Liner notes by David B. Wilson, www.warr.org
I don't know about you, but I'm usually skeptical of recording artists who decide to cut a live-in-the-studio album because they want to "capture the excitement of a live show" or "strip away the studio trickery and get back to the basics of real-time interaction and players playing." Often I get the feeling they're really saying "I wanted to save money, I never figured out how to use the studio to my advantage, and my fans can't hear the subtleties anyway."
Not this time. Stefan Redtenbacher and his Funkestra know how to get what they're going for, whether it's the polished sonics and acid jazz/house detours of 2008's Hausmusik, or the lowdown frontal assault of Concubine Chronicles - Live at British Grove, this extraordinary CD, recorded in two days with no overdubs. Yes, it does sound organic. Yes, it is exciting. Yes, there's plenty of blowing room for the soloists. But what’s more important is the way the band realizes the advantages of the format without being held hostage by its limitations. And most importantly of all, the arrangements and performances aren't mere attitude, they're tools used to realize the power and passion of the underlying compositions.
Take for example "Music To Keep On Swinging Your Handbag To"... The Funkestra's original version on Hausmusik was a riot of swirling textures, an impressionistic keyboard and horn tapestry. This new incarnation, though, suits the 60s-Mod-meets-70s-Funk aesthetic even better, with Jim Hunt’s wailing sax punching through ample pockets of space. Or "Ferocious Juggernaut Blondes revisited," a reimagining of "Juggernaut Blondes" from 2004's Falling from Insanity: the juicy synth line of the studio version is gone, which just leaves more room for the busy, Rocco Prestia-style bass line to bounce off the sustained organ chords. I wouldn't want to choose which recording is better, and I'm glad to have them both.
Stefan Redtenbacher wrote everything (except for the cover of Radiohead’s “Nude” and the brief “Austrian Polka”), produced (with Rupert Christie), arranged, and played bass, but he doesn’t dominate… in fact, he can’t. This kind of project leaves no place to hide – you can’t punch in or overdub to cover for poor rhythmic feel or a weak soloist – so everyone in the band has to pull his own weight, and the results are gratifying. Organist Dave Limina shines whether he’s staying in the background keeping time or holding center stage, as on his dramatic intro to “Big Bottom.” Mike Sturgis drums with intensity but keeps his ears open and never bulldozes his way through a tune. Eran Kendler on guitar shifts smoothly between supporting the main pulse and adding accents, and occasionally busts out a nimble solo to boot. Hunt may have the most challenging role of all, as the only horn player in a band that formerly relied heavily on brass, and he charges ahead with energy, sensitivity and a fat tone.
One nice thing about out-of-favor genres is that they’re automatically poseur-free: no one starts playing jazzy, funky, instrumental R&B because it’s an expressway to fortune and fame. And even for a funkateer, Redtenbacher is a keen student of music history, which you might pick up from his song titles and you’ll definitely hear in his tunes: “Concubine Chronicles” doesn’t just recall the Bootsy Collins bass sound, it also captures the suggestive shuffle and easy elegance of Bootsy’s Horny Horns work. Of course, one of the best features of this kind of music is that it doesn’t require an instruction manual: it’s easy to groove along to “Zap-A-Lot” or “Jazz Cats” without thinking about where it came from or where it’s going.
It’s not easy to make music that has either the raw thrills to rock your socks or the sophistication to reward close listening: it’s a rare treat to find an album that consistently delivers both, and for that reason I’m grateful to Redtenbacher’s Funkestra. Long may they funkestrate!