It’s fitting that this year’s Battle of the Bands XI competition ended on September 11. Normally, the competition doesn’t stretch into the last few weeks leading up to the official start of autumn, but there was uncertainty as to whether or not there would be a Battle of the Bands XI this year. With whatzup scaling back its involvement this year, it was left to Richard Reprogle of Columbia Street West and Bob Roets of Wooden Nickel Records to organize and manage the competition, now in its 11th year. That meant some changes, including a screening process in order to ensure that there would be a certain quality to the bands that would perform rather than the come one-come all approach of previous years. Reprogle said that if he saw a positive attitude in what the bands wrote down in their description on the application, and if he was already familiar with them, they would stand a greater chance of being allowed to participate. “I made a lot of phone calls, and we got a few bands that I didn’t know, but most of them I knew and already had a relationship with them,” Reprogle said. The quality-over-quantity approach seemed to work, at least according to Roets, who said this year’s competition was among the best he’s seen in the seven years he has been a judge.
The competition’s eventual winners, Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra would probably agree, as band leader Aaron King acknowleged in an interview some weeks ago that “the competition we’re going against is no joke.” Nor are Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra. For a nine-member orchestra that’s only about six months old at this point, the group has already distinguished themselves in the local music scene as being one of the premiere acts of their chosen genre. With a single, “Elevatin’ the Funk,” and a victory in this season’s Battle of the Bands XI competition, the group has achieved some remarkable feats in a relatively short amount of time. “It has really morphed into something even bigger than what I anticipated, and it’s been a lot quicker than I anticipated too,” King said, “We did Rock the Plaza with the Freak Brothers, we did a show with Hillbilly Casino, and we did a show with Orgone at the Botanical Conservatory. Those are pretty big shows for somebody just starting out.” King describes the Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra as having more of a hip-hop feel while retaining the characteristics of classic funk. The group performs original tunes composed in the style of classic P-funk (a term coined by funk legends, Parliament-Funkadelic) as well as covers of classic gangsta funk hits to give their setlist more variety and accessibility. King believes the audience responds better to the band’s original material. “Everybody wrote out their own part, and it just fits like a glove,” he said. “It’s genuine, and it’s really the music that we’re feeling.” Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra consists of nine members, all of whom are veterans of the local music scene. Handling percussion are Jamont Simmons on drums, Dave Latchaw on piano, Will Brown on congos and Drake Bates on bass. The horn section includes Aaron King on trombone (and the occasional rap verse), Jason Westerman on trumpet and Quincy Sanders on alto and soprano saxophones. To round out the lineup, Dave “Catfish” Pagan plays guitar and sings backing vocals, and Tony Didier sings lead vocals. Didier was the first person King contacted about forming Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra earlier this year, and from there it was just a matter of seeing who else he knew that would be on board to join the band. According to King, not a whole lot of persuasion was necessary to form this supergroup of sorts. “It didn’t even seem like a question. It seemed like it was meant to be.” It helped that King was looking for personalities that would fit, as well as musical chops. “I really wanted to put together a conglomerate of the best people I knew, and not just good players, but people who were low maintenance and are easy to get along with,” he said. “That’s why to me it’s so special, because there’s no drama. Nobody’s bringing any outside garbage into our organization. Everybody here is real low key. They all work hard and play their butts off, and that’s my favorite part of it,” he said. Cooperation among band members also means that writing songs is a collaborative effort where no one member is responsible for writing all of the music. According to King, everything the audience hears the band perform was written by the people playing it. The work ethic of the members and lack of internal drama has contributed towards the band’s success, but that doesn’t mean they don’t encounter some challenges along the way. Latchaw said that one of the challenges includes finding enough time to practice. “We’re all busy, and we have a lot of projects going, but when you have this collection of people, there’s a lot of us to organize. So the size of the band, that’s a bit of a challenge. But it’s an orchestra,” he laughed. Early on in Battle of the Bands XI, Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra made an impression with both audiences and judges. One distinction that set them apart from other competitors was the fact that they were the only funk band competing this year. Another distinctive element was their years of experience on stage. “They all represent some of the finest artists in their particular instrument in town and to get them all together and on stage is great,” says Roets. “When they’re in the groove, it’s a great thing to see.”
The battle may be finished, but Fort Wayne Funk Orchestra have more gigs lined up in the coming months, performing at venues such as the Phoenix, Rack and Helens in New Haven, Piggy’s in Angola and yes, Columbia Street West. They have also been working on writing, organizing and rehearsing enough original material for a full-length LP which King hopes to release by summer 2015. For now, the group feels blessed to have won Battle of the Bands with such formidable contenders in the mix.
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