This Thursday make sure you head to the Pickle Barrel for the long awaited return of Kung Fu. It’s been three years since they funked up Killington and they’re psyched to do it again. I had the pleasure of speaking to Rob Somerville, saxophonist and vocalist for the band, who has been playing up here since the early 90s. His other band, Deep Banana Blackout, used to tear up the Wobbly Barn and the mountain in the late 90s and early 2000s. Somerville reflected on those days: “Oh I remember those days when I was a little younger and Deep Banana used to come up there. We were a little crazy back then. We would go skiing all day and then hit the gig at night and then go skiing all day the next day and then hit the gig again at night.” Kung Fu might not hit the mountain this time around but they will definitely tear up the Pickle Barrel. I’ve been fortunate to see every past show in town, including the first Kung Fu show at the Pickle, and good times were definitely had by all.
Most of Kung Fu’s members hail from Connecticut: Adrian Tramontano (drums/percussion), Chris DeAngelis (bass guitar and vocals), Tim Palmieri (guitar and vocals) and Somerville. A few years back they added Beau Sasser (keyboards and vocals) and he calls Northampton, Mass. home. Sasser was an easy choice for the band. All the guys have played with him in some way; and he and Palmieri and play in Z3, a Frank Zappa tribute band. Somerville talked about getting Sasser and said, “When the time came to get a new keyboardist, he was literally the only choice. I’m not even joking, he was the only one on our list. Unanimously and simultaneously we all said it has to be Beau and we were right. The atmosphere around the band, just the ease of working and being together has been awesome. Very amicable and we’re having fun. Having a fresh face in the band has done wonders for the morale.”
The band recently celebrated its eight-year anniversary and Somerville joined the band nine months into its start. “I guess they left me in the womb for nine months and then I was back on the scene,” Somerville said jokingly. When they got together, everyone was calling them a super group for a super jam. Its members are all well known and have been in some of the more popular bands on the jam band scene. Tramontano, DeAngelis and Palmieri are from The Breakfast, a hard-hitting jazz rock experimental quartet. Sasser was in Uncle Sammy and Melvin Sparks Band and Somerville DBB, a New Orleans style jazz-funk band from Fairfield County, Conn. The band got its name because a former member was watching “Kung Fu Panda” with his son and he asked, “What about Kung Fu?” — and it stuck. When Somerville first heard about them on the scene he was surprised that nobody had ever named a band Kung Fu before.
I asked Rob to describe the band and he said, “Well it’s not a movie, haha. It’s a very aggressive, educated, funk-fusion extravaganza. We’re steeped in that tradition of funk and jazz but there’s a lot of rock. The band definitely knows how to rock out. Most of the time we can’t help it — we’re just full throttle. It fits right in on the festival and club scene because it’s dance music. We have a lot of experience and the musicianship in the band is very seasoned and very polished sounds that we go for.” The band is influenced by the fusion side of funk and jazz, like early Herbie Hancock in the 70s.
Since they last played the Pickle, the band has been touring like crazy but also doing a lot of writing. Somerville said, “We’ve been churning out a bunch of tunes. We have enough for a record but we’ve been releasing them by what we like to call ‘Ninja Cuts.’ We record a tune and then we release it online. We’ve done some videos, too. Pretty much one every couple of months. It works out really well because we can go into the studio, record two or three tunes at a time as opposed to 10 or 11 for a record. We just write a handful at a time and record them.” Everybody contributes in some way. Somerville added, “When Beau came into the band, he had a lot of material to learn but he’s been contributing as well. Everybody writes. Some people write lyrics, [some] people write tunes. Sometimes one person will come with a complete tune, done and ready to go. Sometimes it’s just a riff and we put it through the grinder at rehearsal.” Their latest one coming out is called “Chop Suey” and that’s one that Palmieri wrote. The one before that, “Bottleneck,” was written by DeAngelis, and recently recorded “Caught Up In A Mess” was written by Sasser.
“We go around the horn. Whoever has something, we record it. It’s a big group effort. There is no shortage of new material,” said Somerville.
Kung Fu does what Somerville likes to call “Smart Touring.” They tour all over the U.S., but they go out for a few weeks at a time. Somerville explained, “The motto has always been ‘Travel and tour smarter, not harder.’ Back when you’re young, 20 years old and right out of college, it’s easy to hit the road and play anywhere at anytime and a lot of bands do that. At this stage in the game with all of us at the advanced age that we are with families and kids we try to not be on the road for big extended periods of time. We’re not going out on the road for three months. We like to do fly-outs. Next week we’re flying out to Colorado, play and then fly home. Week after that, we’re flying out to California to play at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Conference. When you look at our tour schedule, it looks like we’re all over the place all the time. In reality we’re touring smarter and we can accomplish getting back to markets that we want to without having to spend weeks getting there.”
Somerville is from Wilmington, Del. but decided to stay in Hartford and not go home. He’d play gigs to put enough bread in his pocket to pay the rent and put gas in the car to get to the next gig. “God, it was just so easy and free and fun. We’d play for anything at anytime and anywhere. That band Tongue & Groove played every weekend without fail, every Thursday, every Friday and every Saturday. And all in Connecticut, which is unheard of. All in your own market is crazy.” They were able to pull it off because they were such an incredible band. Half of that band went on to become Deep Banana Blackout. They started playing at the Wobbly in 1998.
As Kung Fu increased its popularity, started getting really big crowds and a following, and created a buzz, the guys would ask Somerville if it was like his DBB days. “Not to compare the two bands, but that’s what made me want to play with them. I’d gone and seen Kung Fu like two or three times and I wanted to be in the band.” A friend of his commented on him joining the band. As soon as Kung Fu released the news of Somerville joining them, his friend said, “that’s amazing because you said you wanted to be in that band.” Somerville said, “It’s a testament to those guys. It’s how I always judge a band. People ask me ‘How do I know that a band is good?’ Because I want to play with them. They were smokin’; they were just killing it. I told them that I didn’t even have to play the sax, I could just get up and sing a few tunes. That’s how much I wanted to be in the band. It’s been a wild ride, it’s been great to be back on the scene in another band. After DBB I didn’t really sit around and think if I’d be in another touring band. It just came out of nowhere.”
Somerville said you can expect to see “fierce funk.” His daughter Nola (8) said, “It’s the best music in the world.” He added, “I’m not going to disagree with her. The guys I get to play with are world class musicians. I’m the lucky one. Adrian calls me ‘The breath of fresh air.’ I don’t know what that means [laughing].”
I can attest to the fact that they are all world class. Palmieri is a monster guitar player who will melt your face with his solos. Somerville added, “He’s the most brilliant guitar player on the scene and I’ve seen a lot of guitarists. When Tim is ready to rock, he is ready to rock. We like having that reputation of being a filthy funk band. We like the challenge of living up to that reputation. Night after night, I’m always impressed with the abilities of the guys. No matter what’s going on in their lives, whether they’re having a good day or a bad day, it does not matter when we get on the stage. All of that stuff goes away and everyone’s that much of a professional at what they’re doing. There’s good days and bad days, especially when you’re on the road, but it’s about getting through that and getting through a gig. I think that’s one of the best things about this band that night after night, we can go out and deliver a high energy, danceable, fun, funk music. Everyone is smiling, everyone is enjoying themselves and we really enjoy each others company and enjoy each others musicianship. We respect each other personally and musically. It works — and it works night after night.”
Photo by Drew Massey