Make sure you head to Outback Pizza on Saturday night at 9 p.m. to see Low Country Funk (LCF). I first saw them in December at the memorial tribute concert for Steve Audsley. I had already seen most of the acts on the bill, but I only knew LCF by name, having listed them in the paper. They performed Sugarland’s “Something More” and it blew me away. The band (Blake Gowan, drums; Nick Vittone, bass; and Neil Blanchette, guitar) was very tight and lead singer Michelle Kenny—wow, can she sing! I had the pleasure of speaking with Kenny and Blanchette and learned more about LCF.
Blanchette said you can expect a high energy, positive, danceable experience with a take on country music that you may have not heard before, due to the way their sound has developed. “Everybody always has a good time. Michelle is a great front person and she’s able to really connect with the audience and make it all good.”
The band formed in May 2014. Blanchette told how it happened: “Me, Nick and Blake had played together for a while and we already sort of developed a musical language. We crossed paths with Michelle and she sang and knew all this country music which was a bit different to what we had been playing. We already had the connection to be able to play songs together, it was just a matter of being able to learn country songs. It worked right from day one and it was pretty amazing.” Their first gig was at Center Street Alley in Rutland.
Blanchette came up with the name very early on, very quickly. They were playing the song “Funk 49” by Joe Walsh quite a bit, ripping it up, and people were really responding to it. When naming the band came up, that song was part of the discussion. Their country songs have an edge to them and get a little funky. They’re not sure where the “Low” part came from, but it works. Blanchette said it sounded cool right off the bat.
The guys had been playing mostly rock. Gowan came from a jam band with Grateful Dead influence. Vittone’s background was 90s grunge music and Blanchette was coming from a Jimmy Page-, Eric Clapton-style. Blanchette said, “We came from different places and developed this unique sound and then with Michelle coming in and singing Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum stuff, we were trying to wrap our heads around that. It was a good study and challenge and it seemed to work.” What also works is that LCF is a cohesive unit. There is no leader, no one person who stands out. They try to collaborate equally.
Unlike the guys, Kenny had never been in a band before LCF but was always a country music fan. She said, “Country is what I’ve listened to since I was a kid. My first album was “Alabama” when I was 13 years old. I grew up in a house where country music was played and I listened to everything from them to Garth Brooks to anything that was on pop country radio. My mom turned me onto older country like Linda Ronstadt and Anne Murray. Most of the music these guys played before they met me was completely foreign to me and what I brought to the table was completely foreign to them. One of the coolest things about our band is I’m not a real traditional country musician because I love the higher energy rock side of country but with a country backdrop. I think that’s why we mix so well together because they bring the rock side and the energy side to the country I’ve always loved. This collaboration of country and rock is awesome. I like to sing music that is positive and fun. I don’t like the darker music, it doesn’t fit with me.”
Kenny is as homegrown as they come, having grown up in Rutland. She started singing in church. Her grandfather was a pastor at the Mendon church and her uncle is currently the preacher there. She spent a lot of time there as a kid but it wasn’t until a trip to Nashville decades later that propelled her to pursue music. She recorded a couple songs in a studio down there with a friend who was also doing some recording. “I went down there for the experience and I got to record a little bit and that’s what really spurred me to really want to continue my music and find something to be a part of. When you’re a musician, your life kind of feels empty without it. When you find it, which I did, it’s a fantastic situation,” Kenny explained.
Blanchette grew up in Lexington, Mass. He started on the piano when he was eight. When his piano teacher told him he had a really good ear, that gave him a spark. Five years later, he picked up the guitar. “The first guitar I ever had was a 12-string and I was playing the softer Led Zeppelin stuff. I was listening and trying to play along and I thought that I could do that, so that’s what started it for me. Everything that I hear is processed through my head and comes out my fingers. It’s a great refuge for me, it’s a very healthy thing to do and communicate with other people that way… It’s truly pretty awesome and I credit Steve Audsley at open mic for getting me out from just being a basement guitar player to developing a stage presence.”
Blanchette relocated to Vermont in 2000 when his sister got accepted to St Michael’s College. Blanchette truly believes that everything happens for a reason. His apartment in Brattleboro burned down and he started over in Rutland. “It’s a random set of circumstances that brought me into the orbit of these folks. It’s great, I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s pretty amazing how great things happen from things that are beyond your control. I’m very grateful that I have this in my life. It gives me so much.”
The band wanted it known how much they miss Audsley and how much he meant to the band. His open mic also helped Kenny as it was her first chance to sing publicly with a band. She said, “Even though I’m one of the most outgoing people someone could meet, when it came to singing on stage I was very shy about it. I felt timid and anxious and Steve was actually one of those guys that pushed everyone to do it. It wasn’t an issue of whether you were professional status or a rookie like me. Obviously he really helped mold me and my ability to be able to perform in public by really encouraging us as a band. It really gave me a platform to feel a lot more confident and comfortable to being the front and center singer of the band.”
LCF has been building a pretty good following. Kenny said, “Our fan base essentially follows us around pretty much wherever we go. We have a lot of support from people who have heard us play. It’s modern country music that you hear on the radio with a real side of rock that you don’t hear on the radio. The fun we’re having and the energy we create as a band, really somehow is felt by our audience because they respond. That is one of my favorite things about being in a band. We get to watch that happen and watch that dynamic between the crowd and the band continue to grow over the course of a night. Then we’ll throw in a traditional rock song like “Guns N’ Roses” or something of that nature and people go wild. It’s fantastic.” I’m not a country music guy at all but they have made a fan out of me. This band is definitely on the rock side.
Blanchette said what people hear on the radio is so polished, but LCF has just drums, guitar and bass. Most of these country recordings there are two or three guitars, but they cover it well with just his (Blanchette’s) and Vittone’s bass. “Nick really ties it all together. He’s has been able to build that bridge, the rhythm and melody really to a point where I’m so comfortable that I feel free to do what I do. Blake is predictable as a drummer and that’s great and he plays the part. He adds to that wall of sound, he’s a pro and has been doing this for 20 years and has played with all kinds of different people. He brings such a solid foundation that Nick can leap from and create something that I can totally trust and lean back on and flourish. We’re all aiming at the same target so it really sounds cohesive,” said Blanchette.
Blanchette likes watching people dance and really having a good time. He appreciates the fact that something he can do with other people can bring joy. “The energy that we create on stage is awesome and sometimes it’s more than just the combination of the four of us. Sometimes it’s just a magical thing. To look at people singing along to every word and giving us that energy back, it’s nothing that I’ve ever experienced in any other way. It feels so great. I’m not going to make a billion dollars doing it but it’s not about that—it’s about making art and showing people what we can do.”
Kenny added, “Watching the crowd sing along with you every word of every song that you do, is amazing feedback. I admit that one of my most favorite things about performing live is when I see a crowd not really paying too much attention, we may be setting up and getting everything ready to go and we start with our first song and I see people who are eating their food all of a sudden stop and turn around and look with an impression that they are surprised at what they’re hearing but in a really positive way. They usually come up after and they’re so excited about what we’re bringing to the table because there is not a lot of country music around here. We have some fantastic musicians around here who are really talented people but they’re not doing what we’re doing. We’re bringing something new that people are really enjoying. Then they start to show up at gig after gig and that is one of the biggest compliments as a band we could be getting. I absolutely love it. I’m the singer but I could do nothing without these guys and every practice and every gig I’m always amazed at the level of talent that the guys have in our band and I am blown away by it and feel very blessed to play with such talent. This is a fantastic time in my life and I feel like I’m the lucky one.”
Photo courtesy of Dave Hoffenberg
LOW COUNTRY FUNK