We recently spoke to Damon Wood, author of Working for the Man, Playing In The Band: My Years with James Brown. Wood played guitar in Brown's backing band, The Soul Generals for eight years, before leaving to form his own band Harmonious Junk. We talked about "Mr. Brown," learning curves, amps and more. Here's what Damon had to say.
Musically, the challenges were chord charts, Jazz standards, remembering cues and hand signals, learning all the chords I didn't know, figuring out chord symbols, etc. For instance, a triangle means major on a chord chart. One James Brown finger over three others meant a dom7/9/13 chord. Five fingers was a triplet based outro riff that would lead back into the previous song. Plus, the sheer intensity of JB and the band. There was no time for nerves, you just missed a transition worrying about your tie being on straight. You had to tune with one eye on the tuner and one eye on the boss. Also, I had only done a bit of improvisation with Van Zant. With Brown, improvisation, spontaneity and a constant flow of ideas WAS the gig
James Brown was a notoriously demanding bandleader. However, he also commanded respect; most of those who worked for him called him “Mr. Brown,” as you do throughout your book. What did you learn from him as a bandleader that you took to your own band, Harmonious Junk?
I learned that you have to always be thinking of new things, new songs, new musical bits, new ways to bring out the best in the players. I would spend hours writing set lists and medley ideas. Find ways to cut dead air. With a small band like mine, something like one person starting the next song immediately after one ended kept the ball rolling. There was no dead air with Brown. If the band wasn't playing, he'd be entertaining them with banter. Some humor, maybe, or a comment on someone in the audience. I've never been great at banter but I tried to employ whatever tricks he used that I thought I could make work for us. There was much to borrow from. Also, band member input is essential, but ultimately there has to be one person who makes the final decisions. That person has to put in the extra time and work to deserve that position.
You have a lot of former band members adding their voice to you book. It sounds like a notoriously tight unit, both socially and musically. Did that camaraderie help get you through there rules and rigors of “the road?”
The band really was, and still is, a family unit. When somebody was down, there were people there who would bring you back to life with their silliness, charm, maybe a drink or a joint, or just a shoulder to lean on. We'd get into little beefs when nerves got too rattled, but it always came back around to family. When you truly are a family, it shows onstage. And as you can see in the band member interviews in the book, I was dealing with some pretty hilarious characters. One memo from the organization banned laughter on an upcoming tour. Guess how that was handled. Yet more uncontrollable laughter and comedy. Someone did a rebuttal to that memo that I still wish I had a copy of. And when I say it still is a family, I mean it. 11 of us just played Japan in June. For me, it was like seeing your second family after over a decade apart. Deserved thanks to Tyrone Jefferson and our newest family members Djamila and Kristal for all their hard work in getting us back together and on the road again. I think the boss would be proud of what we're doing. Also, I've got to mention and thank Phil Carson, the guy who really put in the hard work of writing the book for having the idea of interviewing band members and weaving those interviews into the story.
Guitarists are notoriously fickle about their equipment. How hard was it ti show up to every gig with just your guitar, not knowing the condition and reliability of the amps you’d plug into?
I was never as fickle as some. I think we all became pretty accepting out of necessity. We usually had great Fender Twin Reverb amps at every gig but would encounter the occasional "red knob" or "missing knob" models. We carried our own pedals but could really only have 2-3 maximum due to occasionally limited stage space with a 20+ piece band. I always joked that if you didn't watch it, one of the dancers would come flying out onstage and kick your wah wah into the 30th row. Also, if the amp didn't work, you'd just point at it and shrug your shoulders. It was somebody else's problem at that point. JB wouldn't hold it against us if "their" amp blew up. I think those days are why I still only use a few pedals onstage and eschew the modern "pedal board with a thousand pedals on it" approach. Still expecting one of those dancers with the big boots to appear, I guess. Also, simplicity has its merits.
Some of my favorite moments in the book are when the Soul Generals would sneak out to gig on their own. One can feel the excitement and satisfaction you had for those gigs. Can we expect any more funk from Damon Wood, and what’s next with Harmonious Junk?
As I mentioned above, The JBs are back on the road for short international tours. I've joined them for some Spain, Italy and Holland dates last summer and Japan this June. We'll be in Canada in September and back to Europe in November. Harmonious Junk is still around with a revolving cast of players but most of what I've been doing lately has been with another Colorado based group called Whitewater Ramble. Started as a Bluegrass band, it has morphed into many other styles, as well. We actually do an instrumental version of Super Bad as part of one of our big medleys. We also have a couple strong Funk tracks that we just wrote and recorded that'll be coming out soon, possibly under a new band name. This band does more national touring and plays more shows and festivals than I was able to do with HJ. I did record 3 albums with HJ tho', and each has a bit of Funk. Even had JB bassist/vocalist Fred Thomas come to Colorado and sit in on a few tracks for the album, Too Cocky In Nagasaki. I also perform solo acoustic shows and even throw a bit of Funk in there. There will always be some Funk in whatever I do because of that experience.
What would it take to get you to wear a tuxedo onstage again?
That's funny. I just did wear a suit onstage this last Saturday night at a wedding. Not a tux, per se, but the same one I got for the JBs shows. I've been able to avoid a tie recently, however. Happy about that. Once I told my buddy Keith Jenkins, JB guitarist, that I'd never be in a band where I had to wear a tie. He said, "You're getting ready to go onstage right now and you're wearing a cheesy bowtie". I laughed and said, "Yeah, but that's for Brown!". I guess the answer is, "Whenever a tuxedo is between me and a paycheck in a great band". Also, we were in the movie, The Tuxedo, so it'd almost be fun.
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