Rooted in fusion
I must admit that my expectations were low for this self-described “funkin’ jazzy soul hip jam hoppin’ grass roots blues” ensemble. The idea of an eclectic jam band melded to hip-hopping rap sounds to me like a risky proposition at best. Very, very difficult to pull off such a radical jumbo fusion—such acts are all too often irritating pastiche. But if the above description sounds like something that might interest you, Native Root really does pull it off.
The band’s sound is wide-ranging, everything from high-energy up-tempo political jams ("SW") to slower, more atmospheric, reggae-flavored material ("Turquoise Casanova"). Members manage to balance their free-ranging eclecticism with an identifiable original sound. It’s a cosmopolitan sound, in part because the members of the band all have different musical backgrounds. It might seem odd that the members of a band called Native Root all have different roots, but this is a band that seems to be all about unity beyond differences.
“It’s not just a bunch of different kinds of music all smashed together,” says organist/trombonist Art Hafen. “It’s one sound where everybody brings something different to the table.”
Bassist Dave Kellers and drummer Scott Rouse hold down a solid funk groove. Saxman Kevin Thomas and Hammond specialist Hafen play jazz lines while guitarist Jim Robertson’s playing is more blues-inflected. Then there’s engaging rapper/zany dancer Matt Burke. The band’s ability to switch from slow-cooking reggae to interweaving guitar-sax leads to extended full-band jams and quick-time into a verbal breakdown. Hafen calls it “sophisticated and entertaining.”
And for better or worse (depending on how you feel about such things), it’s music that drives the audience to dance shamelessly. At the recent show that I visited at a local downtown hipster lounge (which shall remain nameless), there were some young ladies gyrating freakily in a way that you would usually have to pay extra to see. But I wasn’t surprised; Thomas had told me beforehand, “There’s a lot of groove. You can shake to it.”
This positive dance energy arose in the face of tragedy. Native Root was started by Burke in tribute after the untimely passing of his old bandmate (in Dichotomy) Jon Paul Orebough. Burke is an English teacher at I Can Do Anything Charter High School. If his lyrics were a color, they would be green. “Freedom celebrator, peace to Ralph Nader, oppose and tie me to a tree and plant me in the equator” is a particularly memorable, and fairly representative bit from “SW.” His enthusiasm is undeniable as he dances off the stage, mingling and giving high fives. He rocked a tambourine to the breaking point and then made me cringe with a “Native Root is in the house! Brad Bynum is in the house!”
But Burke’s shenanigans are just one aspect of the surprisingly enjoyable Native Root sonic cocktail. It’s happy, feel-good party music that’s meant to be enjoyed, and it is successful in its eclectic unity because the members of Native Root are, as Burke says, “All hippies at heart.”