Music News

Funky Town

Phoenix is a tough town for bands — the city doesn't have a sound of its own (please don't count Gin Blossoms-style jangle rock), and you can count on one hand the number of bands that have made it outside of our desert metropolis. That wasn't always the case, though.

Back in the '60s and early '70s, there was a profusion of funk and soul bands that represented the 'Nix, artists like Dyke and the Blazers, Chuck Womack (whose "Ham Hocks and Beans" has become an in-demand recidivist's classic), and Michael Liggins and the Super Souls (whose 45s of "Loaded to the Gills" and "Loaded Back" were reissued by Now-Again Records in 2004).

That legacy is mostly forgotten now, unless you catch John Dixon, a.k.a. Johnny D, spinning his classic records around town somewhere. I've searched for the soul and funk around town, and excepting the group Calumet, which is absolutely mind-blowing, I hadn't found much until I happened upon a band called Chocolate Fountain on a recent Tuesday at the Yucca Tap Room in Tempe.

When I walked into the bar, the band was in the midst of an extended funk explosion that had bassist Paul Cardone (the only white guy in a band of brothers) bouncing vertically until he was in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage. It was fucking infectious, and the jam seemed like it could have gone on forever.

Singer and guitarist D.L. Harrison has a voice that breaks into the high pitches and rides the grooves like a surfer in a tsunami. Chocolate Fountain is at once atavistic and modern, an amalgamation of the ingredients from which rock was born — blues, funk, soul and gospel. The band's sound harks back to the days of Chuck Womack and his ilk, who knew how to throw down some seriously dirty funk.

Take, for example, the band's cover of Soul Coughing's "Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago." Harrison stretches the syllables in the repeated line "A man drives a plane into the Chrysler building," while Cardone lays down a rubbery bass line, and drummer J.B. Baker snaps his cymbals over the kick drum's foundation. It's a phenomenal take on a modern rock radio track, something few bands would attempt and even fewer could pull off.

The band's engineer and producer, Brian Stubblefield, who's been recording demos for Chocolate Fountain while he attends the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, knows exactly what the band has that other bands are missing, and it boils down to a feeling and a wealth of knowledge about the music that's come before.

"I think it's education about where rock comes from — it comes from the blues," Stubblefield tells me over beers in Cardone's kitchen, shortly before the group heads to the Yucca to jam out on the Monday open mic night. "That bass line and kick drum drives the songs. That's the difference between [music] here and now and what these guys are doing. It's taking rock, that's based in blues and funk, and bringing that to the forefront. When I do a mix, the kick drum and the bass drives the band. It's got to. You don't see that in other bands." That's exactly the aesthetic that Phoenix's funk and soul bands of yore actualized in the studio.

Chocolate Fountain, which also includes Charles Bond on lead guitar, has only been playing together since May of this year, but the cumulative talent and historical knowledge of the foursome, whose ages range from 24 to 48, is readily apparent. The band doesn't rehearse; the musicians play together on stages. Currently, Chocolate Fountain holds down Tuesday nights at the Yucca Tap Room and Wednesday nights at Hollywood Alley in Mesa.

Rehearsals and practice would really be redundant for Chocolate Fountain — the band never plays a song the same way twice. "Every night we play different shit," Bond, the elder statesman of the band, tells me. "The basic is there, but somebody will do something different and everybody goes there."

"I don't ever want to call it a jam band," Cardone says. "There's no hippie element to it. We're a band with open arrangements, a little like jazz. But I think it's the way people used to play rock. If Charles is getting people off — he's such an amazing guitar player — we've got to let him get at it when the crowd's focused and yelling at him to play more. It's a vibe thing."

That evening, when Chocolate Fountain hits the stage about 9:30 to kick off the open mic night at the Yucca, the band pulls out one of its tricks — a cover of the theme to Sesame Street — and the crowd of 20 or so folks is in awe, including myself. If you weren't familiar with the lyrics, you'd never know what you were listening to, because it's downright stinky with funk. This is real Americana, the roots of rock brought together with the roots of most of our toddler educations. Cardone agrees. "This is more Americana than what Americana is classified as, Springsteen and Mellencamp or whatever."

There's a scarcity of funky, soulful rock music in this town, but Chocolate Fountain ought to remind music lovers in the 'Nix that we have a rich musical history here.

"I think this band sounds the way it does and no bands approach it because most people starting bands are younger people," Cardone says. "We're a little bit more seasoned. We don't go into it like young guys. We never looked for a sound. We just totally play what we feel. We also don't give a fuck. We're not looking to get a record label. Once you get over chasing this carrot that doesn't even exist and start playing what you feel . . ."

Bond finishes the sentence for him: "That's what we do."

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Brendan Joel Kelley