Photo courtesy of Mike Thut
Deep Banana Blackout
Deep Banana Blackout makes its long awaited return to Killington and will be funkin’ up the Pickle Barrel Nightclub this Thursday night, Feb. 18. I’ve been seeing DBB since 1998 and it is definitely one of the best bands to see live. They will have you moving and grooving all night long.
DBB is made up of Rob Volo, trombone/guitar/vocals; Eric Kalb, drums; Cyrus Madan, keyboards; Benj LeFevre, bass; James ‘Fuzz’ San Giovanni, guitar/vocals; Jen Durkin, vocals; Rob Somerville, sax/vocals and Johnny Durkin, percussion. Former members include Hope Clayburn, sax/flute/ vocals, and Bryan Smith, trombone/vocals. Check out the band’s website for history, tour dates, old video clips and obscure live tracks: deepbananablackout.net. It even has some tracks from when they played with George Porter and Bernie Worrell—it’s like a DBB museum.
In the early 90s there was a band called Tongue & Groove that I used to see play in the Hartford, Conn. area. Kalb, Jen, Benj and Rob were in that great band. When T & G disbanded, shortly thereafter Deep Banana Blackout was born. I got a chance to have a conference call interview with Kalb, Volo and Cyrus and what a fun half hour that was. These are their stories.
Volo tells how the band got together. “It was a Jen Durkin brainchild. She met Kalb and Benj and knew Rob from Tongue & Groove. That band was falling apart because [front man] Andrew Gromiller had left and everybody had gone on their ways. Jen had decided she was going to get all these clowns back together and form a funk band.”
Kalb adds, “Some of the guys from T & G and myself and Fuzz who were doing a thing in Long Island, formed a band that was doing r&b and soul covers. We called it, ‘Back to Funk’. Then the name Deep Banana Blackout came up and we went with that name.”
The band members hail from all over. Volo, Fuzz and Kalb grew up in Long Island, Jen and Johnny are from Fairfield, Conn., Cyrus from Darien, Conn., Benj from Glen Cove, N.Y. and Somerville is from Delaware. Volo and Somerville met at the Hart School of Music. Volo says, “Somerville and I moved down to Baltimore after T & G disbanded. For about a year we were driving up from Baltimore every weekend to play gigs. In the spring of ‘96 we decided to screw it and just move up there. That was the time we were just a band for hire so we were playing parties, a few weddings and bars and clubs. We had regular places that we would constantly hit, these were places that Fuzz and Jen had connections.”
Kalb adds, “We were playing a lot in Long Island and Connecticut. I remember doing the trek back and forth from there so much.”
Volo says, “Every now and again we would do a showcase in Manhattan. I kind of remember doing a few of those for no bread and just for exposure. Then we kind of got in at The Wetlands and things in Manhattan started to pick up.”
At this point they were just an r&b cover band like Tongue & Groove used to be. That was until Bob Kennedy became their manager. Kalb explains, “Bob started coming to our shows. He was a big Grateful Dead/Phish guy. He was on the jam band scene. He said if we take these r&b and funk tunes and stretch out a solo on them, you’ll have thousands of people showing up at your shows. Fuzz and I looked at each other and thought we could totally do that. Bob was totally right. Once we started doing that, people ate it up. Then we started doing original music and incorporated that.”
Speaking of original music, DBB has released four albums: “Rowdy Duty,” “Feel the Peel,” “Live in the Thousand Islands” and “Release the Grease.” “Live in the Thousand Islands” is my favorite and I’ve deejayed many of those tunes over the years. Kalb talks about the writing process and says, “We did a lot of things collectively on the first two records but Fuzz is an awesome song writer and he brought down a lot of tunes that we would help flush out and rearrange. It was a lot of collaboration early on. There was some more collaboration later on too, but mostly it was Fuzz as the song writer.”
They used to have weekly rehearsals. Volo says, “We would learn a new cover tune or hammer out a new original. We all made the time to at least get together once a week. It was pretty fruitful I think. We’d work on arrangements and segues. Eventually we’d work on the originals and take those onto a gig. We’d hide them in between covers and a lot of the time people wouldn’t know those were our originals. They thought it sounded like something else and would ask what was that James Brown tune we did. We’d say that wasn’t JB, that was one of ours.”
Kalb’s influences as a drummer was a lot of jazz music, old r&b, soul, funk and even some classical. He explains, “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up in DBB. I think over the years there were different styles trying to be forced upon DBB and have us be an everything band but we would realize over the years that what we do the best is what we should stick to. I think after twenty years we know it’s a funk rock kind of thing that jams.”
Cyrus talks about the early days and says, “I think at that time in the mid 90s there was that need for that type of danceable music. I think we were slowly getting out of the grunge and moshing and there wasn’t so much dancing. I think part of why we had so much appeal is because we weren’t your normal every other jam rock quartet that played whatever kind of music that you couldn’t dance to. We evolved. We had lyrics and arrangements that not everyone had, and that was lacking in the scene in New England. We hit it at the right time. We rose in popularity pretty quickly and we were good at it, that’s the other thing we didn’t suck.”
They try to tour at least a couple times a year, but it’s tricky. Volo explains, “I think we’re always trying to get some dates together, at least for the past couple of years. It’s pretty difficult because everyone has their own thing going on. Kalb is in pretty high demand and tours with this person or that person (That person right now is Beau Sasser and Ryan Montbleau). Rob has the Kung Fu thing and Fuzz has Caravan of Thieves for the past five years. It’s been a little difficult for us to take any offer. Now we try and make a conscious effort as a group to hold a weekend and then let our booking agent make it happen. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to do more than a weekend at a time but at this point for us to do three shows in a row is a big deal.” This tour takes them from Killington to the Brighton Music Hall in Boston and then finishes up at the Capitol Theatre in New York.
They haven’t just played the Northeast, they’ve played all over the country. I know they used to play in New Orleans and when I asked if it’s their favorite place to play, Cyrus responded with a big “Absolutely!” Kalb talked about that and said, “Mostly we stick to the Northeast. Last year we went to Philly and we had not been there in a long time. Over the last ten years we’ve gone to New Orleans and done a few things during Jazz Fest. We’re always talking about trying to get back down there. We used to do it all the time. We have a lot of history with that town and a lot of really awesome shows there.”
The first time they went to Jazz Fest, they didn’t have any gigs they slept in the park. They took a voyage down there in a van they called “Ferdinand.” Kalb says, “It was crazy. We were a band that didn’t have any gigs but we had to go to New Orleans. It was like a trip to Mecca. The van was a Plymouth Voyager so we called it ‘Ferdinand the Voyager.’”
A favorite part of a DBB show for me in the early years was when they put the boot down. If you’ve seen it, you know it is something special. It didn’t happen all the time, and it probably won’t happen in Killington but could happen some time this tour. When I asked how it came to be Kalb couldn’t stop laughing. Cyrus talks about how it began.
“We were playing a song and Rob just started riffing on ‘I put the boot down, I put the boot down.’” Volo adds, “It started out as a joke once that riff came around but then Rob wrote some lyrics out and said that is what he’s going to rap and he said we’re going to call it ‘The Boot Down.’ At the time, he had his grandfather’s old army boot and it made its way into the equipment van.” Kalb adds, “It would sit on an amp during our shows just lurking in the background. It kind of became this thing. We didn’t play it every night. It would make our fans wonder if we were going to do it or not.”
Make sure you come early to see the opening act: Jamie Livesey. After a few solo songs, it’s going to morph into The Mighty Junk Bus which was an old side project of Livesey’s that featured members of DBB. Volo says, “There was a time that almost all of us played with Jamie at some point. It was the early 2000s. We used to play The Loft down in SoNo [South Norwalk]. We would try and get Kalb every now and again to show up. Benj was on the gig for awhile. Fuzz came down a few times. We even threatened to call it Deep Banana Blackout featuring Mac & Jamie because basically that’s what it was. Those were the days.”
This is the best show of the season in my opinion. It’s a show not to be missed. Cyrus says its guaranteed not to suck. Volo says its their first gig on the tour and everyone will be super fresh. Kalb says its going to be a dance party and a funky good time.