On the Road with Wise Monkey Orchestra

Hop in the van with Wise Monkey Orchestra as San Diego’s seven headed rhythm monster moves the groove from town to town through the Colorado Rockies.

by Lee Abraham

Ten towns in eleven days. Two vans, one trailer, seven musicians, their manager, a soundman and yours truly. A traveling circus of groove missionaries fueled by Red Bull energy drinks and blueberry pancakes, on the road through the Rocky Mountains spreading their polytonal gospel of swanky and decadent spirituality. A study of music in motion courtesy of a band from southern California called Wise Monkey Orchestra.

Evolving from its hard funk, techno-laced origins in the brain baking summertime heat of Tempe, Arizona, WMO has matured into a jazzier, more sophisticated groove machine. Ever since the band’s very early days, WMO has aggressively toured throughout the west. The rigors of the road have fueled the band’s evolution into the swaggering seven headed rhythm monster it’s become over the past several years.

During the almost five hour drive from Las Vegas to WMO’s hometown in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego, where they moved -as a band- about five years ago, my thoughts drifted with the high clouds of the southwestern skies. Listening to "Make Believe," WMO’s ’98 release and 3rd independently produced CD, visions of sun washed pastel buildings, tall palms with large, green fans waving slowly in the soft breeze, and the gentle white water splash of waves crashing the smooth sands of Ocean Beach danced abstractly in my mind. Funny how the sexy sort of Southern Cal exotica is mirrored in WMO’s current music...

I marveled at the array of sounds and styles coming together in one seamless musical statement as the CD spun from one track to the next. Of the 30,000 or so independent bands currently slugging it out in the music biz, there’s nobody out there with a more distinctive or original sound than WMO. Pondering the ongoing development of WMO’s genre bending music and the players behind the unique sound, I knew that the next week and a half would be chock full of surprises as I immersed myself in their world.

Journal entry #1- Yellow dots stream towards us, then past us, racing by the left side the van. The asphalt is smooth and the Northern Arizona skies are pale blue. The air is see-your-breath crisp. This is day #2 on the road and we’re enroute to Telluride. Last night’s tour kickoff at the venerable Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff went well. Situated inside Monte V’s cool little split-level lounge, Wise Monkey was greeted by about a hundred or so north country kind folk looking to shake their bones on a Wednesday night.

Rich Maloney, soundman supreme who’s worked with Ratdog, Hot Tuna, and Dave Mathews to name a few, is along for this swing through the Rockies. Sporting a New York attitude that has only yielded minor adjustment in his decade plus career of engineering sound on the road, Maloney’s presence is giving the tour an air of extroverted professionalism. In his early thirties, red hair cut short and built in the mold of a scrum-crunching Rugby player, the guy is a prototypical sound guru. Armed with a high-tech laptop program that analyzes the acoustics of each venue for optimal sound, Maloney was able to dial in the Monte V’s rectangular room quickly.

At one point things were so giddy that Sean Hart (keyboards) waved Maloney onstage to partake in the jam. Giving the animated engineer the controls to the WMO -freak station-, a keyboard of sound effect samples, Hart and the rest of the band were all smiles. Having all the different elements of WMO’s multifaceted ensemble balanced and mixed onstage as well as in the room is no easy task, and it sure makes a helluva difference!

From my vantage point on the dance floor last night, WMO’s multitude of stylistic components were synergistic and indistinguishable... the music was its -own- thing. Not a patched together jabberwocky of various and sundry sonic spare parts, rather a holistic and irresistible force of nature’s rhythms. Propelled by horn charts drawn on blackboards from the jazz school of rhythmic funk, the slide trombone of Andy "AG" Geib is understated and deeply melodic; his occasional flute solos add an ethereal texture to WMO’s sound. Ed Fletcher on drums and Chad Stewart on bass are all about gyrating, danceable grooves. Most of the rhythm section’s tempos are upbeat, yet unhurried.

Scotty Homan on guitar would have been Sun Ra’s choice for six string space traveler had the two ever crossed paths. On rhythm Homan is a funk master, as a soloist his beyond-bop phrasings and melodic abstractions are unlike any other guitar player on the scene. When it comes to vocalists, most bands are lucky to have -one- quality singer. WMO has -two! Alley is a May West meets Acid Queen cocktail who intoxicates a room with her sultry, evocative vocals. Tim Pacheco is a -pure- jazz vocalist. His sense of melody is stunning. Pacheco also plays inspired percussion and a pretty good trumpet as well.

Bringing strains of techno and an underlying sonic mischeviousness, Sean Hart on keyboards and electronica adds the sort of stuff that might result from a Herbie Hancock and Kraftwerk collaboration. As founder and wise monkey visionary, Hart leads the rest of the orchestra into the next dimension of their sound.

The first night on the road with WMO reinforced my belief that this band is onto -something-. Something new and exciting! A jazz-funk-groove-acid-jam hybrid that grabs unsuspecting listeners by the seat of the pants with an accessibly melodic danceability and then launches them into orbit with free space explorations of uncharted improvisation. Making sense of the WMO sound, where it’s been, where it’s at now and where it’s going, would require a scientific approach. In a moment of groove inspired analytical clarity, I decided to focus on a particular aspect of the orchestra each night during the tour. Considering this in itself to be a major step toward meeting my deadline for this story, my brain took the rest of the night off, handing the keys to the consciousness over to my dancing bones for the next shift of reality.

That was last night. Right now we’re cruising northeast and most of the guys are in an advanced state of deep snooze. We had a little breakfast and are once again in motion. It was a good show last night and now that everybody’s fed their belly and head, it’s siesta time. Anyway, we’re still a few hours out of Telluride and the yellow dots just keep streamin’ by...

Journal entry #2 Damn, it was cold when we pulled into Telluride. BRRRR!!.... Even the locals were whining about how frigid it was. Not only was it stiff- nipple-tip chilly, the altitude up here is an ass kicker. It robs your lungs quick. Fortunately, tonight’s venue, -Fly Me To the Moon-, has pretty easy access for loading and unloading.

Wise Monkey’s super funky horns, particularly Andy "AG" Gieb on slide trombone, is the band’s most readily apparent -jazz- element. Punctuating rhythms with honey dipped and ingeniously charted phrases, AG creates irresistible movement within WMO’s carefully engineered arrangements. Pulsing red-eyed and smiling syncopated Mardis Gras backbeats, the voice of AG’s slide trombone can sing with a drunk and funky dance-naked-’til-the-sun-comes-up sort of hedonism; a velvety Jack Daniels and gumbo texture that underlies a great deal of WMO’s sound. By nailing just the right points in a song that mark a chord change or critical melodic phrase, his horn work at times gives WMO a clean -Tower of Power- sort of vibe. When accentuating a melody with short spurts of ‘bone tone behind the vocals, AG’s articulation is impeccable. By not overplaying his part, the guy -contributes- to the dynamics; a -less is more- concept I believe will be a key to enlightenment as the journey into the stylistic heart of the monkey unfolds.

During the course of last night’s show AG did all of the above, and then some. Clean cut and bordering on preppy, AG is a lady magnet. As a soloist, the guy is a red-in-the-cheek high pressure system of melodic sensibility. Simply fierce... But even more than the solos, the rhythmic power of the slide is no doubt, the first key to the WMO -sound-...

Right now we’re back in the van and about an hour out of Vail. Tonight’s show is at -Gartons- and it just so happens that the World Championship of skiing is in town this weekend. Can you say -PARTY-!?! Seems like we’re making pretty good time on the road and we’ll get into town before sunset. Journal entry #3  Arriving at -Garton’s-, we found the vibe to be festive. The walls seemed to still be resonating from Robert Walter’s 20th Congress (Greyboy’s keyboard player), who was there the night before. There was a good crowd on hand when the monkey hit the stage. Paul Pos, an old buddy of guitar player Scotty Homan and drummer Ed Fletcher that used be in a band called -Mud-, as well as -The Shepherds-, a couple of legendary Ocean Beach bands, sat in. Blowing both tenor and soprano horns, Pos was in fine form.

With the expanded horn section in the spotlight, tonight seemed to be an excellent opportunity to focus on the sublime contributions of Scotty Homan on guitar. Somewhat of a shy performer, if Homan were a boxer he’d be counter-puncher. Not that the guy has a violent streak in his body. Of all the monkeys, Homan is the quietest and most easy going. During a blazing first set, Scotty was ripping leads that morphed jazz rock into funky monkey chunks of get-up-and-dance ear candy. Note selection is the key to Homan’s solos. Melodic surprises are his specialty.

I’ve always felt that the greatest soloists not only maintain a melody, they push that melody into an places that a human voice could never find. It’s the nature of us music lovers to project ourselves -into- the music. Although we may not be singing, if a player can harness a melody that our mind’s ear can follow, we begin to -trust- the music. Something in us becomes emotionally invested in the melody. When a player can articulate unexpected melodic twists without losing the melody itself, a sense of adventure spices up the relationship between the listener and musician.

While Homan’s lead guitar is among the band’s most sophisticated elements, his rhythm work is a big part of WMO’s danceability. Maybe half of Homan’s rhythm stylings fall into the funk realm. Lots of James Brown strums that slip up and down the guitar neck, always bridging one chord to the next. Constant movement, know what I mean? Dub style reggae, with its reverb soaked tone and a unique riff-popping rhythm style that keeps his fret work bobbing and weaving in and out of the melody are the other primary colors Homan contributes to the overall WMO picture.

Last night was solid monkey biz throughout, and all the skiers from Europe and points unknown will undoubtedly be spreading Wise Monkey seeds far and wide. Right now it’s about 4:05...we’re about fifteen minutes away from -Quixote’s- in Denver, and are looking good for a 4:20 arrival. Everybody’s stoked on playing Quixotes. Last time WMO played there it was a blowout. The guys are getting a little wacky here in the van as we get close to the venue, so I better cut out now.  

Journal entry #4 I’m sitting in a very cold and stinky condo in Winter Park. Yesterday was Sunday and the band had a day off. We stayed in a motel last night and then this morning checked into another place that still stunk from the last band that stayed there. We had to open the windows and let the place air out before we could get situated there. Yuckola! Ah yes, life on the road...

It turns out that Dave Ellis, saxman for Ratdog and The Other Ones, was playing down the block at the -Bluebird- earlier in the night with his jazz ensemble. Rich Maloney, our soundman supreme knows Dave Ellis from the Furthur and Ratdog tours, so the band got backstage and invited Ellis to sit at the Quixote's gig. Although the monkey wasn’t going on until sometime after 10pm, the bar started to get crowded a little after 9pm. By the time WMO hit the stage, the place was packed and in fact, SOLD OUT!

Energy in the room was crackling as the band took the stage. Quixote’s is a small club, probably with a capacity of 125 people or so, and it seemed that everyone was there for the same reason, to check out WMO. With the collective consciousness entrained on the music, the vibe was intense, but when it was announced that Dave Ellis was going to sit in, the place went nuts. Stepping up to the stage and situating himself next to AG, Ellis’ showed why he’s one of the top horn players on the planet. Without so much as looking at a chart, he simply shredded the WMO horn lines like he’s been in the band for years.

Trading licks with AG, Ellis was shaking his head at the innovative and inspired phrasing coming out of the bone-daddy’s slide. Bouncing rapid fire riffs off each other in a hyper-speed two-way conversation, the crowd was totally into the way Ellis and AG pushed each other from one jaw dropping solo to the next... these two were on fire! If nothing else, tonight was the night that AG became a star!

After -trading fours- with AG, Ellis and Timmy got down to a jazzy little conversation of their own. Answering Tim’s oh-so-silky-smooth scat crooning with an enhanced twist on whatever melody Tim came up with, Ellis was having a great time, losing himself in the powerful, funkengruven music. Coming off the stage Ellis was shaking hands and giving high-fives as he made his way through the crowd. After that, the band was truly inspired and had no problem in keeping the intensity at a fever pitch. This was a wild night!

Not only is Ellis a master player, his presence had everybody in the band on top of the world... this gig was a jamfest smile-o-rama that just didn’t let up. Paying WMO the ultimate compliment, Ellis -came back- in the 2nd set to blow the room away one more time. The band was hitting on all cylinders; Sean’s -freak station- was gurgling techo-blast fills from another dimension; Fletcher was so -on- that he was popping beats within a beat; Chad’s bass rumbled low and infectious; Alley’s singing covered a range of emotion that she had only hinted at earlier in the tour; the whole band was exceptional!

"I had such a great time," Ellis told me later. "They had their act so together. You know, (laughs), anytime you want me man, if you got your act together like that, I'm there!" The buzz was so thick and the bliss factor so extreme, that I made an executive style decision to dance my ass off rather than try to takes notes on anything in particular. This show was all about the moment. The now. One thing I do remember was the -Sweet Leaf- closer, with the band thundering triumphantly through the Black Sabbath classic. What a capper to an amazing night of original music; a night that transcended typical bar gig reality and stepped into the realm of magic!

Journal entry #5 I’m sitting in the Alligator Lounge in Breckenridge. It’s a little after 5pm on Wednesday and the band is about midway into the soundcheck for tonight’s show. The past couple of days have been very interesting. After the triumph at Quixote’s on Saturday, the band had the day off for Super Bowl Sunday. It was Monday night’s show at The Slope in Winter Park when things got weird. The band had been so -together- up to this point, I sort of took for granted that on any given night, anything is possible on the road.

The Quixote’s show had everyone jacked up emotionally. Plus, being together in close confines for an extended period can make anyone nutty. Let alone a collection of strong personalities like this rolling barrel of monkeys. Both Alley and Tim are quick witted and animated... expressive and at times, aggressive. Highly creative types that can purr little a kitten or growl like a tiger. Five months pregnant at the time of this trip, Alley is a trooper dealing with the road, the smoky barrooms and just the physical exertion of fronting the band. Tim, a father of three, doesn’t like being away from his family for too long.

Anyway, the bottom line is sound problems in the former ski chalet turned nightclub, with its tall sloping ceilings, huge glass windows and multilevel stage triggered a series of, shall we say, discussions. Anything and everything from the timing of a note to the positioning of a drum mic. became a possible point of contention. In addition, the crowd was pretty lame during the first set which didn’t help. Having spent so much time with the band, it was easy for me to hear that the groove was off. Even if only a bit. So was the chemistry. It was just one of those nights...

See, the thing is that these people are passionate about their music. Most of the time it’s a harmonious collaboration. Sometimes, like any family, there’s arguments. No punches were thrown, far from it. The friction was mostly of the body language variety. After the gig, the band split off into a few clusters to vent. Retiring early, I steered clear of any and all warring fractions. Breakfast the next morning was a splintered affair. Most of the time the band ate together, but this morning had a different energy.

Reed, Maloney and myself, the three non-musicians, pondered the situation over our morning coffees. Fortunately, the drive from Winter Park to Steamboat Springs went quickly. Now that we are bouncing from town to town up here in the mountains, the road work isn't too heavy. It’s relatively short drives from one show to the next.

The Steamboat show was at -The Inferno-, a big old rectangle roadhouse that wasn’t nearly as cool looking as the Slope, but the overall vibe was better and the sound was excellent! The collective mood going into Steamboat was more focused than I had seen from the band up to this point. Completely taking the music to another level, WMO was -on-. Although this was a Tuesday show, there was a boisterous local crowd on hand. This was a solid show from start to finish. Same players, different day. WMO’s patented polytonal funk was once again soaring from groove to groove... in the morning we all had a nice breakfast, -together-. Next stop, Breckenridge.

Journal entry #6 -The Alligator- in Breckenridge has been a raging venue for WMO over the past few tours and the band’s loyal following was out in full force for this one. So were the good people from -Red Bull-, an energy drink that sponsors WMO. The guys in the band love this stuff before a show for that little extra jolt of what’ll-do-ya-right. Ed Fletcher has the most expressive face in rock and roll. Bar none. Snarling, eyes big as a high country Colorado full moon, Fletcher’s angst fuels his drum rolls; the payoff is his smile at the end of the lick. Making eye contact with the folks up front, Fletcher’s expressions sparked the people dancing as well as the band.

This show also featured AG on some stunning flute work. The higher register solos float above WMO’s deep grooves like the laughter of the gods, celestial, melodic and inspired, AG has it goin’ on. Improvisation was the element of last night’s performance that provided the show’s highest highs. During the sound check earlier in the day the band worked out a brand new Timmy tune and it went so well they decided to break it out. Watching Tim improvise lyrics over the groove then turn to Chad, calling out the chord change, and watching the song be created in the moment, the -now- was fantastic!  

Journal entry #7 We’re in Tempe, Arizona for the final show of the tour. I’m watching Maloney and Sean get the sound together. The past couple of days have been hectic and I’m finally getting caught up. Not only did Thursday’s show at the Eldo in Crested Butte pick up where Breckenridge left off, things ventured into strange new realm.

One of the more challenging aspects of the WMO experience is the experimental, improvised and way spacy freeform jams they get into. Ed Fletcher, timekeeper of dance or trance, is almost always in the middle of these tribal freakouts. From there, the combinations of players contributing to the space jams changes from night to night. When Chad gets into it on bass, the vibe gets deeply grooved with an island, world beat flavor. Add Scotty to the mix and the jam can either skank with a hard-rubba-dub-rhydm or wander into a graduate level tonality workshop. Techno-flavored monkey gurgles swirl in a kaleidoscope of sonic texture from Hart’s -Freak Station-.

Sometimes rhythmic, others abstract, these open ended explorations at the yin to the yang of WMO’s carefully engineered arrangements that are the bulk of their work. This balance is another key...

Anyway, the space and percussion jam at the Eldo by far the strangest of the tour. Sean Turner, another former member of -Mud-, sat in for an improv vocal of his own. Dark, intense and surreal, Turner was dressed in black; the slowly spinning mirror ball above bounced beams of shining light off his shaved head as he rambled about masturbation and horse radish while ambient techno grooves pulsed... Maloney swelled the sound system’s bottom end frequency, lending some of Turner’s rant inaudible. As the mirror ball slowly spun, folks exchanged raised eyebrow glances, some amused other perplexed. By any measure, it was strange...

On the way out of town, Sean’s warp speed, yet twisted imagination was inspired by a -Crested Butte Liquors- store sign. Think about darlin’, think about it... After rocking the Eldo, we cruised into Durango. Just as we tuned the radio on to KDUR 91.9, the Fort Lewis Community College Station, they busted into "Jerry’s Tune," from the -Make Believe- album! It was a very cool moment for the band...

WMO has been to the San Juan Room near the campus a few times over the past couple of years and each time it seems to get a little crazier. Before the show, Tim, Sean and Ed went down to the radio station and did a live on-air interview. As always, Sean and Tim were wild and wacky, and everybody had a good time watching their language and trying to keep it clean. Although not 100% successful in that department, they invited us back, so it must have been OK. With a 350 person capacity, the San Juan is one of the largest stops on the tour and when we split after the soundcheck there were over 200 tickets sold! By the time we got back for the show, the place was packed. In fact, it was SOLD OUT! The dance floor was a sardine can from the opening tune and the intensity didn’t let up until the bouncers cleared the place out at about 2am.  

Journal entry #8 Flash forward two and a half months to mid April. I’m sitting in my Las Vegas word factory looking at the photos I took on the road. The tour finished smoothly and lots has transpired since then. We got back to San Diego on a Sunday and road warriors that they are, WMO played a short set that night for a fund raiser to benefit a local musician. The next day, I said -THE NEXT DAY!-, the band went into the studio to start their new album.

Fresh from the road and cookin’ like nobody’s business, they laid the basic tracks for 12 songs in two and half days! The first six were one-shot, first take gems. Things went so well Dave Ellis flew in a few weeks later to record on several tracks. For me, the trip was a blast. I enjoyed seeing the band every night, but upon reflection, I see that the greatest satisfaction came from getting to know the members of the band as individuals. As -people-. Learning about who they are and where they’re coming from has helped me appreciate what they do as the group called Wise Monkey Orchestra.

From the band’s standpoint, the wintertime swing through the Colorado Rockies was also a success. "The tour came off better than we could have hoped for," Sean told me while we were in the studio. "We got a chance to really work out the tunes before we hit the studio, which was cool. Of course, hooking up with Dave Ellis was key. You know, every time we go back to those Colorado towns we have great time. Seeing the people that support us in each town is really what keeps us going. The next step for us is to make a dent on the east coast. Hopefully that’ll happen soon."