Friday Nights Are Funk Nights at Buckalew’s
Before The Big Unkle took the Buckalew’s stage last Friday night, Nick Leonardis, a bar security guard, was leaning up against the wall, looking excited for the show. Nick was a bass player in his own shore band years ago. He fondly remembers putting on “sick shows at the old Quarter Deck,” the legendary Ship Bottom nightclub. While The Big Unkle set up their instruments, Nick watched with a smile on his face. Sometimes, he says, the bands at Buckalew’s ask him to fill in on bass. But that wouldn’t happen on Friday night. “You don’t just hop in with a jazz band with no practice and start playing jazz,” Nick said. “It’s not like rock ’n’ roll.”
The Big Unkle is a jazz-funk and fusion band from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Their original music has the cyclical, trance-inducing quality of world groove beats thanks to Tom Theurer, drummer and Kent Alan, rhythm guitarist. John Henderson’s punchy bass lines are reminiscent of sounds on Herbie Hancock’s 1973 Head Hunters album. Jea Street scats and sings and plays the keys like a true soul man, and Brian Betts and Alice Marie take turns shredding solos on the guitar and the electric violin, respectively.
Henderson, the bassist, seems to be the group’s leader. On Friday night at Buckalew’s, he would step, with his flip-flops, cubavera pants and broad shoulders, into the crowd in front of the stage and turn around to face his band. From there he could interact with the people at Buckalew’s, saying, over the mic, “Can you hear us all right?” and he could look each of his band members in the eyes as they carried parts of the songs.
Henderson is responsible for drawing up the initial set list before the show. Of course, the set list often changes once the band starts playing and gets a feel for the crowd. But Henderson says, “I spend a lot of time going over the set list based on who all’s playing with us. There are other members of the band, but these are the most regular members of the band.”
Theurer, who has been playing with Henderson for years, interrupts him to inject air quotes around the word “regular.”
Henderson continues, “Right. ‘Regular.’ Not mentally, but the most reliable.”
In addition to catering the set list to the musicians, Henderson also works with the other band members to make the set list match the crowd. “It really comes down to audibles for us,” he says. “You have to look around at the crowd. Jea might feel a certain way about a song and we’ll do that one or not do that one based on how we feel.”
Street plays with two or three bands in the greater Philadelphia area. But he says that “this is the one that’s a little more loose, it’s a little more fun. The other ones are wedding bands, so they’re really by the books. This is the one where we get to stretch out. There’s a form to these songs, but there’s much more room for us to do what we want to in the moment. That’s why it’s great.” Street says that not only does the type of music he plays with The Big Unkle allow for more exploration and “stretching out,” but also “that we have musicians that are really good. You can’t just take any guitar player and say go. But I can give (Brian Betts) a half a wink’s notice and he’s, like, on it.”
At one point during the first set, Street was taking the lead, singing a popular soul song. Half a beat before the bridge, Street practically coughed out the words, “somebody solo please!” The sound of his voice at that point was notable because everything he had sung up to that point was soulful, smooth and rich. But these gravely words seemed to come from someone else. That’s when Brian Betts stepped forward like a man possessed and ripped off a minute-long guitar solo.
Betts has a hard time explaining these explosive musical moments to people, but he definitely embraces their spontaneity. He says that “a lot of people are, like, ‘I can’t believe you did that on the spot!’ But really we’re just not prepared.” Recalling a conversation with with Theurer on his way to Buckalew’s that night, Betts said he told his drummer, “If you asked me to play any one of these songs (on the set list) I probably couldn’t do it. But right when we start playing, I just kind of go ‘OK. I’ll just kind of drop my little pieces of the puzzle in, complete the picture, start running my scam.’”
Theurer says the group works because “we’re always excited to see everyone. There’s really no one we say, ‘aww damn, that guy.’ We’re really all fans of each other.” Of course, Theurer adds that “there’s a jerk in every group, and if you think no one’s a jerk it must be you.” The group seems to genuinely enjoy Theurer’s self-deprecating sense of humor.
“If any of us had an ego it wouldn’t work. We’re all just supporting each other,” he says. Theurer’s wife’s cousin, Alice Marie, is the violinist for The Big Unkle. Though she wasn’t able to be featured as much during the first set at Buckalew’s on Friday night due to sound issues, Theurer said the band is lucky to have her and that the collaboration is “kind of meant to be, I think.”
Once Marie’s sound started working in the second set, the crowd was treated to her voice and stage presence, both of which were reminiscent of the late, great Amy Winehouse. Her violin was on the same frequency as Betts’ guitar, and the two of them started sharing time playing solos.
Anna, a woman at the bar who comes to Buckalew’s on the weekends with her husband Tom, says she enjoyed The Big Unkle show “because it’s so eclectic.” Anna is a classically trained violinist who explained that the difference between a fiddle and a violin is the way the instrument is played. “You can fiddle on a violin,” she says, adding that Marie was “definitely fiddling.” As a violinist herself, Anna is impressed with people who use the instrument for styles beyond classical music. “People learn in this box,” she says, “but when you take it outside that box, you can play anything. You can play rock ’n’ roll.”
Anna says she and Tom always enjoy coming to Buckalew’s because they get such a diverse group of musicians playing there. It’s worth noting that she was not surprised to see a funk-jazz and fusion group that featured an electric violinist at Buckalew’s. But she was certainly excited to see them.
This Friday night, Buckalew’s will host another funk-jazz group, Zoé, at 9 p.m.
— Tim Hone