By Jake Rossen
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In other words, there is no predictable type of Meal fan--only a diverse horde caught up in a cross-cultural vibe of naughty abandon that hasn't reverberated this well since the halcyon days of Purple Rain--a time percussionist and vocalist Ken Chastain remembers well. "Spicy and I went to Minneapolis Central [High], which is where [Prince's] scene came from. It was a cool time to be there, in the late '70s and early '80s; it seemed like everyone knew Prince. And he was around--he stopped in at school a couple of times when I was going there. It was all tied to this unity thing, and we still believe in that shit, you know? But at the same time, you can't force it; we didn't get together and say, let's have the white guy rap and the black guy be from Iowa, or anything else. What has happened has just happened."
"There's an energy that flows through the room when this band is playing that attracts people from all races and ages and whatever, because it doesn't have anything to do with that," says singer Julius Collins, the black guy from Iowa. "It is simply about making a comfortable environment where people feel safe in being who they are. And also, that empty space between a band and the people that come to see it was never there. I think that's because in the beginning, we would get together just to hang out and play with each other. We never really thought of ourselves as a band."
Greazy Meal is indeed a child of the
incestuous local music scene. A few years after graduating from Minneapolis Central, Scott and Chastain formed the band Beat The Clock with monster bassist Jim Anton, who Chastain had dragged to Minnesota after meeting him at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Anton also spent the late '80s playing duets for spare change on the street corners of Uptown and Nicollet Mall with Greazy Meal saxophonist Brian Gallagher, who later served a long stint in Prince's New Power Generation with Greazy Meal keyboardist Tommy Barbarella. Gallagher also played in TC Jammers with Collins, who used to sing in Black Julius, and has shared more than one session with drummer Dave Anania. Last but not least, Greazy Meal guitarist John "Strawberry" Fields had played with and/or produced records for practically all the bandmembers.
The actual genesis for the band occurred when Prince wanted Gallagher to record a funky, Kenny G-styled lite jazz record for his NPG label about three years ago. Gallagher called Fields, the house producer for October Records, and a group was assembled and tracks laid down at Funkytown, the St. Louis Park studio owned by Fields's uncle and mentor, Steve Greenberg (best known for the '70s dance smash "Funkytown," which he released under the name of Lipps, Inc.).
Like many projects connected with Prince, Gallagher's record got lost in the shuffle and nobody got paid, but the band from those sessions continued to meet at Funkytown on Monday nights to jam over beatbox tracks and paw over tunes by Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, and Sly and the Family Stone. Everybody was having so much fun that they decided to try it out in public for four Sunday nights at the Cabooze, calling themselves Greazy Meal after one of the abortive songs on Gallagher's disk--and because "greazy," of course, is slang for funky.
At first only about 30 or 40 people showed up, most of them other musicians who'd been in bands with the folks onstage. And that was fine with Greazy Meal; playing to the loose-limbed, jam-oriented ambiance, they put a couch on the stage and invited people up, either to play or just sit around. Both a prop and a gesture, the couch accompanied a populist set list that included tunes like Michael Jackson's pre-surgery "Never Can Say Goodbye," Sly's "You Caught Me Smiling," and Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic." The crowds started swelling, fueled by word-of-mouth that praised this funky conglomeration who played '70s material the old-fashioned way, with rubbery, in-the-moment vibrancy.
It could have stayed that way until the grooves lost their elasticity and the scene devolved into self-congratulatory nostalgia. "We've all played in enough bands in enough clubs and bars to realize that music alone can't compete with shorter and shorter attention spans; we knew we had to make it more visually interesting," says Scott, who worked his way into the band by occasionally jamming with them on Sundays, while his wife, Leah, danced at the back of the stage. Both were encouraged to participate by Anton, whose connections to the performing arts community include a collaboration with New York's innovative off-Broadway troupe Blue Man Group, and who claims to "get bored watching bands even when I love their music."
Scott contacted Chad Litch, one of Leah's classmates at the North Carolina School of the Arts, who was working in Minneapolis as a stage designer for the Guthrie. Told that the Greazy Meal stage could be his creative playground and that 800 to 1000 people would see his work every week, Litch jumped in with both feet, bringing props over from the Guthrie shop. There's King Boy, a gold-painted, naked statue; and the Bubble Blizzard, which for awhile was pumping soap bubbles out of King Boy's pecker. The stage was strewn with old Fat Albert records, and a bean bag chair joined the couch as furniture. Although Litch has left town, the theatrical vibe remains, particularly in the second set, when the dancers assume more prominent roles and, at some point, the bandmembers don paper hats and toss Taco Bell burritos into the audience. Even those with short attention spans usually stay engaged.