On first listen, it's hard to tell: Is Portland, Maine's Sly Chi a white-funk band or a funky white band? Is there a difference, and should it matter? Although the band's latest disc, Wave Sound, is somewhat vanilla, it's hardly Grippo redux.
First of all, there are no covers to be found. Various band members composed each of the album's nine tracks. The "Sly" in their moniker could be construed as a reference to the Family Stone. To me it suggests the shrewd agility of Steely Dan. This funk is laced with a shot of jazz-rock that owes more to Aja than There's a Riot Going On.
The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album. Like most of the subsequent cuts, it's driven by intricate horn and keyboard work. The brass section is tight, if restrained. They aim for the unbridled soul of Earth, Wind and Fire, but they manage to only reach Chicago. The band, not the metropolis.
Keyboardist Tyler Stanley seems to be the glue that holds the grooves in place. A couple of his solos sound like they were played on a Casio portable rather than a B3, but his powerful playing more than makes up for the odd tones.
There are bright flashes of electric guitar, but not of the chicken-scratch variety. Axeman Jason Desormeau's solos are given plenty of room to evolve, and add a great deal to the group's sound. He really lets loose on the showy "Animo," tapping into his inner Santana.
Drummer Dave Henault shines on "Nothing I Can Do," flitting in between staccato horn runs and vibrant piano solos.
Ultimately, all eight musicians in this collective are gifted instrumentalists. You could cue up any song or focus on a single musician and not be disappointed. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the vocals. At least four different band members take a turn on the mike, and none are particularly remarkable. Still, we can forgive this because the music is so well played. "Step On Up" in particular, finds the members firing on all cylinders. With the song's emphatic percussion and repeating "Oh-Ahs," you can picture audiences being pulled to the dance floor as if by a tractor beam. Just try to resist when Sly Chi play the Rusty Nail in Stowe on Saturday, February 11.