Being there: Ebony Groove revives a highlight of C’ville’s musical past

Fans of go-go will get their kicks on Saturday night when Ebony Groove delivers it old-school style at the Jefferson. “There are some things that we just didn’t, and don’t, want to bend on,” says vocalist and saxophonist Ivan Orr. Photo courtesy Ebony Groove Fans of go-go will get their kicks on Saturday night when Ebony Groove delivers it old-school style at the Jefferson. “There are some things that we just didn’t, and don’t, want to bend on,” says vocalist and saxophonist Ivan Orr. Photo courtesy Ebony Groove

When Ebony Groove posted some old photos to its Facebook page in 2009, the comments came quickly.

“Can we get a reunion please?!”

“OMG what memories.”

“Damn, now this brings back the real good ole days, cats!”

“How about a reunion concert?”

“You know I will be there if there’s a reunion!!!!”

The band had put up throwback photos from its go-go group beginnings in the late 1980s, photos of band members posing together in loose-fitting faded jeans and high tops (and, in one case, coordinating bold-striped shorts-and-T-shirt ensembles).

Nearly a decade after that post, and more than two decades after the band’s “last show” at Outback Lodge, Ebony Groove gave the fans what they wanted: A reunion show, the day after Thanksgiving 2018, at IX Art Park. Not surprisingly, the show sold out.

After starting in 1987 as an offshoot of Charlottesville High School’s pep band (itself an offshoot of the CHS marching band), Ebony Groove went from playing basketball games to school dances, local parties, and eventually opening for national and regional touring acts at Trax nightclub. “People have a lot of ownership in what we were able to accomplish,” says vocalist and saxophonist Ivan Orr, particularly for black Charlottesvillians. “They’ve always thought of us as ‘their band,’ since we were an outgrowth of school.”

On Saturday night, Ebony Groove will get them going again, this time opening for 100- Proof GoGo Band at the Jefferson Theater.

For the unfamiliar, go-go music is a subgenre of funk unique to the Washington, D.C. area. It developed in the mid 1960s and ‘70s, with large bands comprised of musicians steeped not just in funk, but in Latin, soul, hard bop, and jazz.

In the late 1980s, go-go seemed poised for a breakthrough. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell (who worked with Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley, and is often credited with bringing reggae to international audiences) took interest in the genre and signed some go-go bands to his label. And the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1988 comedy School Daze, featuring D.C. go-go band Experience Unlimited, peaked at number 14 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart. But the genre never took off beyond the Washington, D.C. area, and Orr has a theory as to why: “It’s hard to capture in a three-minute and 30-second song, what the feeling is… It’s a music that you have to experience live. You can get a feel, but it’s nothing like being there.”

Many of the crowd-pleasing aspects of the genre, like call-and-response refrains and “roll call” (band members calling out friends when they sneak in late, for example), don’t have the same effect outside of the live show.

Real to reel: Taping culture, in which fans tape live sets from the floor, or sound engineers capture a performance on the board, is most often associated with jam bands like the Grateful Dead. But it’s just as important to go-go music, explains Ivan Orr, Ebony Groove founding member and saxophonist/vocalist, in large part because it’s difficult to capture the feel of go-go music in a recording studio. Orr remembers the first time he realized the value of these tapes: all-female go-go band Pleasure played Trax in the early 1990s, and at the end of the show, the sound engineer auctioned off the tape he recorded from the board. One opportune fan got the tape, and the band got another hundred bucks.

Recently, go-go has started to focus more on percussion and vocals and less on horn, guitar, and bass, but Ebony Groove has consciously avoided that tendency, says Orr. “[We have] a respect for musicality, and there are some things that we just didn’t, and don’t, want to bend on.”

Ebony Groove’s membership is somewhat flexible, as the band invites guest musicians to sit in with them depending on the show, and who’s available to rehearse. But at the core of the group is Orr; vocalist and trumpeter Jesse “Jay” Turner; percussionists Raymond Brooks, Curtis Kenney, and Kyle Reaves; congas player Larry Johnson; keyboardist Chris Redd; bassist and keyboardist Keith Carter; and guitarist Tom Butler.

Not only are they all seasoned musicians who have been playing together and apart for more than three decades, they’re all rather accomplished in the community outside of the band, says Turner. They’re fathers and husbands, business owners, educators (Turner is principal of Buford Middle School and Orr teaches music at Albemarle High School), barbers (Johnson), police officers (Kenney), and more.

Recent shows have been very nostalgic, says Orr, bringing audience members back to their youth, dancing to music their friends and classmates and neighbors made. The band’s added some contemporary songs into its set (get ready to hear some Adele), and since many of band members compose music for other projects, they’re contemplating writing some E.G. originals, says Orr.

But nostalgia’s not the only reason for Ebony Groove’s reunion. The band wants to bring something positive to the city, to Charlottesville’s black communities in particular, says Turner. “Charlottesville has been through a lot since August 2017…and we felt we had something to offer to bring some healing to our community and to certain individuals in our community,” sort of how funk icon James Brown used music to soothe unrest in Boston, and later Washington, D.C., in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, he says.

“It’s really gratifying, and makes us feel good,” to have started and continued something that black Charlottesvilleians have been proud of for so many years, says Turner. “We’re just excited to be in a position to still do this. Music has a way of bringing communities together.”

It’s also a way of keeping culture alive. Charlottesville has a “very, very rich” musical lineage, says Orr, one that Ebony Groove has benefitted from and contributed to, and it’s brought black music into venues that don’t host black music often enough. “And we want to keep that going.”

Fans of go-go will get their kicks on Saturday night when Ebony Groove delivers it old-school style at the Jefferson Theater.

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