A new groove

An intoxicating summer concert in the plaza

Smokey the Groove saxophonist Kevin Killion leads the party at Chico City Plaza.

Smokey the Groove saxophonist Kevin Killion leads the party at Chico City Plaza.

Photo by Ken Pordes

Smokey the Groove
Friday, Aug. 5
Chico City Plaza

August evenings in Chico don’t get much better than last Friday (Aug. 5). The exceptionally pleasant afternoon—with mild temperatures riding on a gentle Delta breeze—eased its way toward dusk as the community gathered around the fountain-cooled, concrete-and-grass mosaic and neoclassical stage of the City Plaza for the week’s Friday Night Concert.

The acoustics and space in the plaza offer a range of experiences, from full sonic immersion and free-form dancing at stage front to enjoyable picnic-nibbling and conversation-level volume on the peripheral grassy beds and benches. A perfect setting, in other words, to spend 90 minutes being swept away by the new kids on the local dance-band scene—octet Smokey the Groove—as they laid down their spectacular, horn-fueled, violin-spiced brand of feel-good jams and intricate ensemble arrangements.

Bassist/keyboardist Austin Farwell and percussionists Kevin Valentino and Jeffrey Gibsorb provided a solid but fluid rhythmic foundation for the horn section—Kevin Killion (sax), Miles Van Housen (trumpet) and Dean Simcox (trombone)—to build upon. And guitarist Eric Jones’ playing underpinned and accented the rhythms while violinist Gabriel Fairchild embellished the melodies with subtle dynamism. Songs such as “Funkaholics Anonymous” invite and inspire dancing, and a large contingent of the audience enthusiastically accepted that invitation, including a group of fans in colorful papier-mâché animal masks who writhed and cavorted to the amusement of children and bemusement of more sedate audience members.

Playing mostly instrumental music without vocals, Smokey the Groove interacted with the audience between songs, with introductions mostly delivered by Killion, a charismatic figure whose feathered Mardi Gras mask has become an iconic part of the band’s stage presence. His introduction to “Pirate Party” included encouraging audience participation on the “Yarrrgh!” refrain—which was embraced enthusiastically—and emphasized the band’s image as a marauding collective of musical brigands that began its performance career, as Farwell said, “renegading for friends at events and the music festivals that we attend.”

With a palpable mutual joy in creating fun dance music and an obvious group camaraderie—the original core of the group started playing bluegrass music together in high school—Smokey the Groove is a constantly evolving group of dedicated musicians. The band’s Facebook page (accurately) describes its sound as “jam band\funk\Eastern\psychedelic\electronic,” and that translates on stage—via soul-stirring rhythms—as a general celebration of the universal human desire to simultaneously dance and smile.

In addition to mostly original music, Smokey the Groove provided touchstones to the roots of its inspiration during the plaza show, closing out its well-received set with versions of classics from the golden days of soul music and pure funk: Sam and Dave’s immortal 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and Parliament’s 1978 funk masterpiece, “Flash Light.”

It was a finale that made one anticipate much more from this young band (which will play on Aug. 14 as part of the For the Funk of It festival), and also to look forward to five more weeks of bands scheduled to fill the plaza stage, from the gospel/blues of Sapphire Soul this Friday (Aug. 12) to the jam/world beat of the Jeff Pershing Band for the final show of the season on Sept. 9.