By Alan Crandall
The Motet has long been one of Colorado’s favorite funk bands. In the early years, The Motet grew out of a fluid group of musicians, always centered on the band’s leader, drummer Dave Watts. With the release of their self-titled seventh album and a recent return to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, The Motet is riding a wave of success after years of touring and experimentation. The band is pushing heavy rhythmic dance music to a new level, incorporating afrobeat, disco, electronica and soul into funky arrangements that inspire audience members to dance.
The Motet today is a seven-piece group, with members Jans Ingber, Joey Porter, Garrett Sayers, Ryan Jalbert, Gabe Mervine, Matt Pitts and Watts.
“As a seven-piece, we made a decision about a year ago that this is going to be the lineup that we’re going to stick with,” Watts said in a recent interview.
Watts explained the new path for The Motet as “sort of a new paradigm that we’ve stepped into, basing our sound off of the funk influences that we’ve had over the last 12 or 13 years … Probably the coolest part of (“The Motet” album) is that we wrote it as a band — 100 percent co-written as a group, which is pretty cool.”
After more than 12 years of touring, The Motet has found the mix that works.
“For that first period of The Motet, we were really focused on the world music, drumming and all that,” Watts said. “We eventually added Dominic Lalli from Big Gigantic and he was our single horn player for a while.”
The Motet is well-known for its Halloween concerts, where the band picks an iconic artist to cover. The very first Motet concert was at the Mountain Sun in Boulder for a Halloween party.
“They used to serve this mushroom beer every Halloween, so it just turned into this crazy scene,” Watts said.
Costume-clad fans turn out in large numbers for the Halloween shows, when the band brings a funky jam treatment to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire, The Gap Band, Tower of Power, The Talking Heads and Michael Jackson, among others. One of their more popular Halloween cover performances was Funk is Dead, a tribute to the Grateful Dead, which ended up going on a national tour.
“I think the success of ‘Funk is Dead’ is that people never get sick of that music,” Watts said.
This year’s Halloween shows are titled “Mixtape 1975,” where the band is handpicking the top hits from the year 1975.
The Motet kicks off the tour Oct. 28 in Beaver Creek before opening its Front Range segment Oct. 29 at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins. Then, as Watts pointed out, “we get to do two nights at the Boulder Theater (Oct. 30-31), which is going to be really cool.” The “Mixtape 1975” tour concludes Nov. 1 at Denver’s Ogden Theatre.
Watts’ beginnings on drums came with his first lessons when he was 12. He was born in Miami but his family lived in many areas around the country, and by the time Watts was in high school they had moved to Syracuse, N.Y. After high school, Watts entered Boston University and studied classical music. He soon grew tired of the regiment of classical music and realized that there was a robust jazz scene at nearby Berkelee University.
“I went over to Berkelee, walked down into one of the teacher’s offices, and there was these three jazz cats playing with one of the teachers,” Watts said. “There was Aydin Esen and Kai Eckhardt, and the drummer was Tommy Campbell. They were having a jam session, and I had been reading about Tommy in Modern Drummers and I’m just like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening right here at this school, I have to transfer.’ ”
Watts joined the band Shockra right out of Berkelee, and the band exposed Watts to the practice of combining various types of music into improvisational jams.
“We don’t have to be just jazz or pop or rock, we can actually merge those worlds and people want to listen to this music,” Watts said. “There was a Grateful Dead scene, but Phish was just getting going. In fact, when I first joined Shockra, Phish was still playing the Paradise Club in Boston. They would come over to our house — we had a band house of course, outside of Boston — and the guys from Phish would come over and hang out and jam late-night after a show. So I was sort of introduced to that Grateful Dead hippie scene and Phish at the same time. And it just seemed like there was a lot of potential there.”
Performing with Shockra brought Watts to Colorado.
“We were the third show ever at the Fox Theatre,” he recalled. “The first two were The Meters and the third night was us.”
During the trip, Watts was amazed by the beauty of Red Rocks Amphitheater, as well as the rest of the state.
After a few years of return visits to perform in Colorado, Watts decided to make the move.
Once in Colorado, he immediately immersed himself in the developing local music scene. Watts began putting on shows with rotating musicians called The Dave Watts Motet, “which was really just an excuse to not have to keep changing the poster — quintet, quartet, trio, whatever it was, you know?”
It was a rough start in Boulder’s burgeoning music scene, and Watts found himself in a sort of musical commune that was a house on five acres with many local area musicians. This experience made it easier for him to begin to carve out what would evolve into The Motet’s current success.
“(Michael) Travis and (Michael) Kang from (The) String Cheese (Incident) lived there. They used to park their bus there. Tony Furtado, Danny Shafer and Jamie Janover all lived there. We had about 15 people living in this one house. There was a tepee out back, two studios and a tent. I mean, it was insane.
“We started the acid jazz scene up in Nederland. Jamie Janover and I used to go up there every Monday, it was great. We just were building this scene and I wasn’t necessarily trying to get my own band, but I was certainly looking for something that would blow up, something that I could really do what I wanted to do.”
The acid jazz show grew and expanded into Boulder. After selling out in Nederland on Monday nights, the show would head down the hill and pack Tulagi’s in Boulder later in the week. Asked to reflect on the acid jazz scene back then, photographer and longtime resident James DeWalt said by email: “Acid jazz was yet one more aspect of the amazing music scene that has sprouted from the Nederland area over the years. It was always amazing to have such diversified talent come out on Monday nights and put out what was consistently some of the best music happening in the area. With the likes of Dave Watts, Jamie Janover, Michael Travis, Ross Martin, Kirwan Brown, Jared Astin, Kyle Hollingsworth, Erik Deutsch … we were always treated to something incredibly special.”
Their annual Halloween concerts required The Motet to work at creating new compositions of iconic artists’ standards and has helped to develop the band’s sound.
“It inspired me to focus on songs more than just the performance,” Watts said. “We have original music that’s making an impression. Honestly all that Afro-Cuban and Brazilian and African music that we did before was great live, but it didn’t necessarily leave a lasting impression, because people can’t necessarily relate to songs sung in Spanish or, you know, Yoruba.”
If you go
What: The Motet Presents: Mixtape 1975
Front Range schedule
• Oct. 29: Aggie Theatre, Fort Collins, 7 p.m. (doors), $25
• Oct. 30: Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 8:30 p.m. (doors), $26.50-$30
• Oct. 31: Boulder Theater, sold out
• Nov. 1: Ogden Theater, 935 E. Colfax, Denver, 8 p.m. (doors), $25-$30