Cyber-funk from the valley of love |

Cyber-funk from the valley of love

Staff Reports

Scene One: The Giggling Grizzly, Lower Downtown, DenverVeiled behind a thick cloud of billowing fog machine smoke, a band of boys from Minturn churn out a wall of throbbing funk so deep and dark you might not be able to sleep with yourself (to borrow a phrase from his purple badness, Prince).The bar, strangely quiet for opening day at nearby Coors Field, is resplendent in all of its Denver anonymity — guys in $50 haircuts check their voice mail while standing at the urinals, seemingly unaware of the band outside. But it’s the heady core of visiting Minturn locals, supporting their vibrant hometown heroes, that helps keep the spirit of the night alive.Tonight’s audience might not be the largest crowd the band has every played for (recent visits to the Grizzly have drawn 300 or more fans, the band notes), but Little Hercules still concentrates on keeping the dancefloor filled and the music at a feverish pace.And as more people begin to feel the effects of the funk, keyboardist Jeff Armistead, bassist and vocalist Cristian Basso, drummer and rapper Roy Burki and guitarist and lead vocalist Scott Kabel respond in kind and start to settle into a harder groove.Armistead rattles out gleeful flourishes of squeaks and squonks on his sometimes tempramental ’70s-era Moog synth, while Basso soulfully flails on his bass. Burki, recruited to the band after playing with a successful act in Germany, beats away on his stripped-down, road-worthy drum kit; the entire package is wrapped up in the hellaciously funky vibe thrown down by guitarist Kabel, sweating in a “Soup and Whiskey” T-shirt from the Goat in Keystone.For those converted to the Church of Hercules this evening, you can almost see the question forming in their heads: who is this treacherous foursome of loose-limbed white boys, and why do they play that forbidden funk so well, given the not especially funky surroundings they’ve grown up in? Could it be that the Vail Valley has finally produced an original musical quartet whose power, grace and unadulterated energy goes far beyond the business of entertaining Texas tourists, aiming instead at making serious dent in the national music scene?Five years into a journey that’s taken them from their early power-trio days at the Saloon and the Sundance to stages with Bo Diddley, Liquid Soul, Widespread Panic collaborator Cecil “P-Nut” Daniels and a busy weekend with E Street Band standout Clarence Clemons and the Greyboy Allstars (see related story), Little Hercules has arrived at a musical turning point. It’s now up to them (and a bit of luck) to grab the opportunity and reach for the big time, or to remain happy with a heightened regional reputation and status as one of the hardest-working unsigned bands working the mountain musical market.But … will there be jumpsuits?Ask Basso, Hercules’ designated spokesman, for a vision of the future, and you’ll wind up suspecting that the group is headed in an exciting, slightly dangerous direction. Intelligent enough to run the band as a business, the group recently sought financial backers to help produce their latest CD. It’s a full-length, self-titled disc that’s sweet and smooth enough to border on commercial accessibility.”‘Little Hercules’ is huge for us, a landmark CD,” Basso says. “We’ve been able to spread our music around the world, via the Internet, and we’ve already gone through our second run of 1,200 CDs since October. We also have a distribution deal in Japan and we’ve shipped more than 700 CDs overseas.”Basso says the group is anxious to use some additional investment help take them to that always elusive next level, reaching a point where they’ll be able to travel with a full-time sound and light crew. At present, they continue to hit the road in their reliable 15-passenger van — departing next week for a week and a half of dates at New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival — still carting their amps and instruments in and out of venues by themselves.And while he doesn’t want to provide too many clues (“Let’s just say that we’re probably not going to be wearing jumpsuits and headbands on stage,” he says), Basso hints that Little Hercules’ next incarnation will likely feature a more elaborate light and sound experience, to go along with what is already an extremely tight musical package. And a somewhat annoying smoke machine.”We’re very positive about getting personnel to do tech stuff for us,” Basso says. “We’ve had Ryan Lalone helping with sound; we’ve been working with a production specialist who does lights and effects for Denver raves and hope to have him train a guy for us … and that’s very exciting.”Kabel, who helped found Little Hercules with Basso, approaches the band’s continued evolution with fairly open mind.”Everything we’ve wanted to do has become a reality, mostly through a series of pragmatic steps,” says Kabel. “It’s like any other business — you kind of adjust things as you go along. And everything happens for the right reason.”Burki has a slightly different vision for the band’s growth, having experienced the road to success on his own in his previous group.”It was nice to reach the level of success I did (in Europe), playing in front of 10,000 fans, but I realized that’s not what I wanted to be,” he says. “That was about the time I came back to the United States. … I happened to answer a musician-wanted ad I saw in the paper while I was living in the valley … and here we are.”I think of the analogy of computer software,” Burki adds. “We’re hoping for an upgrade from Little Hercules version 2.0 to 5.0. And that won’t necessarily mean adjusting the way we sound. … More, there’s been talk among the bandmembers of creating a more interactive experience for the audience.”Over the past few years, Little Hercules has developed a repertoire of nearly 60 original songs, 25 of which remain unrecorded; and much of that material will go into the group’s next recording. Burki says material continues to emerge, virtually every time the band gets together.”It’s kind of like an organic process — even the music we play at our soundchecks sometimes evolves into other ideas and eventually into songs,” Burki says. “Every once in a while, someone will come to the table with lyrics and a full arrangement and we’ll be able to expand on it, but things are still pretty organic.”A brief interludeInternet enthusiasts will note that Little Hercules shares its name with both a company selling electric winches and a remote-controlled deep sea exploration vehicle. And as strange and mechanical as that may sound, the odd secret beneath Minturn’s musical Little Hercules — complete with its associated rock ‘n’ roll veneer of babes, booze and recreational substances — is the reality that the band is, in fact, a completely grounded group of professionals.Burki says he’s probably the squarest of the bunch, working days as manager of Micro Solutions, a computer store in Edwards, while Armistead serves as a construction project manager and Basso does freelance jobs as an independent landscape architect. Kabel’s the closest to full-time musician, gigging occasionally working as a sound tech at the Vilar Center but dedicating most of his time to perfecting his music.”It takes a lot of energy to do both music and your job, but it’s cool,” explains Burki. “A lot of the technology in the band has to do with computersand it ties itself into my day job.”And while his fellow players remain unattached — save for the recently engaged Basso — Detroit-reared keyboardist Armistead is anticipating his first child in just four weeks with his wife, valley musician Terri Bianchi. Armistead admits being a bit nervous about the timing, with Hercules on the road for a week.”I’ll never live it down if I don’t make it back in time for the baby. … That’s why I got an emergency plane ticket to take with me,” he says. “But Terri and I talked about it and we’ve decided it’s important for me to take the music as far as I can take it. And given the way that we’ve felt the baby jumping around when we play CDs at home, I guess we’re lucky we already know we’re going to have a kid who clearly loves Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. We’re going to have to take the new baby see Gov’t Mule this summer.”I got friends in low(actually, very high) placesAs one of only a few acts in the valley playing sets of almost entirely original material, Little Hercules has been afforded opening spots and headline opportunities the hordes of big city bands could only dream of.”When that starts happening with any artist, the buzz starts to grow … and we’ve seen that happening with our shows with Leo (Nocen-telli, founder of the Meters), Papa Grows Funk and Bo Diddley,” Basso says. “Right from the beginning, that effects us musically, both as professionals in the industry and to be just that much better, able to hang out with artists of that caliber.”This year’s New Orleans trip promises a second year of performances with Nocentelli at the Mermaid Lounge and more shows with P-Nut Daniels, in addition to a sure-to-be-memorable stop along the way at an out-of-the-way joint in Amarillo, Texas.Last spring’s foray into the Big Easy, including a stint playing with Papa Grows Funk at the notorious Maple Leaf Bar, proved to be the group’s most surreal — and life-affirming — musical experience, with oodles of famous names literally rubbing shoulders with the mountain foursome.”When you find yourself helping Steve Winwood push his Hammond B-3 down the street, with Johnny Neel helping out, you realize you’re in a very strange place,” says Armistead. “We’d never felt quite as close to that whole rock ‘n’ roll feeling as that.”Introduced to Daniels a few years back through mutual musical friends, the band says it was his support that truly convinced the group they had a brighter future.”Playing with P-Nut really opened people’s eyes to us and gave us a sense of instant recognition,” Armistead says. “And that’s strange, because he’s really the most down-to-earth, sweet guy. When he came out here to play with us, he stayed in my guest bedroom and brought out these crazy videotapes of ‘Mad TV’ and ‘Chapelle’s Show’ — you’re not going to experience anything more bizarre than sitting around with your musical hero, watching sketches about the black Wizard of Oz. I guess he’s just that way … he really digs what we do.”The group admits that its recent wintertime experience, serving as backing band at 8150 to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Bo Diddley — now a huge plus on the band’s resume — was considerably more intimidating. Left to fend for themselves to learn the core of Diddley’s tunes, Little Hercules only met up with Diddley to discuss the set list 20 minutes before they hit the stage.”He actually spent most of his time telling us these vampire stories and how he was a vampire himself,” recalls Burki. “But he played directly off the cuff, and we were able to keep up. I’d see him dropping signs to me, lowering four fingers, and sometimes I couldn’t tell what he meant.””Luckily, we did our homework and everyone got to play and have a good time,” says Kabel. “It was a really good experience to play with someone of that stature.”Crossing paths and sharing music with major artists has given the band a significant ego boost, as well.”Ultimately, an experience like that not only influences us musicially but spiritually, as well,” Basso says. “When it comes to creativity, if we’re on an even keel, spiritually, the creative side just accelerates.”Representing the funkitudeThis summer, Little Hercules plans to launch its first West Coast run, hitting spots from San Francisco to Seattle — and, with any luck, landing a spot opening for a major act such as the Radiators on a national tour. They’re also open to finally securing a positive record deal — their CD remains self-promoted, although they’ve been able to get distribution through the Tower Records chain, CDBaby and their own website. Having seen what happens to many bands who sign a deal and end up having their record shelved, the group’s in no particular hurry.”We just don’t want to be put in the position by some label that says, ‘boys, you gotta wear the silver jumpsuits,'” Basso says. “I see good things ahead, I just figure we’re really only about a third of the way there. It can be done, though. … We know that.””We’re still trying to feel it out,” says Armistead. “Ideally we’ll be able to go forward and do some high-exposure gigs. But there’s so many different facets of success — writing, performing live — and as a musician, you never know what’s going to pay the bills.””I can see a definite future in this,” Burki says. “In the end, it’s a business, but it’s still a lot of fun. A lot of good things have happened to us and I’ll be excited to see what else comes. For now, it’s a cosmic thing … we’re just going along for the ride.” By Andy Stonehouse

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