For a guy who makes his living — hell, draws nearly his every breath — from da funk, it was only a matter of time before Dave Watts made this pilgrimage.
This year’s series of Motet and Friends trib gig finds Watts fronting a 12-piece band, playing the music of what many consider the absolute sine qua non of ’70s funk ’n’ soul ’n’ R&B, Maurice White’s Earth, Wind and Fire.
It may be hard to overstate the utterly foundational importance of EWF, now nearly 40 years since the beginning of their classic period. Picking their cues from Motown and jazz artists like Ramsey Lewis (for whom EWF founder Maurice White played drums in the late ’60s), and playing counterbalancing sweet-pop craftsmen to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic chaotic genius, EWF redeemed the promise that all their influences made in the 1960s — velvet-smooth vocal harmonies, massive horn charts, accessible and enduring songwriting, and fiendishly detailed rhythm sections.
And for all of that, they went on to become one of the most popular and storied pop acts of the ’70s — at their best, during their heyday of Open Our Eyes (recorded at Caribou Ranch) and That’s The Way of the World, the band could reel off blistering dance numbers, breezy and effortless ballads and marksman-precise R&B-pop with alchemistic co’s dreary, corrosive influences around the turn of the 1980s, EWF had established itself as a generational hallmark.
Great pop music, for the most part, typically owes its durability to simplicity, but as Watts learned once he dove into the material, EWF managed that rare feat of being both AM-radio friendly and a deeply musical musician’s band.
For Watts, the only real way to explore the band’s versatility and range was to plow into the live recordings.
“One reality is that EWF didn’t play one version of all these songs,” Watts says. “If you listen to their live recordings, they changed these songs up every year they went out on tour, so there are so many possibilities of how to play this material. So, I basically just sat there and dug into all the live stuff I could find and just put together all my favorite moments from all these songs, and created our own arrangements. It was pretty heavy.”
“For a funk band,” Watts continues, “this is just the most involved, most musical group that was ever out there. … I think it was structured around a lot of different aspects, ’cause there were a lot of different writers in the group. Some songs came from the keyboard player and had a lot more jazz fusion, some came from [Denver native] Philip Bailey, which really focused on the vocals, and some came from Maurice, and that was really heavy rhythm stuff.
“And they did a lot of group songwriting too, which is why every song has so much going on. Everybody put their two cents in. They were literally a band for 10 years, with the same lineup, so they really had this group dynamic to how they wrote this material. It wasn’t just one thing — every song had all this harmony going on, all this melody, all this rhythmic stuff.”
Watts concedes that it took him a little bit of time and torqueing up the confidence in himself, his group and his co-conspirators to take this thing on. In part because of the deep reverence he has for the music and the legacy, and in part because this stuff is just a bruising workout to play. Or, at least, play right.
“Literally, it’s been 10 years in the making. I decided the day after last Thanksgiving that we were doing this show. And I’ve been working ever since putting this music together. Every year, it’s been, ‘Phew, we’re not ready for this.’ … Just between the horn players, the singers, the material, it’s just so daunting. But, you can only say no so many times. So, it’s like, ‘OK … do it.’” Watts tapped erstwhile Motet vocalist/collaborator Jans Ingber to handle lead vocals, along with Paul Creighton, who heads up the Portland-based R&B/pop band Intervision and who also sang at last year’s Motet Sly tribute shows, and solo vocalist/keyboardist/songwriter Jarrod Lawson, also from Portland, the latter two on Ingber’s recommendation. All of these singers are plainly and profoundly influenced by the EWF/Stevie Wonder axis of ’70s soul-pop.
“Jans … has had some trepidation over the years over how to make it happen,” Watts says, “so once he was gungho with his crew of guys, I knew it was going to happen. I mean, for years, we’d be in the car traveling together, just talking about how great it would be and how we could make it work. And Garrett [Sayers], our bass player, he’s been listening to this music since he was, like, 3. He was born and bred on this stuff; his parents nurtured him on this music. They’re so excited, they’re actually flying out to catch the Denver gig.”
The logistics had us a bit baffled. Watts writes up charts, hands them out … but how soon until all dozen can actually be in one room, playing this stuff. Like … rehearsing?
Watts laughs. “Oh, that won’t happen until two nights before the first show. But I actually flew out to Portland to do a rehearsal with the singers, and we’re doing a couple of rhythm section rehearsals, and I did a rehearsal with the horn players, so all the sectionals really help. Everyone being on the same page with the arrangements, it just means it’s a matter of everyone doing their homework.”
And it’ll be a blaring, bright, falsetto-spiked spectacular, decked out in afros and mood rings and hip-hugger bells and shining stars. And musically, we reckon, a pretty wide distance from his day gig’s recent vibe, the deep burgundy cool of lightly sampled, underspoken electro-ambient/afro-Cuban house, engraved across last year’s elegant and beguiling Motet release Dig Deep.
“That kind of stuff is always in our blood, y’know?” Watts says. “No matter what we’re doing. We might be doing some electronic house, psychedelic — whatever. But I mean, in my mind, when I see people dance, I still feel the ’70s funk, ’cause that’s what I grew up on. To me, you can’t take it out. No matter what’s happening with what we play, I’ll always have that feel in my backbeat.”
At some level, maybe, we’re all James Brown’s kids.
“Ha! I’m sure he’d love to hear that,” he says.
On the Bill:
The Motet plays the Fox Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 31. Doors at 8:30 p.m. Raw Russ opens.
Tickets are $20. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.