging band for a lot of us," says guitarist and vocalist Matt Vianello. "There are a lot of songs for me on the guitar, where I write them but I have to sit down with the metronome and work them out. Part of the excitement for us is that it is a challenge."
After a busy 2016 that saw the band playing some high-profile opening gigs and an al fresco set at the famed Whitaker Music Festival at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Grooveliner committed nine songs to disc for its first full-length, Toby's Basement. Half of the members in this six-person band played together in Big Brother Thunder & the Master Blasters; the other three play together in the NOLA-fried North of the Quarter. So while funk and soul music is a common ground, this project kept its focus on more rock-oriented rhythms and compositional tightness.
According to Vianello, the members' shared love of bands such as Orgone, Lettuce and Snarky Puppy was a jumping-off point when the Grooveliner formed in early 2015, inspiring the players to cross genres and create something they felt was lacking from the St. Louis scene.
"I wouldn't put us in the jam band realm because it's structured; there are no long solo breaks," explains Vianello. "Everything for the most part is relatively calculated. We try to throw each other curveballs in our songs; there are moments that switch from 4/4 to 5/4 in our songs."
"You'll Probably Be Hungry By the Time This Is Over" shows off the band's dexterous horn chops and its classic rock backbone most clearly. Its circular guitar riff wouldn't be out of place in a stoner rock song, if only a few hundred dollars' worth of fuzz pedals were layered on it, and the brassy counterpoints belie marching-band precision. A brief coda gives room to John Short's bass guitar pops and some soulful organ manipulation by John Covelli, which takes the song into a more swampy direction before being truncated.
According to Vianello, all six members contribute riffs and ideas, but the machinations of Grooveliner rehearsals always turn a song into something different.
"It basically runs the gamut," Vianello says of the band's songwriting process. "Most of our songs are started by people coming to the table with an idea. All the guys in the band have the ability to play multiple instruments — at least the horn guys do."
That malleability makes for a band that's largely ego-free, with everyone contributing vocals and songwriting ideas. "It's a function of everyone being accepting and open to hearing the other members' ideas," continues Vianello. "The song completely transforms when the horns get added."
He points to the album's final track "3LT" as one that most clearly signals how the band has grown, from playing basement jams to more structured songs.
"I think that kind of shows a progression toward [being] a little more detailed, a little more complicated musically — I think that shows an interesting progression," says Vianello. "I think '3LT' challenges the horn players more than other songs. At one point we have three horns playing different lines, building off of each other."
Vianello noted the relative explosion of young funk-and-soul outfits playing around town — acts including the Provels and Al Holliday's East Side Rhythm Band that gig regularly — and he credits Andy Coco's annual Funk Fest for giving space for this type of music. "There are more and more bands that are playing this style than there were before," says Vianello. "I have to point to Funk Fest, to how that thing has exploded."
As a member of Big Brother Thunder & the Master Blasters, Vianello was able to watch that scene grow first-hand. That many-membered soul band was the brainchild of bassist Andrew Franklin, who passed away this year at age 29 after battling both lung and bile duct cancers. As this new project continues to take off, Vianello reflects on the wisdom his friend and bandmate imparted.
"He is a guy who genuinely enjoyed everything about the St. Louis music scene," recalls Vianello. "The thing I learned the most from Drew is how important it is to support everyone on the scene — he went out all the time and supported everyone.
"I realize how important it is because of him — he was just incredible in that way, and I hope that everybody who is playing in St. Louis takes a little bit of that from him. We are all better for supporting each other."
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