The New Orleans sound runs like a current through the music of Galactic. This band from Louisiana is on its second decade playing a fusion of jam-band rock, jazz, funk, soul and even some electronic and hip-hop elements. It’s a gumbo that’s not far removed from its hometown.
“We’re interested in all this different stuff naturally,” said Galactic bassist Bob Mercurio from his home in New Orleans. “We’ll be touring with acts or will see something at a festival. We just get musically interested in a different genre and just work it into our songwriting. And I think it’s important to expand your sound. You play all sorts of styles down here.”
Mercurio also has seen far-flung audiences get into the distinctive rhythm and style of New Orleans music.
“We’ve seen some amazing responses in Europe and Japan,” he said. “It does have a very unique feel and sound. Traditionally, it’s been a happy music, an uplifting music. It makes you dance even though you can’t dance (laughs). That’s always been the general basis of New Orleans music — it comes from the rhythm and that feel.”
The eclectic band returns to the area Feb. 28 at Crystal Bay Club Casino. Joining Mercurio in Galactic are guitarist Jeff Raines, drummer Stanton Moore, keyboardist Rich Vogel, and sax and harmonica player Ben Ellman. All are original members of the group.
Galactic started in New Orleans in 1994 as transplanted college students Mercurio and Raines started to meet other musicians in the city’s funk and soul scene. They had a regular vocalist named Theryl DeCouet for their first decade, but since then have featured guest vocalists on both albums and in live concerts. It had a breakthrough album in 2007 in “From the Corner to the Block,” which pitted the band’s funk and soul against modern rap from Lyrics Born, the Coup and Gift of Gab, among others.
“Block” was the start of Galactic’s association with popular indie label Anti Records. “Ya-Ka-May” in 2010 features guest spots from New Orleans legends Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and the Rebirth Brass Band, as well as newer artists Trombone Shorty and Corey Henry. Similarly, “Carnivale Electricos” in 2012 has guest appearances from Ivan and Cyril Neville. During this time on the road, Galactic included soul/rock vocalist Corey Glover from the band Living Colour.
New guest vocalists were brought to the fore on Galactic’s latest album, “Into the Deep,” on blues/rock indie label ProVogue Records. The 2015 record includes vocals from soul singers Mavis Staples and Macy Gray, as well as fellow roots/jam artist J.J. Grey.
This is where the Galactic story veers strongly from other bands like it: There’s no lead singer to draw attention. Mercurio agrees that it’s unusual.
“Most bands are not in the position we are in,” he said. “For most, it’s all about the singer, and it would be suicide to try and change the singer during a band’s career, which is something we’ve done a lot. We’re just lucky that the fans accept it.”
Finding the right singer for the right song takes on many forms for Galactic. Mercurio said the band first figures out organically which songs needs vocals and which ones stay as instrumentals. He gave one example where the band’s “dream singer” for a song actually ended up in the studio: “Does it Really Make a Difference” featuring Mavis Staples.
“That song was written with the idea of someone like Mavis singing it, just an iconic soul singer to be on it,” Mercurio said. “After we had the song written, the idea came up that, hey, we know Mavis, she’s sat in with us before, and every time we see her she seems genuinely happy to see us. So it’s a lot like that, through a lot of little connections we’ve made over the years, that we are able to perform with someone like Mavis.”
Don’t expect any of these vocalist at this current show, though. For this tour, Galactic will feature vocalist Erica Falls, another New Orleans resident. “She’s been touring with us for about a year and is doing a great job,” Mercurio said. Falls also will be a part of new songs Mercurio said the band is writing and testing out during this tour.
“Constantly adding new stuff is our M.O.,” he said. “We always have a new original or new cover, and since we’re always on the road we come up with new stuff all the time. But, in the last couple of months, we’ve been adding more vocal tunes that will be on the new album.”
With a schedule of about 100 shows a year, Galactic keeps busy on the road, but Mercurio said the group likes it that way.
“There are parts of the tours that we are excited about and parts that are ‘not so much,’ but in general everyone still enjoys it,” he said. “We like seeing old friends, and that’s one of the perks to traveling around the country over and over again. We get to see family and friends and eat amazing food. So there’s a lot of good outside of the actual performing for us. It’s still exciting.”
And, it’s still exciting for a group whose core has been together for more than 20 years. Mercurio said it’s more than friendship that keeps the band together, although that is definitely there.
“We started out as friends and have grown more and more as friends, but even though it’s the same arrangement, we get to play with all of these new people at the same time,” Mercurio said. “We’re in a unique position to slightly reinvent ourselves with each new vocalist. I think that in and of itself is rejuvenating.”