The heat wave plaguing Orlando is finally taking a brief sabbatical on this Saturday night as Kow finishes a sound check before their set at Barbarella. It rains lightly for awhile, but as the band begins to play, the weather takes a backseat to their repertoire of Memphis-meets-Curtis Mayfield soul and Parliament-meets-Penthouse funk rock.
But this isn't exactly the Kow that Orlando has come to know and love. Drummer Dan Fadel's rock-solid skin-pounding still provides the foundation for Matt Lapham's precision basslines and charismatic singer/multi-instrumentalist Anthony Cole's baritone antics. But that's where the similarities end. Bobby Koelble, whose virtuosic, super-heavy guitar acrobatics have been a part of Kow's sound throughout most of the band's life, has been replaced by the more organic duo of rhythm guitarist Pat McCurdy and lead guitarist Mike Fadel, Dan's brother.
The result is more of an ensemble approach. McCurdy, a founding member of Kow who left and returned, now is content to sit back and lay down grooves as Mike Fadel emits clean, tasteful leads -- often simply joining in the rhythm. The emphasis on Cole -- a journeyman musician who also plays drums with jazz legend Sam Rivers -- seems to be increasing as he smoothes sax riffs and emits electric piano lines from his Ensoniq keyboard, letting his trademark libidinous lyrics roll off his tongue but never once allowing the smile to slip from his lips.
Kow has gone back to its roots, or at least made a concerted effort to evoke its original concept -- that is, an R&B band in a sea of swing-mania and careerist-pop excesses. Band members were so confident in their new direction that they hastily recorded a four-song EP of inspired jams from their live set and enlisted promoter Adam Shipley's Hep Cat Enterprises for management purposes.
Shipley is as enthusiastic as the musicians. "This band is going to bring back original ... pornographic funk to Orlando," he says from in front of the stage.
He is only half-joking. Not only does Kow carry the sex-injected, funk flag in Central Florida, but they are practically Orlando's anti-band. While they don't lack ambition, neither are they controlled by it. Never mind the recent chart-climbing success of acts with local roots; although these guys would welcome the creative freedom that an established record label could offer them, they refuse to adopt the "I-gotta-get-signed-now" philosophy that turns friends into enemies and music into product. Kow is laying down a foundation to succeed on their own terms and in their own time.
Later that week, band members relate their history at the Kow House apartment/rehearsal space. Around Dan Fadel's drum set are black-and-white posters of Hendrix, Marley, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention -- all of which could be reference points for aspects of the band's sound.
Kow formed in June 1996, but their roots go back to the start of the decade when Lapham was playing the East Coast circuit with Ippolito Principle, one of the first bands in Orlando to fuse funk and rock. Bandleader Ray Ippolito knew the Fadel brothers, who were then playing in their own Manhattan-based funk outfit. The Fadels helped the Floridians get a gig at a dive near their New Jersey hometown.
Eventually, Dan Fadel accepted an offer to come to Orlando and jam with a loose-knit circle of musicians that included Lapham, Cole, David Schweizer and fellow New Jersey native Brian Chodorcoff. The five formed an incestuous series of groups, trading personnel and instruments. Chodorcoff suggested forming a classic-rock band. "Originally, the concept included Matt, Anthony and Brian," says Dan Fadel, "but we never ended up doing anything because he was into the rock & roll thing -- and he wound up moving back to New Jersey."
McCurdy was brought in on guitar and the future funk sound was born. The band played their first gig at Skinny's in August 1996. Cole thought up their name as the band drove down Orange Avenue after a bit of mind-altering sensory tampering. "It reminded him of all different things: mushrooms, milk, food, shoes," says Dan Fadel. "And in a lot of countries the cow is a sacred animal. We just thought it was very ... It sounds like ‘Pow!' -- a powerful, one-syllable word that would be easy to remember."
But McCurdy's other musical obligations meant the band needed to find a guitarist who could make Kow a priority. His replacement was Koelble, a local musician who had toured Europe with the semilegendary, extreme-metal band Death but was then a free agent. Kow Mach II was ready for the launch pad.
The band gigged relentlessly, with Koelble adding a metallic, Zappa-esque dimension that wasn't in the blueprints but came to be identified as essential to the Kow sound by their growing fan base. Koelble performed with the band for a year and a half and played on the band's two demos, but the remaining original members began jonesing for the sound that first inspired them to form.
"`Koelble's` a heavier guitar player, by far one of the greatest guitarists around here, but his heart is with the heavier thing," explains Dan Fadel. "He likes the funk too, but we wanted to go back toward more traditional rhythm and blues."
Koelble soon departed. With renewed enthusiasm the group reunited with McCurdy, and Dan Fadel called his brother in New Jersey. But before Mike Fadel even set foot in Orlando, Kow hit the studio with producer Jon Smith to record what would become the "Kow EP."
On that recording, Cole's semispontaneous, sung/slurred lyrics represent well on the Wurlitzer-piano themed "Like a Train" before his sax-solo drifts into the sunset. They borrowed Smith's revered Hammond C-3 organ to record "Pan TeeRee Mover," which captures the sly sexuality that permeates their live sets. Lapham's bass anchors the swirling organ lines of the "All the Way," and the Wurlitzer and Hammond duke it out over the funk landscapes of the McCurdy-penned "Just Give Me a Chance."
It's the first recording the band is putting real effort behind to promote, and they hope to interest an independent label. "We're not going the typical route of Orlando bands to get a major deal," says Dan Fadel. "We just want to get something with good distribution and a lot of pump behind it."
Ideally, Kow wants to build a profile that would allow creative freedom and the opportunity to tour a la Galactic or Medeski, Martin and Wood. "Why not? All it would mean is we get more money to do what we want," continues the drummer. "It's not like we're 18 years old trying to be like some funk gods or anything. ..."
Cole, who has just entered the room, comes to life. "Funk gods!" he exclaims. "That's great! The Funk Gods!"
"... We just play music that happens to be rhythmic ... "
"The Funk Gods!"
"The Funk Gods!"
"... and we like a lot of funk and it comes out in the music. Anyone who's listening will hear a lot of other kinds of music besides funk."
"We should name the band the Funk Gods! I could arrange it. Start wearing afro wigs ... ."
The Funk Gods go on to play at Will's Loch Haven Pub later that night. They're a lot looser than they were at the Barbarella show. Cole trades sax melodies with Mike Fadel's transcendent guitar lines. And Fadel's face points to the heavens like a young John McLaughlin as the band switches from '70s-style L.A. fusion to green-onions Memphis funk. "If you can't say it, play it," says the grinning Cole, who reaches deep in his libido to lash together improvised vocal lines. Cole is a confident, constantly grinning presence as he coaxes heavy Hammond organ swirls and jazzy, electric-piano passages. "You ... caught ... me ... smiiiiiiiiiii-lin," he croons, before segueing into the crowd-pleasing gumbo of "Typical Groove."
The Godzilla-stomp heaviness is gone, replaced by a jamming aesthetic closer in spirit to the post-Grateful Dead school of inspired restraint. If any band in Orlando personifies the pure love of making music together -- making chemistry -- it is Kow.
But there is one thing Kow won't do. "Anybody here like swing?" shouts out Cole, who replies, "Too bad!" and then proceeds to engage in a sweat-and-cannabis soaked vocal workout about a girl named Gina who is such a freak that "I just just had to write a song about ya." Kow Mach III is giving up the funk.