Dragon Smoke’s Moore and Mercurio’s punk pasts
As the rhythm section of the powerhouse New Orleans funk-jazz jam band Galactic and its soulful spin-off group Dragon Smoke, bassist Robert Mercurio and drummer Stanton Moore are known for laying down the kind of grooves that could start a dance party in an emergency ward. Who’d have guessed that both musicians grew up not on the friendly sass of funk music, but on the raw hostility of punk rock?
Moore, who surprised some members of the funk community a few years ago by recording with the hardcore band Corrosion of Conformity, admits to having listened to his fair share of GBH and Minor Threat records as a teenager in Metairie, Louisiana. At age 16 or 17, however, he began to explore jazz music as a means of becoming a better rock drummer. From jazz, it was a quick jump to funk. “To me, [funk] was kind of in between the rock thing and the jazz thing,” he explains.
Mercurio, who spent a good portion of his teen years playing in punk bands in Washington, D.C., recalls an evening in the late ’80s that proved to be the turning point in his journey from punk to funk: When he and his friends learned that the punk show they wanted to see was sold out, they decided to check out the R&B bar next door. What they found was a much friendlier scene than the kind to which they’d grown accustomed. “They were playing funk and having such a good time in there,” the bassist says.
From that point, Mercurio started listening to more P-Funk and James Brown and sitting in with local R&B bands. “I think [those bands] were excited to have a bunch of young kids there,” he says. “It was as different for them as it was for us, like, ‘Wow! What are these young white kids playing?’ and we were like, ‘Wow! Look at these guys that can really play their instruments!’”
When Mercurio moved to New Orleans at age 17 to attend Tulane University, the city’s flourishing funk scene made short work of his remaining punk rock leanings. However, he still feels his punk influence shows in his slightly aggressive style of playing.
Mercurio and Moore, who have been playing together for almost 20 years in such ensembles as Galactic, Frequinox and the backup bands for Papa Mali and Leo Nocentelli, make their way to Moe’s Alley on Thursday, December 3, with the New Orleans supergroup Dragon Smoke (also featuring keyboardist/vocalist Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk and acclaimed guitarist/vocalist Eric Lindell, the latter of whom also grew up on good old-fashioned punk rock). Though Dragon Smoke is sure to appeal to fans of Galactic, the former band is less rooted in New Orleans funk and more in Memphis soul than the latter. As Mercurio points out, it’s also considerably more vocal-oriented. “Usually these super-jams are not really based around vocalists; it’s more based around instrumentalists, instrumental jams, improvisation and whatnot,” Mercurio observes. “This band is focused around the vocals of Ivan Neville and Eric Lindell, and Stanton and I are more of a rhythm section. There still is a lot of spontaneity and improv, but it’s all streamed together and connected to the vocals.”
Moore says Dragon Smoke’s music is lighter in feel than the muscular funk of Galactic. “My trio [Stanton Moore Trio] is like driving a convertible sports car, and Galactic is like driving a Mac truck,” he ventures. “Dragon Smoke falls somewhere in the middle.”
Dragon Smoke plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. For more information, call 479-1854.