Sold-out Vulfpeck brings formidable funk to Blind Pig

Evan Berent

By Mimi Zak, Daily Music Editor
Published April 26, 2015

The crowd slowly filled every corner and crevice of the low ceilings and perpetually dark structural borders of Ann Arbor’s beloved Blind Pig this past Saturday night. In the venue’s 40-year reign, greats such as Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M. have played some of their earliest performances. Motown’s R&B, Detroit’s punk, Chicago’s blues and more recently the techno and rap acts of the surrounding and distant areas have performed at the Blind Pig to crowds of the young, old and usually collegiate sort. The venue’s perfect geographic location between two musically inspired cities, in tandem with its rich history, has left the Blind Pig permanently established as an institutionalized hotbed of musical inspiration and excellence for the Ann Arbor area. So when a performance sells out and tickets are scalped for a show at the venue, the implication of immense incoming talent is automatically assumed.

Tickets to Saturday night’s performance bloated to almost two times their original worth the day of the show. The line to enter the venue, for those lucky enough to find tickets, traveled down the street and then wrapped itself around a nearby corner. On this unseasonably cold April night, the fans of the four-man funk band Vulfpeck were not discouraged by inflated ticket prices or the venue’s visible extension of capacity limits or the cold, because once inside, this collection of University graduates were set to deliver a raw, almost tangible performance of the most deliciously funky nature.

The boys of the band — Jack Stratton, Theo Katzman, Woody Goss and Joe Dart — met in a German literature class at the University of Michigan a couple years back. Although differing in grade and age, these individual entertainers of the Ann Arbor student musician circuit found inspirational and sonic similarities in one another. These similarities, in conjunction with each musician's genuine talent, created a band with the ability to conjure up an insane amount of groove. They posted videos to the Internet, played shows locally and nationally and eventually rose to fame in 2011.

Vulfpeck entered the music industry at a cataclysmic time. With the advent of music sharing and streaming websites such as Pandora, Spotify and the like, the second decade of the 21st century produced the children of the mother Napster. Music started appearing on web for free in uncontrolled and unprecedented amounts. Royalties and writer credit started to feel like a thing of the past — as though our society now has to reconcile to an industry of less credit and payment in the name of convenience. Jack Stratton, one of the founding members of Vulfpeck, researched these changes as they appeared.

“At the time, Spotify was fairly confusing — it wasn’t clear whether or not it was evil, but now we all know it is evil,” Stratton said, “but at the time I thought it was fine. Theo, a guitarist and drummer of the band, would tell us about how it probably wasn’t adding up.”

Before others, Vulfpeck realized these music-streaming inaccuracies and sought to gain from them. They found a loophole of the website, one that gave these young musicians an avenue to fulfill a dream: “play live, and finding out a way to pay for that.” Vulfpeck released the silent album, titled Sleepify, in March 2014 as a way to raise funds for an admission-free tour. By urging fans families, and friends to stream the album in their sleep or spare non-listening time, the band was able to raise more than $20,000 in royalties over a two-month period. Although Spotify subsequently removed the album as an apparent breach of their terms of content, the band was still able to collect the royalties and, in July 2014, announced their Sleepify tour for their newest EP, Fugue State.

“There was no information in the files, but it’s still the same tactic," Stratton explained. "I think of it as a bizarre art piece, not a gaming of the system in the sense that we are inflating fake plays. Individuals with accounts were doing it because they liked the groove and they wanted to see us live.”

And with consistently packed or nearly sold-out shows across the nation, the thirst Vulfpeck fans hold for their groove is apparently insatiable.

The artistry of Vulfpeck’s sound is minimalistic: as keyboardist and drummer Jack Stratton puts it, “once it feels good, we’re done.” Each instrument, whether it be the bass or piano or drums, plays a distinct role: singular instrument overworks or dominates a Vulfpeck production or performance. Typically presented in an unconventional structure, each of these songs vacillates in its focus. The drummer’s introduction of beats and tempo is matched by the traveling bass, which is then paired with a jazzy piano progression that carries the listener deeper into the song’s eventual apex and satisfying denouement. Lasting throughout each song as it builds and falls is the tangible, inexplicably moving sense of groove.

Vulfpeck’s simplistic musical mantra — “less is more” — works strangely, and then perfectly, in their rhythmic focus. To a listener, it’s all consuming, exciting and slightly jarring, leaving anyone interested in a ravish search for more, more, more funk. And this is a traveling band: Throughout the performance, as they do with all others, the members of Vulfpeck switch roles and instruments. Stratton explained these quick changes, reflecting, “Levon Helm historically recommended that if you want to be a rhythm player that you should learn how to play every instrument in the rhythm section.”

The band has two drummers – Theo Katzman and Stratton himself – so that they can switch it up, and then break it down, in many different roles.

“Woody can hang on a lot of instruments, too. And Theo is an amazing bassist,” Stratton said.

It’s a privilege and “dream fulfillment,” Stratton said, to “have a group where you get to move around the stage.” Watching these beacons of talent move from instrument to instrument all while telling a hilariously strange anecdote to the crowd made it even more of a pleasure, both in music and entertaining presentation. Watching as the rhythms descend and then rise up once again, that tangible groove feeling — the never artificial funk makes all the heads bob.

At Saturday night’s performance, the crowd didn’t limit their presentation of appreciation for this band’s cartoon-like groove to mere head bobs. Bodies were shaky, moving, clapping, singing, and unpredictably (but not inappropriately) gyrating. The music had taken control, only to be exacerbated by the incredibly strong list of connections these Michigan grads have with the Ann Arbor and Blind Pig music scenes.

“It felt like a hometown show, except there were so many other people there,” said Joe Dart, one of the band’s players. “The energy was incredible. And when Antwaun came on stage…” the place exploded.

“1612,” off of Fugue State, is notably their biggest hit to date. It’s similar to other tracks of the Vulfpeck brand: groovy, funky, with spontaneous slides of musical tangs and beats. But there’s an addition, the soulful voice of former gospel prodigy Antwaun Stanley, that mixes itself so perfectly to create an instant, addictive and inexplicably funky sort of sound. The lyrics are magnetic, yet random. With the song in your headphones, you're found singing along as the deep bass and excited piano follow along to Stanley’s soulful insertions. But live, with the flesh of this beautifully talented man in front you, it was hard to hold anybody back. The visible and audible excitement of the crowd as Antwaun stepped on stage to provide vocals for “1612” was an accurate display of the power of a groovy voice against a funky band providing a music-induced feeling for a crowd of people all in search of the same intangible thing: the funk.

Saturday night’s performance at the Blind Pig was most likely one of the best and sought-after shows of the year. A hometown show can do that, especially when an act has started to rise to noticeable fame. The slope of Vulfpeck's rise is growing; as they gain more fame, and as their funky sound rises closer to nationwide familiarity, this performance can go down in the Blind Pig history books. Maybe even next to that Jimi Hendrix performance way back, or Hound Dog Taylor, or that famous Nirvana show? At this packed, body-to-body, massively enjoyed performance, it’s hard not to accept the possibility of this funky, beloved Michigan band into Blind Pig performance hierarchy.