Big Deal Meal

Daniel Corrigan

It's four o'clock in the morning, Zimbabwe time, and Greazy Meal's Tom Scott is fresh off a plane from Africa. He's hanging out by the bar before a gig at the Cabooze, talking about a ritual he's just participated in known as the Meat of the Son-in-law. "[My wife's] uncle has this big, long blade, and I'm walking with him as we lead out this goat and this sheep. 'I will show you how to do it and then you do it,' he says. I was a little nervous; I'm a city kid and I've never even hunted." Scott's eyes soften with a faraway look. "When the goat was killed, the sheep knew it was going to be killed. You could just feel it.

"Zimbabwe is a very cool place, but very strange in some ways, too," continues Scott, who is white. "My wife's family is 'coloured,' not black and not white. They take heat for it from both sides. Some of that skin color stuff happens in this country, but over there they actually call people 'coloured' as an official designation. It is strange for them too, because for a long time coloured people would try to be white. Now things have changed; there's this feeling of indigenous pride that's taken over the country. Very cool, but it can also be strange."

You could call Greazy Meal, a black and white group playing black and white music for black and white people, a "coloured" ensemble. Very cool, and more than a little bit strange. Onstage two hours later, Scott emerges from behind his keyboards and percussion and galvanizes the club with a powerhouse rap that makes plain why his stage name is Spicy T. Knifing between the bean bag chair and the bubble machine, a tall, golden statue of a urinating boy perched over his shoulder at the back of the stage, he drops gloriously gruff freestyle science, his rhymes ranging from the musical aptitude of his bandmates to his recent travels. At its climax, Spicy is jutting toward the audience like a rocket fueled for lift-off, his legs shimmying and karate-kicking the air as he bellows "like an African monkey!" , his neck veins bulging, his skin flushed cherry red. The packed crowd careens and pogos in place, a multi-culti stew of flesh a thousand people strong, as the rest of the eight-piece band rides the rhythm with ragged beauty. As always, the group is abetted by two lithe dancers in skin-tight outfits who prowl back and forth across the stage with leonine grace and whipsnap fury. One of them is appropriately known as Kat Sway; the other is Scott's wife, Leah Nelson, aka The Mistress of Interpretess. She's got a delicious, semi-private grin on her face, and like the rest of the band, she's kicking some ass.

Quite simply, Greazy Meal has made a Scene. It is not a mythic scene like Koerner, Ray & Glover's folk revolution on the West Bank, the Replacements at the Longhorn, or Prince in the late '70s. But neither is it your trend of the month. Over the past two years, Greazy Meal's regular Sunday night gig at the Cabooze has blossomed into the most inclusively hedonistic local musical experience in the Twin Cities, a funky feast for the ears, eyes, and cardiovascular system.

Part of it is the music, a delirious swirl that begins before the band takes the stage, with mixes by Greazy Meal cohort DJ Jezus Juice. With the records still spinning, the band joins in one by one, a smooth, casual segue into a 25-minute acid jazz jam, featuring extensive quotes from bop legends Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker folded into a funky, seething punk-jazz rhythm. Then come the covers, relatively obscure but vintage tunes from the '70s like Steely Dan's "The Fez," Bill Withers's "Lovely Day," and the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next To You," increasingly mixed in with the band's kindred originals. Two sets and three-and-half sweat-soaked hours later, everybody goes home and marks their calendars for another Sunday.

Like all great scenes, Greazy Meal gigs are mostly about the sense of community that exists between the crowd and the band. The difference is in the demographics: The porridge of people at the Cabooze on Sunday would confound even the most sophisticated marketing survey. Among the hundreds of patrons who sell out the Cabooze and generate long lines outside the club even in sub-zero temperatures, you'd be hard-put to find a prototypical Greazy Meal fan. There's Donovan, who, barring blizzards, makes the trip down from Fargo every week, toting his kazoo for that inside-joke moment when everybody plays along. There's Gina, the Puerto Rican native who comes to watch the female dancers. There's the fortysomething neon artist in the beret who always sits impassively at the back of the room; and Erin and Michelle, two 21-year old students from the U here to meet cute guys on the dance floor. There's the woman in the wheelchair who always boogies at the left of the stage.  

Unquestionably, the most conspicuously dedicated fan (and the one cited by two bandmembers) is Bill Grimes, a tall, gaunt, chain-smoking, mixed-race dude with red-tinted glasses and an afro the size of a medicine ball. Every Sunday he stands center stage in the front row of the audience, pointing his fingers and bobbing his head at the band. Later in the week, chatting over coffee with a battered notebook and a copy of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching on the table in front of him, Grimes leaves his headphones on; when I ask, he tells me he's digging on west coast jazz-rock guitarist Eric Johnson. He is somewhat at a loss for words as to why he loves Greazy Meal so much, but I do find out that his favorite bandmember is "probably" bassist Jim Anton, and that one of the defining moments in his musical-listening career was the time the otherwise nondescript heavy metal guitarist Ian Moore blared a cover version of Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" outside the Metrodome before a Twins game. "Man, that was so rude!" Grimes says with a suddenly loud guffaw, causing a couple of coffeeshop patrons to jump in their chairs.

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.

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.

That's not the only advantage First Avenue has. "This sounds very crass and political, but here it is: Bands who get signed to major labels out of Minneapolis play at First Avenue," says Fields. "Whether it is because [First Avenue manager] Steve McClellan is the greatest booker in the

fucking country or because Prince played there for Purple Rain, that's what happens. We've been selling out the Cabooze, which is 1,000 capacity. First Avenue is 1,500. We need to say we packed that too. Because major labels want to see your Soundscan numbers and they want to know your draw. That's the important shit. And Steve McClellan talks to major league booking agents every day. And he might say Greazy Meal to one of them, that we are packing his club. 'Well, let's get them on our roster,' somebody might say, and all of a sudden we're on a tour. Those are the kind of connections we need to make.

On top of all this, the group will head back into Funkytown next week to begin work on their third CD within the past year. "The next record has to make a statement," Chastain says. "On the first one we had an excuse: 'Oh, we were just getting together, not really knowing what we had.' Well, now we know what we're capable of and it is up to us to produce it."

"This is the real thing," Fields adds. "I'm 28. I have been waiting and trying for something like this. I've tried with two other bands and produced probably 75 records. And bands break up. I don't want to be that statistic. I want to be the band that makes it and doesn't get scorned for leaving. And how many more chances do I have?" He sighs, stares at the floor, and considers his words. "And all that is probably bullshit."  

"No one is naive in this band," says Scott. "The levels of experience--some tried to make a band, Beat The Clock, happen for seven years and didn't make it; others played with Prince and performed around the world and found out that could suck. Obviously, there are no guarantees."

Anton agrees. "The needs and ego structure of the people in this group are very varied and different, and to me that is the biggest challenge. But this is also a very talented group of people who communicate with each other musically very well, and very clearly. Lately I think the problem has been that we don't leave enough time for the music. But when the music is there, it all makes sense again. Because the music we play is a just a joy."

"It's 9:30 on Sunday night at the Cabooze. It doesn't matter that Super Bowl parties dominated the social agenda for most people, or that most of us have work or school the next morning, or that the wind chills are again dangerously below zero--the club is packed and on the balls of its feet. A spirited, flute-driven remix by DJ Jezus Juice wafts over the speakers as Chastain takes the stage and starts tapping along on bongos. Then Anania answers with louder, more forceful accents, as the remix slowly fades out. Tommy is now comping on the keyboards, joined by Spicy on tambourine and Fields on guitar in a syncopated groove. Then the sax hits, the first lead instrument, followed, last and most prominently, by Anton's bass. The dry ice machine emits its own wry commentary as Barbarella's keyboard riffs go liquid and then start to blister and bubble. Anton is swinging an anchor into the bottom of the groove, Fields hits the wah-wah pedal, and the sax and bongos take up the funky invitation.

Such is the first five minutes of the Meal's traditional jazz jam. When it's over, Julius takes the stage, accompanied by Gallagher's flute for a delightfully cheesy cover of "Never Can Say Goodbye." Two songs later, the Meal orders up a long, harder-edged cover of Stevie Wonder's "Have A Talk With God," and soon the group is spinning into smittenville with Sly's "You Caught Me Smilin'."

And so it goes. The second set explodes with a rudely rushed and still riveting rendition of Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic." Anton's long bass solo cues up a cover of Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne," then it's a tribute to Fields's "Uncle Steve" via a molasses-slow version of "Funkytown," suddenly enlivened by Spicy T's breakneck rap. Down the home stretch, the originals hold sway, beginning with a gospelized "I Can't Wait," through "Urban Herbalist" (blunts lit out in the crowd, burritos delivered mid-song), and on through the fatback funk of "Unfaithful" and a 15-minute version of Bill Withers's "Use Me" that slides into some profoundly meditative greaze up to its eyes and ears. Up in front, Bill Grimes is doing a slow spin, checking out the funked-up multitude behind him, the glorious bar band in front of him. There's a peacock feather in his mushroom-cloud 'fro and a hard smile on his face that stays there for the rest of the evening. Over in Zimbabwe, it's the dawn of a new day.

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