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The conversation begins a half-hour late in a Greektown coffee shop on the Sunday before the predicted big storm. The Music Menu isn’t open when three-quarters of the Brothers Groove show up for an interview, ready to talk about the new direction of one of Detroit’s most original bands. They leave a card on the door, a polite message on a very late reporter’s answering machine, then move around the corner to smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, eat pastries and wait. There is so much they want to say.
This was not how I want things to begin. But by the time the interview ends, nearly three hours have passed. The joy of a dream fulfilled infuses TBG co-founder Chris Codish with more energy and enthusiasm than he is able to share in any short period of time.
“My whole life I’ve been making this stew, and now I feel like dinner is served,” he says.
When he talks, Codish wears the kind of smile powered from a satisfaction generated deep within. It is the same smile his band mates pass around and share among themselves like a treasured heirloom — or a secret. Keyboard wizard Codish, bassist Jim Simonson and guitarist Erik Gustafson are happier than any three guys in the same band have a right to be.
The next night at Fifth Avenue Billiards in Royal Oak, where TBG have a standing Monday engagement, I get to meet drummer Todd Glass. Glass flashes that same secret smile. A TBG member since September, Glass was recruited about a week before Gustafson dropped anchor.
The addition of the guitar slot to the formerly unconventional three-piece lineup of keyboards, bass and drums created just as many opportunities for terror and wrong turns as it did for growth and development. It was a risk. But if there is one guitar player worth the risk, it is Gustafson, who has recorded on Knitting Factory and other labels with the likes of Blue Dog, Jazzhead and Larval.
He delivers an appropriate mix of funk, rock and jazz chops, tempered with the kind of experience and maturity that enables him to defy GPD — Guitar Player’s Disease. The man doesn’t overplay. He knows what’s needed, when it’s needed and where it’s needed. Given the unusual TBG dynamic — the music defies categorization — Gustafson turned out to be a perfect fit.
Relentless and infectious rhythm provided by Simonson and Glass propel Gustafson’s riffs and Codish’s hectic forays across his keys. Codish’s voice, a blend of Dr. John and Zappa with the sensibilities of both, is alluring, as the gaggle of shapely dancers writhing in front of the bandstand attests.
So does it really feel that good to be in the Brothers Groove?
Right about now, yes it does. The band’s momentum is undeniable. It is one of 12 from Detroit invited to stage a showcase at the upcoming South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
But if that question had been asked in August, there might have been a different answer. Codish was experiencing the end of a long-term relationship while dealing with the very real possibility that the Brothers Groove might be unraveling.
What do you do when your dreams run dry? Find new water and drink up.
Maybe that sounds too easy. After all, the Groove’s loyal followers know these guys took a risk few are willing to take in this city — they made the conscious decision to be original. To be an original band in Detroit playing original tunes and rearranged standards is usually an invitation to subsist on crackers and water.
But the Groove would not be moved. A musical vision was stitched into its collective consciousness like iron thread. Slowly, the vision began to bear fruit.
After playing little out-of-the-way clubs that were willing to allow the group’s unconventional sound to be heard, the Brothers Groove released its first CD, Clamp It Down. The disc, recorded in the group’s own rehearsal space, received very positive reviews and attracted significant attention both locally and nationally. The Brothers Groove have been nominated for nine Detroit Music Awards and have won four.
The crowds soon materialized. They were anxious to hear, smile, laugh and dance to the sometimes sly, frequently humorous funk/rock/jazz/you-name-it beat being tossed off the stage like the sweat raining off James Brown’s forehead.
Life was about to be good. Liftoff was imminent. And then things fell apart.
Neither Codish nor Simonson admits to knowing the real, deep-seated reason why original drummer Mike Caskey left the group, the city and the state. They seem a bit mystified, especially since there was no real bad blood involved and no particular key event that anyone can point to. It just happened. That’s all.
“When folks ask us what happened to him, we say he was eaten by a bear,” says Codish, easing into a sly grin.
Right. Anyway, whatever happened to Caskey — or the bear, for that matter — the point here is that the Groove was almost no more.
“Everyone who was close to the band was worried,” says Codish. “We sensed it from a lot of people, like, ‘Who’s gonna replace Mike?’”
But then came September, and with September came Todd Glass, who cut loose a couple of projects to work with TBG, and then Gustafson, the band’s eldest member.
Just like that, the Brothers got themselves a brand new Groove.
Those who may only be familiar with the Brothers Groove of then should know that a quantum leap has occurred in the band’s sonic, and in some ways philosophical, evolution. This is a group whose range of cover tunes spans from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
“We’ll mix it up, man. That’s what I notice. The diversity,” says Gustafson, whose raw-edged voice and watchful, measuring eyes betray evidence of having been around the block a few more times than his band mates.
As for the new CD, which is currently in the works, expect all originals.
“Our lyrics are still kind of topical,” says Codish. “The new record is inspired by living in Detroit.”
Adds Simonson, “It’s not a painstaking process for us to write. We have so many song ideas that we don’t have time to get down. This band has records and records and records to go. We get uncomfortable being safe.”
To say the least. On Monday evening, the night when the big storm was supposed to have clamped down, the Brothers Groove draw a full house at Fifth Avenue Billiards in Royal Oak. True to form, the foursome rips through a dizzying array of music — and the crowd digs it all.
After the break, safety flies out the back door. Wearing a short-sleeved red T-shirt with the words “Detroit Muscle” emblazoned across the front, Codish leads the band into one of the funkiest versions of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” I’ve ever heard. Come to think of it, I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone else do this song as a cover. With Simonson popping off greasy thick funk lines that lock like a vice into Glass’ razor-sharp drum rhythms, Codish eases off the stage and onto the dance floor with the microphone to assume a rather comfortable position between two or three obliging ladies. They surround him as he continues to belt out in a voice that is as distinct and separate from Gil Scott’s as Coke is from Vernor’s.
But both are good, right? It’s all in what you prefer. It may not be safe, but it works.
Oh, how it works.
Check out the rest of our features on this year's talented Blowout artists:
• Go back to the future with The Bloody Holly’s
• Clone Defects front man Tim Vulgar lives the punk life
• esQuire’s frenetic but fabulous rise to fame
• Robert Jones is Detroit's quintessential bluesman
• The Kielbasa Kings' tale of accordions, beer and never-fail pickup lines
• Inside King Gordy's heart of darkness
• Miz Korona shines through the hype and distractions
• Stowing away on Sista Otis' path to enlightenment
• The Von Bondies are on the edge … but of what?
Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.