Big Deal Meal

Meanwhile, the band also enhanced its sound. The defection of original drummer Dorian Crozier (who moved to L.A. to join the Rembrandts) and keyboardist Matt Rhode (who went off to play with Isaac Hayes) deprived the group of two ace musicians, but the replacements have more than compensated. Along with Scott and the two dancers, the newer members include keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, who had toured extensively with Prince and co-written the title track for Spike Lee's film Girl 6, and drummer Dave Anania, whose martial tone and jazz sensibility sharpen and expand the rhythm in all the right places.

Thus emboldened, Greazy Meal decided it was time to try and be something more than just a wildly successful cover band. Expectations weren't high: bandmember John Fields actually counseled his Uncle Steve's October Records label against investing in the project, because he wasn't sure the group could generate its own quality material.

But after circulating rough tapes of song ideas amongst each other, they holed up together for a solid week at Funkytown--an experience Julius Collins describes as "like an intense slumber party"--and emerged with a debut CD of credible originals entitled Visualize World Greaze. On its own merits, it's nothing special--a decent mixture of pop hooks, slippery funk, soulful balladry, and goofy humor. But to the band and its legion of fans, it's proved a powerful tonic. Now when the Meal goes into its frantic Sunday night drive, with the bubbles blowing, the burritos flying, the dancers swaying, and the crowd in a sweat-soaked frenzy, it's likely to follow up a stankin' rendition of Bill Withers's "Use Me" or "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey" with "Unfaithful," "Old Soul Cafe," or some other original--and not only get away with it, but send the energy level a notch higher. It is an experience that has deepened their camaraderie, bolstered their confidence, and unearthed something that they have been careful to keep under wraps: their ambition.

"I'm talkin' about steel cages! I'm talkin' about midget wrestlers!"

Spicy T's voice booms out from the speakers in the Funkytown control room, drawing appreciative chuckles from his assembled bandmates. Spicy explains that the spiel was lifted from a series of prank calls that he recorded, this one to a local welder, in which he passes himself off as a hard-bitten wrestling promoter looking to get some cages built, on the double, for an upcoming match. Fields, the group's resident production whiz--who admits that one of his passions is attempting to "decode" a sumptuous mix for a song, "like a math problem"--is trying to find a way to incorporate Spicy's hoax into a tune. Bandmembers are sprawled out in various positions on the couches and floor of the control room: Kat Sway is painting Julius's nails, and everyone else is likewise killing time, waiting for the weekly business and organizational meeting to begin.

There's lots to talk about; business is good. A premaster CD pressing of Digitalize World Greaze, featuring remixes of the songs from Visualize World Greaze, had arrived earlier in the day. The commercial release date for the remix CD is March 11, barely four months after the official release of Visualize. As Fields explains, "Beck, Björk, Bowie, U2, Smashing Pumpkins--they're all doing the same thing. You can't just put mikes in front of your instrument anymore and record it; you've got to distort it, phase it, stick it through an amp. You've got to be radical or pigeonholed, like our pigeonhole is that we do a '70s funk thing. Well, that's not all we do or all we're going to be." Sure enough, the rough cassette he gives me of Digitalize, while not in the same league as Björk or Tricky, sounds more adventuresome and alive than Visualize, and is a canny blending of the verities of the soulful mid-'70s with the vanguard of the technological mid-'90s.

Whatever its shortcomings, Visualize was not commercially unsuccessful, paying for itself in three months--a noteworthy achievement for a self-released local debut. "We're lucky enough to have a weekly gig that allows us to make and promote an album on our own," Fields notes. "Right now we also have two managers, essentially. The point is, we're doing it ourselves, and we're making enough to support ourselves modestly and pay for things other bands can't afford."

The larger point is that the Meal are currently in that rarefied zone in a band's development where goals and dreams still seem gilded with magic and yet just maybe within their grasp, a time when romance and commerce converge. It's a time to go for it, and that's exactly what the band is doing. After years as a catch-as-catch-can cover band, Greazy Meal will head down to the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas--the major showcase for national music talent--in a full-fledged rock 'n' roll tour bus that sleeps ten.

Meanwhile, this Thursday, the group will host "Triple Bypass" at First Avenue, a multi-media extravaganza that encapsulates the band's artistic and commercial ambitions. On the bill are various performance artists from other cities who Anton hopes to network with for future collaborations. The group describes performers walking on stilts, playing ping-pong under strobe lights, interactive video, and a phalanx of DJs in both the mainroom and the 7th St. Entry. The band had long wanted to stage a similar sort of show at its home base, the Cabooze, but the space simply wasn't big enough.

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