For one night, Lack of Afro will return to Flint

Ed Davis, The Flint Journal, Fri, December 24, 2010


FLINT — For many music fans in the Flint area, the lack of the psychedelic funk groove laid down by Lack of Afro has left a void in the local music scene ever since the group disbanded in 1996.

But now the long wait is over: Lack of Afro is staging its triumphant return to the stage on Sunday for the Second Annual Rock ’n’ Roll Benefit Bash at Churchill’s Food and Spirits.

A bit of history: Lack of Afro began in 1991 as a studio project when vocalist Brian “The O-Man” Orr, guitarist “Iron” Steve Sokola and producer Todd Totten started working on some songs to put out on cassette.

“We were using a lot of studio samples, multi-track layering and tape loops,” says Orr. “It was never intended to be a live band because the songs were too layered and dense to play in a live setting.”

The early studio version of Lack of Afro produced two cassettes. But what really came out of those tapes, Orr says, “is that we realized we had some good songs that with a little reworking could be played live.”

Jump ahead to 1993, to the live era of Lack of Afro. Orr and Sokola added drummer Chad “Fido Kennington” Knight, bassist Ross “R.B. Suave” Barkey, and Mike “The Big V” Makuch on saxophone and guitar.

“Our early influences were Parliament Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone,” Barkey says. “Lack of Afro is pretty much built from the P-Funk and Sly Stone catalogs.”

Knight adds, “Brian’s a little hipper than most of us and has always been ahead of the curve. He saw the beginnings of hip-hop and rock coming together with bands like 311 and thought that was a novel idea. We started taking a little of that concoction and mixed it into Lack of Afro sets.”

The band grew to include another percussionist, the late Mike “Boom Boom” Wilson on congas, and they began working with multiple DJs to add layers to their live shows.

“We had kind of a revolving door approach to musicians,” Barkey says, “Brian, Steve, me and a drummer, usually Fido or Boom Boom, was the infrastructure and everything after that was gravy. We’ve had people come in and out of LOA, sometimes adding their particular magic only for a gig or two. There were times when we’d have 10 people on stage. It really took on a life of its own.”

Knight says, “It’s the ‘stage as party’ approach to playing music and it really worked in Lack of Afro. It’s one of the first bands I was in where we could really jam and it didn’t seem forced.”

The rhythmically heavy funk benefited from the band’s “open-arms policy,” which essentially meant that other musicians — especially drummers and percussionists — were always welcome to sit in, becoming a member of Lack of Afro for a night. Sometimes they even became official members, as was the case with drummer Scott Hawkins and guitarist Jason Ferris.

“I was a friend and fan first,” Hawkins says. “I’d be at shows and sometimes they’d call me up on stage to help out on percussion. Then I started showing up for practices. I think they kept forgetting to lock the door.”

Tight musicianship is a hallmark of Lack of Afro, as is the “you never know what to expect” vibe.

As Orr explains it, “We wanted everyone — the audience and the band — to have a good time. And we always seemed to find people who wanted to play in LOA who were hip to that. Ross would wear a cape, sunglasses and moon boots to become R.B. Suave. I had a purple velour jumpsuit custom-made to wear at shows and sometimes I’d wear a gorilla costume and a wicker hat. It was unpredictable. We also had theme shows like a toga party and a pirate party. I wish I had pictures of the conga line.”

Lack of Afro is looking to re-create the party for this reunion show and some members are flying in especially for the show.

“Iron Steve is flying in from Flagstaff, Arizona,” Barkey says, “and guitarist Jason Ferris is coming from Portland, Oregon.”

Jason Ferris and Scott Hawkins were both members of Lack of Afro in the later years. Along with vocalist Amy Blevins, the two former members of Evil Green were part of what Orr calls the “new direction of Lack of Afro.”

“Amy is an amazing singer,” Orr says. “She was a friend of the band for years before she expressed an interest in singing with us. We’re definitely going to feature songs written during her time with the band and since LOA relies heavily on percussion, Amy’s bringing her tambourine.”

The evening of music will also feature Flint favorite DRAT playing its mixed bag of revved-up cover tunes and Ween tribute band By Ween. Rounding out the festivities will be DJ Rapture, aka Nathan Wilson, son of the late Lack of Afro drummer Mike “Boom Boom” Wilson.