Sometimes there occurs a delicious, serendipitous connection between a name and a function. A poker player I know, for example, has the honest-to-God moniker of Jack King. A fellow Indy staffer once knew a camp nurse named Sandy Sheets, and yet another professes to a urologist cousin named Peter. Joey Porter, a Tennessee-born, Portland, Ore.-based keyboard player, didn’t grow up to tote luggage on Amtrak; by adding a -house to his name to earmark his funk band, though, Porter cemented yet another ethereal link between appellation and essence. A porterhouse steak represents all that is juicy and substantive in the world of fleshy sustenance, and even a cursory listen to Thumbs Up Little Buddy, the Porterhouse Quintet’s debut album, is liable to produce lengthening canines and a steady stream of saliva. This is funk with a capital “F”( absolutely no “ph-“ here), chunky music that seeks out the groove bone in one’s body as unerringly as a tornado finds trailer parks.
“There are not a lot of true funk bands in the Northwest music scene,” says Porter. “Most of the ‘funk’ bands here are hippie-jam type things that are not very close to funk in the true sense of the word.” Porter compares his band’s sound with that of Galactic, a New Orleans band renown for their monster funk chops. “We try to find that hard funk groove,” Porter says, “definitely that old-school vibe. James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters—we fashion ourselves around those bands, who were kicking when funk was new.”
TULB showcases nine original tunes, all penned by Porter, and all of them, with the exception of “Juicy”(which features a talk-box repeated mantra of the titular word), are straight instrumentals. “It usually begins with a drum beat,” says Porter, a self-described “wanna-be drummer turned keyboard player out of necessity,” of the songwriting process. “Then I write a bass line around the drums, add keys and then a melody. It’s much the way that James Brown writes his tunes.”
The challenge of writing a funk song, according to Porter, lies in finding a marriage between an articulate melody and the primal groove necessary to power a true funk vibe. “The beats are always heavy, and that means the melody has to be funky. With our horns, though [the album features both sax and trumpet], we’re able to add a very catchy element to the songs,” he says. “What we end up with, ideally, is a song that is cerebral enough to keep me and the guys engaged while still giving people a tune they really dig.”
The Porterhouse Quintet is well on the way to completing their second album, due out sometime next spring. It will be a bit of a departure from TULB in that five or six of the new tunes feature vocals from their new drummer, who goes by the moniker Elijah. “The lyrics add context, to a certain point,” says Porter with a chuckle, “but they don’t get too deep, I’ll tell you that. Funk is fundamentally about sex, always has been and always will be. So even if the lyrics talk about a relationship, they’re still basically about sex.”
The Porterhouse Quintet rounds out their live shows with a discreet selection of cover songs, ranging from James Brown’s “Soul Power” to Rick James’ “Mary Jane” (“Blatant marijuana references always get the crowd rocking in Missoula,” says Porter, who played the Garden City most recently last New Year’s Eve) to a “really tripped out” version of Stevie Wonder’s “Too High.” “We try to keep the covers relatively obscure,” says Porter, “and a lot of them are lesser-known songs from kick-ass artists that you hear all the time. But we will definitely not do ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy.’”
Asked to name his all-time funk all-star lineup, Porter reels off the following: “Oh, man. Definitely Herbie Hancock on keys. Paul Jackson of the Headhunters on bass, or maybe Larry Graham from Sly & the Family Stone. The Tower of Power on horns, of course, and Wah-Wah Watson—he’s all over the best funk records ever made—on guitar. Stevie Wonder singing and writing the tunes. And James Brown screaming between the lines.”
While the Quintet’s lineup may not be as star-studded as Porter’s dream team, their show does offer Missoulians a rare opportunity to indulge in some honest-to-goodness, bone-shaking funk. Sex, drugs, and a primal groove—now that’s funky music, white boy.