It took 10 years, but Funkiphino has made it big in the world of horn bands
by Dan England
Chris and Jessica Fischer had dreams of putting a big horn band together, the kind that toured with Earth, Wind & Fire or Tower of Power or, more recently, the Brand New Heavies, way back in 1995.
But as the Heavies said on their biggest hit off their biggest album, “Dream on dreamer, life gets in your way,” and life, well, just kept getting in the way. They couldn’t find a steady singer, and people kept moving away, and besides, putting together a real, live, funk band with a horn section is no easy task.
In the meantime, Fischer went to all these crazy “funk” concerts where he would hear keyboardists playing these faux horn lines. In one show, a band played the classic Tower of Power song “What Is Hip?” with keyboards and this one woman playing flute. Ouch. That one really stuck in his craw.
“I mean, you just don’t do that,” Fisher said with disgust.
And so it took three years, but Jessica, a trumpet player, and Chris, a keyboardist, singer and one of the band’s principal songwriters, finally got their band, and their first gig was for New Year’s Eve at the end of 1998. Ten years later, the band’s playing more gigs than ever, including the Kick-Off Concert at the Greeley Arts Picnic next Friday, July 25, in the 9th Street Plaza.
In fact, the band’s probably better than ever and only recently, in the last couple of years, grew into the Fischers’ original vision of a 12-piece band, with five horns, drums and percussion, two vocalists, bass and guitar. Managing that circus can be a pain—it’s basically Chris’ full-time job these days—but all the gigs have made it possible. Next week the band plays a private event in Colorado Springs Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, a festival in Broomfield Thursday and Friday’s concert in Greeley.
“We’re fortunate that we’re playing so much that we don’t need to rehearse,” Chris said. “In the summer, our schedule is really busy. It gets stupid. But all those gigs are great because everyone in the band can work a lot and make enough money to stay with us.”
Funkiphino has its own office that handles the booking, the graphics and the bills (done by Chris and Jessica mostly), so the musicians only have to play. A few years ago the outfit even got its own sound engineer and digital sound sponsor that gives it a steady, consistent mix after past festival gigs were marred by feedback.
“I would, frankly, be surprised if any other band travels with the equipment that we do,” Fischer said. “I know there’s no one else in the state.”
You can expect a steady diet of covers at a gig, but the band also has two CDs. The last, “Rise Above,” featured horn arrangements from Tower of Power writer Dave Eskridge and got rave reviews from many local critics. The covers help get the band gigs, and the original CDs help the musicians fulfill themselves as artists.
“We’ve blazed our own trail,” Fischer said. “So many people told us you can’t be an original band and a cover band. We didn’t want to choose between playing our own music every night and just starving or being a band that plays ‘Brick House’ every night.”\
The CDs, according to critics, are good enough to put the band on a national stage, but staying local is OK with Fischer.
“Horn bands aren’t where it’s at right now on commercial radio,” he said. “It’s really a niche thing. And I don’t think we want to tour across the country with a 12-piece band.”
It’s enough for Evan Weigel, who plays tenor sax, and Cameron Chinatti, who sings. The two are some of the many connections to the University of Northern Colorado. Weigel, in fact, got the gig when another UNC graduate left the band and told him to audition. He attended UNC his freshman and sophomore years before graduating from the University of Denver in 2005.
“I can’t think of any other bands that have such a good, large horn section around town,” Weigel said. “It’s completely different, but the sound you get is just awesome.”
Chinatti graduated from UNC in 2002 with a degree in opera. You won’t hear her bust out “Nessun Dorma” during a gig, but she said the breathing qualities opera teaches have kept her voice strong throughout the demanding schedule. She loves that schedule, in fact.
“I’m pretty pleased with it because you tell your family and friends that you’re a music major, and they pat you on the head and say, ‘Oh, that’s sweet,’” she said. “They don’t expect you to do anything with it. So it’s nice to be doing something with it.”
It’s a dream, something Chris and Jessica envisioned up more than 10 years ago, one that only recently seems to have come completely true. Fans at gigs will rock out to “Billie Jean” or whatever and then come up and request something from “Rise Above.” They made it. They did it the right way. And it’s a blast.
“Sure, it’s a job,” Chris said. “But when we’re on stage, it’s really fun, and that’s what it’s all about.”