Sometimes these things just sneak up and surprise you in the nicest of ways. Prior to listening to Country Funk, I didn’t know much more about the band Po Boyz than the fact they were a three-piecer – and one of said pieces was a funky old Hammond B-3 organ. That was about it.
Just as I threw Country Funk into the stereo for a test run and hit the ‘play’ button, my phone rang. Hoping it was the call I’d been waiting on, I apparently just turned the stereo down rather than pause it. It was 20-something minutes later that I was clear of the phone and remembered I’d left something cooking in the CD player.
I rolled on the volume and fetched up solid. I’d landed in the middle of what sounded like some newly-discovered Latin-flavored Allman Brothers instrumental from back in the post-Duane years when it was just Dickey holding down the guitar fort. And he and Gregg were totally locked in and grooving, big time. But wait – dig those sweetly-bent-and-dirty double-stops: was that a young Carlos Santana rather than Dickey? Who’s playing bass? And is that two drummers or just one? A big ol’ walloping B-3 organ chord swelled up from around the center of the earth about that time, making me duck and grin all at once. Was this the Po Boyz?
Yass, yass – it most certainly was. And what I’d touched down in the heart of was the 8-minute-and-33-second original “Big Sur”, a perfect showcase of the Massachusetts-based trio’s instrumental chops. That was drummer Sean Mannion doing the work of a couple of rhythm devils; guitarist Andrew Wagley had the six-stringed time machine thing going on; and Keith Hollis was doing some serious separation of left brain/right brain, rolling big waves of B-3 all over everything while laying down some serious rump-bump bass lines with his left hand. This was what these guys were capable of? Whoa, Lord …
Country Funk is a 9-song slice of Po Boyz, offering up everything from a little bit of New Orleans shake (“Country Side”) to shit-eating grin blues-tinged funkiness (“Bunky’s Basement”). That old-school Allman Brothers vibe is never too far away, either – along with a little bit of The Band. (It’s funny: although the one cover on the album is “Caledonia Mission”, Po Boyz’ own “Dear Robert” nails the Big Pink vibe pretty well on its own.)
Jams are never just flung out there; these guys are masters of the slow boil, letting themes develop into emotions and letting them grow at their own rate. With only three bodies and six hands doing everything they possibly can, you could excuse the Po Boyz for taking the easy way out now and then – going for the quick, slam-bam, gaudy in-and-out, but they never do it. They may lock into the groove from the opening second, but like a good gospel choir, they always find a higher level to take the music within each tune.
At times, the jams on Country Funk are perfect examples of parallel tightrope walking: there may not be an obvious leader at any given moment, but one thing’s for sure: you gotta be damn good at what you do to pull this off in a trio setting. And they are. Drummer Mannion not only supplies rhythmic support; he challenges the other two, as well. (Dig the passage in “Big Sur” at the 4:15 mark when he does a total Rodney Holmes on his bandmates, kitchen-sinking all over the place with the beat without ever losing the groove.) Wagley’s guitar work is a combination of fairly dry and pure vintage tone that knows when to be cuddly and when to lay on the grease. (He channels Steve Cropper on “Reno Blues”, then turns around and lays down some mighty fine Brother Duane slide on “Elmore”. No shortage of guitar voices here.) And if you appreciate what a talented set of hands can do on a Hammond B-3, then Keith Hollis is your guy. There are moments that his playing will make you think of the late, great Merl Saunders; there are times when you’ll think Booker T is in the house; and there’ll be moments when you’ll wonder, “Man – what would it sound like if Keith Hollis and Neal Evans were to play together?”
There are a couple friends who make appearances on Country Funk: Hanna Leess provides some sultry backline vocals on “All I Need”, while Cory Williams’ pedal steel is a just-right touch on the previously-mentioned “Caledonia Mission”. But pretty much what you have here is the three fearless and soulful members of Po Boyz.
Country funk? Works for me. Bring it on.