Saturday, September 18, 2010

PHUNCLE SAM: a community vibe with a "ph" factor

[First published in The Indie, 2005, Asheville NC. Phuncle Sam is still playing but with a new membership]

riffs and Delta bluesy broadsides, exuberant but ascetic percussions, dirty soul keyboard gallop, gravy-sweet and painfully alluring vocals - interspersed with an ethereal cadence that sways with the vibe than rolls with the beat. It’s the sort of subdued but insistent collective, rock ‘n groove aura that I longed to experience in my previous visit to the Rainbow Gathering in the Shenandoahs. Sadly, I didn’t get it there.

To rephrase funkmeister George Clinton, “If you could really remember it, you weren’t there. ” Well, I don’t remember that much. I wasn’t really there-that sunflower era of peace and community. But I could easily re-live the transcendent melodies that leapt and somersaulted with undulating bodies playfully splattered with beautiful mud. That was the truth of the past. And that memory keeps me under the influence of some sort of magical mystery tour - disturbing, but warm… nostalgic, but comforting-reassuring, dreamy, peaceful.
But don’t get me wrong. It certainly wasn’t about weedful bliss and magic mushrooms-yet, admittedly, it could be about dreamcatchers, beads, crystals, and psychedelia. The common denominator, though, is - it’s all about the vibe, the feel, the music, and six guys called Phuncle Sam.
Phuncle Sam is a new jam band based out of Asheville, North Carolina-by way of Bearly Edible on Eagle Street, on the same ‘hood as The Traveling Bonfires. Phuncle Sam’s original music “embraces a wide variety of rock, blues, bluegrass, and reggae” or, according to their website, “Americana with a Ph factor.”

ALL SIX Phuncles - Glen “Woody” Henkel, Bill Evans, Danny Joffe, Phunstix Mott, James “Stymie” Collins, and Ned McGinn - have been part of several acts and bands before they hooked up Oct last year. They brought with them a wealthy creative bunk of musical experiences… plus, a potent cornocupia of influences that practically run the gamut of the populist “converge, jam, gather-‘round” radical romanticism of rock music - expectedly, The Grateful Dead, the Beatles, John Lennon, Tim Buckley, Bob Marley, Chicago, Kansas, Bob Dylan, The Band, Phish, Widespread Panic, John Prine, Bruce Cockburn, Frank Zappa, Charlie Parker, Bruce Hornsby, Sun Ra, John & Alice, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Saunders, Richard Thompson, Holy Modal Rounders, Stone House, Mike Hutchinson, Les Claypool’s Frog, Brigade, Aquarium Rescue Unit, J.J. Cale, and Doc Watson.
I sort of discovered Phuncle Sam at a downstown sidestreet restaurant called Bearly Edible, that is frequented by Asheville’s ultra-colorful dreadlocked, gypsy-garbed, rainbow-ambianced humanity - AKA the neo-hippie, new-ager crowd. They have been gigging there-from dusk till dawn-for almost a year now.
As mainperson for “Bonfires for Peace” concerts at Pritchard Park, I have been scouting for acts that could “pied-piper” the community, not necessarily aesthetically neat or rock-star savvy, but a band that could simply rock around the vibe and get the people glued to where they are when the sound started groovin’, and then pay attention.
So on June 18th, I invited them to be play at the park. The show proved to be phenomenal-albeit the dark clouds, thunder and rain. Asheville downtown’s diverse population gathered around and paid attention. On July 16 and Aug 6, they were back at Pritchard Park-and now the community owns them.
What makes Phuncle Sam click is that they’re able to offer what most musical collectives-bands and acts of diverse genres - tend to overread or underplay. These guys just want to play-no rockstar grandstanding or slick sideshows. It’s because of the fact that the people don’t want to hear skyrocketing, Fender-bending, fuzzy Stratocaster soliloquies, in the guise of rock ‘n roll earnest. The community wants to hear a conversation, or imagine themselves as part of one-hence, Phuncle Sam talks to the people and the people become part of the music, the vibe, the sentiment.
From the jitterbugging playfulness of Woody Henkel’s “Taqueria” to the brooding depth of Bill Evans’ “Grain of Salt,” Phuncle Sam captures the sensibility and sensitivity of the every day people. The gunslinger ardor of Henkel’s keyboards in “Let It Go,” plus the subversive ache in his throaty delivery of “Althea” - this is blue-eyed rock `n soul drenched with moonshine-soaked blood, sweat and tears. Toss in the devilish boogie mischief of “What is Now”-woven around Joffe, McGinn and Mott’s menacingly flirtatious rhythm section, Evans’ and Collins’ twin-guitar swoon, and Henkel’s soulful snarl - you get a boozy, warm, trance-like freight-train hitchhike to psychedelic heartland.

PHUNCLE SAM is, obviously, still in the process of strengthening their body of collective work. That shouldn’t be a problem. These working man’s blues brothers could play to a crowd of two rowdy souls in the universal intimacy of a dairy farm, no problemo. When you play, they will come-and they will keep on playing, yes, from dusk till dawn, come rain or shine. These guys have gathered enough musical moss and spiritual wisdom-not through age and gut, certainly-but through a journeyman’s tales of such beautiful gifts as summer rain, leaves of grass, and gorgeous women on perpetually swaying hips of god-given grace. These amigos make us re-experience heavenly places even though we haven’t really gone there. All it takes is a vibe “with a Ph factor.” Whatever that means, it must be working good inside us. It’s all because Phuncle Sam makes us remember. []

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