If you've been lamenting an apparent drought of funk and groove in Pittsburgh, you can quell those lamentations, at least for a night, and take note of Flow Tribe at Thunderbird Café on Thu., Jan. 22. Skeptical that your deep thirst for back-breakin' beats can be quenched? Consider that the band is from New Orleans, the members have been playing for eight years, and they're featured on main stages at the annual New Orleans Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras celebrations.
Flow Tribe plays a classic style of funk, rife with Parliament overtones, and the band's horns and pop sensibility recount early-'90s ska. The clean guitars cite a reggae influence, and the polyrhythmic percussion is classic Big Easy. Additionally, the band has that certain something in the vein of the Beastie Boys or 311, satisfying both the need to dance and the need to rage at the same time.
Flow Tribe credits Caribbean rhythms, injected by its Cuban guitar player, Mario Palmisano, and the culture of New Orleans itself, as inspirational.
"New Orleans is known as the northernmost tip of the Caribbean, and so we've observed all these different dimensions of stuff that turned us on to different sounds," explains lead singer and trumpet player K.C. O'Rorke.
Those influences can readily be heard on Flow Tribe's latest release, Alligator White, a five-song EP whose namesake celebrates the white alligator, native to Louisiana. "They stand out with their white skin and blue eyes," says O'Rorke. "And that's how we wanted this album to feel: something that stands out and is undeniable."
Alligator White is dynamic, at times touching on a prog-rock angle, then folding over to surf tones, lifted up by a horn-and-percussion section that grooves its way back to island roots. The EP ends with "Won't Be Long," the overdriven harmonica sounding as if it has just crawled out of a New Orleans swamp, and points to the band's blues connections almost as an afterthought but with no less passion and authority.
Alligator White is certainly listenable, but the full effect of Flow Tribe probably cannot be realized without attending one of its live shows.
"It's a genre of movement," says John Michael Early, the band's washboard and harmonica player. "You won't hear us do a lot of ballads."
"We're not going to cry with you," he continues, "but if you are crying, we'll help you forget whatever's troubling you."
As a six-piece, Flow Tribe is by no means the biggest band out there, but getting six guys all on the same page and touring over 100 dates a year can be a daunting task. Flow Tribe makes it work, though.
"Everyone [in the band] has bought into the idea of what we're trying to do," explains O'Rorke. "Touring has never been one of our problems. We're all 28, 29, so life itself has presented us with some new challenges and new realities. But I think, at the end of the day, we really just believe in what we're doing and we love working together.
"Playing in front of people is what we love the most," he continues. "So if this is what it takes to be successful, then this is what we have to do."
Dance music aside, Flow Tribe has a clear understanding of the current state of affairs regarding the business side of things as well. The members recently purchased an old warehouse and are currently in the process of turning it into Flow Tribe Headquarters, a recording studio and social destination all to themselves.
"Having our own spot is going to open up so many doors for us as far as producing more content," O'Rorke explains.
And with plans to forego the typical full-length album or EP — opting instead to release a song every two to three weeks — content is what the band will need. Not that any of that will be a problem: All six members are contributing songwriters.
With that much creative input, is the old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth applicable? Hardly. The respect the members have for each other is almost palpable. This comes from their history (they've been together as a band since their teenage years) and from the impetus that got them serious about making music as a living — Hurricane Katrina. As Katrina ravaged New Orleans' landscape, economy and infrastructure, Flow Tribe was a firsthand witness to impermanence and just how quickly things can change.
"It wasn't until Katrina that [we organized] our priorities," O'Rorke reflects. "After that, we became enmeshed in the New Orleans music scene. Katrina definitely made us come together and make it happen."
This week's show isn't the first time that Flow Tribe has been to town; the group was here in August and plans to return regularly.
"Pittsburgh really captured our heart," asserts O'Rorke. "We came out of that mountain, we were like, ‘Holy shit!' What an introduction to a city!"
There's more to their love of the city than the landscape, though. O'Rorke cites similarities to New Orleans in terms of cultural mentality.
"We always have a good time in Pittsburgh because the people there are really supportive of music, just like in New Orleans," he says. "I think that comes from the working-class mentality.
"People recognize when you're working hard on something and want to support it — just like in New Orleans. We're going to try to play Pittsburgh at least three or four times a year."