“I like being eclectic,” says Mike Bennett, leader of the power-funk collective SoulGlo Orchestra, after another blistering set at The Delancey in Lower Manhattan “and in this day and age, it's really frowned upon by the industry.”
The long, narrow basement with its low stage at one end, reminiscent of a jazz club, provides an intimate setting for SoulGlo’s seriously propulsive energy that burns through a set list of instantly memorable tunes selected from a diverse and growing repertoire. For proof positive, witness the power-chord intro, rolling keyboards, and swaggering in-your-face lyrics of “Outliers,” which seem dipped in a tank-full of soul, while “Fat Fast Jack” could be pulled directly from bouncy mid-‘90s’ funk-rock zeitgeist, complete with shining guitar and sax-licks. “Black & Blue” then switches it up entirely with breezy acoustic picking and harmonizing. Yet, whichever gear SoulGlo shifts into, the destination and vision are always clear, and it’s always full steam ahead.
The SoulGlo Orchestra’s polish surely owes much to Bennett’s rich musical background. Raised in the Yale country of New Haven, Connecticut, Bennett was surrounded by music at all times. His parents are both orchestral musicians; his uncle is a composer, jazz drummer and South-Indian percussionist; and he has an aunt with a passion for Indian culture, who plays the veena and sings carnatic music. A child might find all this imposing, but, as Bennett remembers, “I was never put under any pressure to play.” But it certainly encouraged him to pick up his baby sitter’s guitar one day at the age of five. “I was so enthralled that I played till my fingers bled.”
But it wasn’t until forming the SoulGlo Orchestra in 2014 that Bennett was able to weave all the threads of his widespread musical influences into one complete tapestry, with Bennett himself on vocals and guitar, Akos Forgacs on bass, Isaac Hernandez on second guitar, Mark Bell on drums and Jacquelene Acevedo on percussion at the core, together with a rotating line up of backing-singers and other musicians, as needs arise. “It's a collective,” explains Bennett. At the Delancy, SoulGlo featured the great Brazilian percussionist, Davi Vieira, who has worked with Sergio Mendes, Gilberto Gil, David Byrne, and Sun Ra.
Together they produce a classy and slick sound on stage, veering from the smooth soul of their most recent single “Catch my Breath” to full-on funk attacks that channel the spirit of Sly Stone and James Brown. It’s here that SoulGlo really stretches out and turns it up to eleven. It's also a testament to the group's talents and Bennett's vision that none of this feels derivative. “Our sound is continuing to grow and shift,” says Bennett, “still, it stays true to the soulful rock band model, with lots of pop and world influences peppering their way into the mix.”
“I would like to do a real pop song,” he finishes, “I don't feel like it's a spirit of compromise to hone in on one thing, because I do like it all, with all my heart.”
It's little surprise that Bennett picks out Paul Simon's seminal Rhythm of the Saints and the works of Stevie Wonder as big influences on his sound. Both these artists cooked a hot stew of musical forms, from pop to funky to poly-rhythmic soul, as if DJs at heart. “The DJ aesthetic has always been very big for me, and this keeps it exciting for the musicians too,” Bennett's sound and approach also brings to mind the UK's Jah Wobble, the ex-PIL bassist who has spent several decades exploring musical territories from China and Laos to deep-dub and English folk. Like Wobble, Bennett is very much the master of his own ship, and also the anchor which grounds it.
Eclecticism, however, doesn’t always make for good business and brings challenges in a scene that prefers easily-labelled, packaged, and deliverable product. Thankfully, the huge number of online outlets available to bands nowadays provides new tools of promotion. Facebook, Bandcamp and Twitter are three platforms on which the band are pushing hard. “It's a momentum game,” says Bennett, “we're trying to build the social media side. Revenue and exposure go hand in hand.”
In pursuit of that goal, Bennett is nothing if not industrious. Not only does he write the songs and bring together the musicians, he also dons the cap of an impresario for the clubs, arranging a full night of acts, with SoulGlo as the headliner or opener. At The Delancey, after SoulGlo vacates the stage, the audience is treated to fellow musical mixologists, Rudeyna, and roots rock blues band Baby Dynamite. “Headlining makes sense if you’re playing a bigger venue,” says Bennett, “local shows are a little different. The audience rarely sticks around for more than their one preferred act.”
Like any hard-working band, swelling the ranks of their fan-base is an on-going mission. After upcoming gigs in Brooklyn and L.A., Bennett hopes to hit the college circuit in the Northeast and fill some festival slots, before settling down to record new material down in the studio.
Capturing the energy and feel of a band as multi-faceted as SoulGlo on “tape” is always a challenge. SoulGlo is clearly at its best when on stage, and watching Bennett and the band feeds off the energy of his audience is part of the fun. Plus, the studio makes it all but impossible to capture the subtlety and panache of how Bennett directs the orchestra on stage, knowing when to let the band stretch out and have fun and when to reel it in. “The EP we put out in January had more of a live feel,” says Bennett, “with the recent singles we took our time. It was like working on a sculpture almost.”
Listening to “Natural Selection,” the “B” side of their latest release, you can hear that aesthetic in action. Clearly a lot of care has gone into the cut, particularly in the vocal harmonizing and with subtle layers of sax and multiple keyboards bursting into bright crescendos. Thankfully, although the track feels remarkably slick, it never falls into the trap of over-production, which robs so many bands of the edge, vitality, and rolling swing that wins fans to the cause.
The same could be said for the band’s home city of New York. No matter how many films and TV shows show the Mean Streets, the digital electricity is a mere spark compared to the gigawatts generated by the feeling of hard Manhattan asphalt underfoot, the refraction of glass and steel in the eyes, and the sounds of master musicians everywhere, from subway platforms and street corners to the stage of Carnegie Hall. “There's so much music going on, here. It's a real challenge and competitive. If we were doing the same thing in Philadelphia or Atlanta,” muses Bennett, “it might be easier.”
Looking ahead, Bennett lets his all-encompassing musical vision fly a bit further, starting with incorporating a three-piece horn section into the band on a permanent basis and moving on to writing more radio-friendly commercial material. “I would like to do a real pop song,” he finishes, “I don't feel like it's a spirit of compromise to hone in on one thing, because I do like it all, with all my heart.”