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High-Elevation Funk: The Volcanic Funk Fest brings a New Orleans-style party to Bend 

Gabe Johnson brings New Orleans funk to Bend with his creation: the Volcanic Funk Fest.

click to enlarge sound_bigsamsfunkynation.jpg

In 2009, Gabe Johnson was down in the Crescent City for one of that town's biggest parties, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Bend-based concert booker had a hell of a time hopping from concert to concert and club to club into the wee hours of the morning, listening to some of the funkiest acts in the world.

It was during one of these late nights as he was hearing the horns of several bands colliding in the crowded streets that Johnson began to think about bringing something like this to Bend. He knew, of course, that he was never going to replicate something on the scale of Jazz Fest, especially in Bend. But being a longtime fan of funk music who has played in several funky bands, Johnson wanted to at least give it a try, on a smaller scale. He explains his approach by taking a page out of a bayou cookbook.


"My intention isn't to recreate that festival. You can't make the same dish in Bend as you can in New Orleans. You'll never have the same set of ingredients, but you can do your best to cook a jambalaya wherever you are," says Johnson, whose day job has him heading up In the Pocket Artists, booking shows for national and regional touring acts. He's also the talent buyer for Silver Moon Brewing Co.

The musical jambalaya, if you will, that Johnson is serving up this weekend is called the Volcanic Funk Fest and features a few heavy hitters from the New Orleans scene, namely Big Sam's Funky Nation, in addition to a sizable helping of West Coast funk acts like L.A.'s Orgone and Portland funkateer Joey Porter's NW Funk All-Stars. The lineup extends to the jam band end of the funk spectrum with acts like Cast of Clowns, which features keyboard wizard Melvin Seals. The two-day party on the Century Center grounds will also feature some local acts like the omni-present MOsley WOtta (who will appear both with his band and in an MC role during the weekend), Empty Space Orchestra (joined by saxophone genius Skerik, who will be present all day Sunday) and Brett Alan and His Funky Friends.

Johnson might be on the right track with a funk-centric festival, given the success that funky acts have had when touring through Bend. In the past few years, acts like Grayboy All-Stars, Galactic and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe have played to packed rooms. And more recently, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk lit up a huge ass-shaking crowd at the Bite of Bend. This might not be the sort of music one hears on the radio, but that doesn't really matter, it's meant to be heard live, Johnson says.

"The long and short of it is that people love this music because it moves them," says Johnson, who should know a thing or two about funk music. In the '90s, he played guitar in Jive Talkin' Robots and has more recently played in Bend funk bands like El Dante and Jukebot.

"In general, people around here love the funk. This is just putting more of it together. It's an equation that's worked before, so why not supersize it?" says Johnson with a laugh.

The Volcanic Funk Fest, which is named partially as a tribute to the long-defunct Volcanic Rock Festival that took place in the Deschutes National Forest during the '90s, also featured New Orleans-themed food and drink, including crawfish, jambalaya and other bayou creations by Rockin' Daves.

While Bend isn't the sort of place where parties can rage on the street until sunrise like they're known to do in New Orleans, Johnson is nevertheless trying to push a late-night vibe with the Volcanic Funk Fest. For example, after 10 p.m., the party moves indoors (and goes 21 and up so the beer and cocktails can freely flow) on Saturday night for Big Sam's Funky Nation, the band fronted by the former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombone player. They won't take the stage until midnight, which by Bend standards is as "late-night" as you'll ever see around here. In case you haven't gotten the gist of this festival yet, it's meant to be a big fat party.

"This is my best attempt to throwing a proper New Orleans party," says Johnson, "My sort of attitude to the Bend scene is 'Show me how New Orleans you can be.'"

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