Barley's Taproom in the Old City has hosted more than its fair share of high-energy live performances through the years, yet there's something extra special in the air when Aftah Party brings it home on a Friday night. A 10-piece affair outfitted with two singers, a horn section, and the precocious scions of Knoxville's greatest jazzman, the band rocks like Funkadelic, grooves like the J.B.'s, and jams like Sly and the Family Stone. And yet the music itself—carried along by the limber rapping and crooning of singers Melvin Ellis and Rhea Sunshine—bears the conspicuous imprint of '90s and new-millenium soul and R&B.
The result: a packed hall; a racially mixed crowd of blacks and whites (an uncommon spectacle on the Knoxville club scene), young and old; and a dancefloor filled with a slew of shaking booties and shuffling feet.
"I love playing old-school R&B, but at the same time, I wanted to do something more centered around the music my brother and I grew up with, hip-hop and '90s R&B," says bassist/keyboardist Keith Brown, citing such artists as Erykah Badu, OutKast, and Lauryn Hill as inspiration. Brown and sibling/drummer Kenneth are the sons of Knoxville jazz composer and pianist Donald Brown, and cut their teeth musically playing with their father's bands.
"We do play some older songs, but we mostly take the approach of older bands like Parliament and Earth, Wind & Fire and apply it to more modern material."
"My conception was sort of a modern-day Parliament, but the main concept being to create a band that is just as entertaining to watch as the music is good," Kenneth says.
That's something the Browns and their bandmates—including trumpeter P.J. Alexander, saxpeople Jamel Mitchell, Marquis Hare, and Keith's wife Tamara Brown, keyboardist Julius Blue, and guitar whiz Cozmo Holloway—have accomplished, admirably, with style and dynamism to spare. There's a certain hallelujah spirit in Aftah Party's crackling performance energy—the happy chaos of 10 players on one platform, band members improvising unison dance steps and stage movements fraught with a palpable joy—that few bands can equal.
The Browns say they'd held ambitions of putting together an outfit like Aftah Party for some years now, but the pieces didn't really come together until late 2008.
"It was a difficult balance, getting people who were good enough to play the music, but also people whose personality came through, who weren't afraid to get onstage and look like they were having fun," Kenneth says. "And finding eight other people who were just dedicated enough to do the work, that was hard, too."
The results have been gratifying, to say the least. "Fan response has been really good," says Kenneth, flashing his father's famous gap-toothed grin. "For me, this is the first band I've played in where at the end of the night, the place is still packed. And people are up and dancing and singing."
"What's also great is they've been responding just was well to the original tunes, if not better, than to the covers we do," adds Keith.
In addition to their considerable trove of original material, the band has been known to perform songs from the likes of Badu, John Legend, and Jill Scott, to name a few, as well as to drop in the occasional oldie, songs such as "Love and Happiness" by soul great Al Green.
As to the diversity of the Aftah Party crowds, both racially and age-wise, Kenneth says: "That's been really good for us. It's like, everybody just seems to get what we're doing. I guess it's partly because of the concept of the band, that we wanted the musicianship, that we also wanted to be entertaining on stage, and that we do modern stuff with a sort of old-school twist. A lot of older people come up and say, ‘You remind me of Earth, Wind & Fire,' even though we're doing more modern tunes."
Now the band is releasing its first recorded material, an eight-song CD entitled Welcome to the Aftah Party, committed to digital by local producer/engineer Allen Smith. The band members believe they've captured the celebratory verve of their live show on the album, which was recorded live in studio, complete with some extended jams. "We don't stretch out quite the way we do at shows," Keith says. "But it's definitely not the typical short-song format."
And if that's true, and the band is able to harness even a measure of that in-performance vitality on disc, then look for this Aftah Party to last longer than any throwdown on record.