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Pheeling the Phelonious Phunk: Music Power couple Danny Louis and Machan Taylor by Ross Rice

It’s a balmy midsummer’s night, and the High Falls Café is jam-freaking-packed, spilling out onto the porch, people laughing, yakking, drinking. A monster groove is being laid down inside, time is mosquitoes-tweeter tight on the drums, caressed and prodded by rubbery bass lines, staccato spikes from the guitar. On one side of the stage, the skullcap-clad keyboardist lays into a Sly Stone-era Yamaha organ—through the classic Leslie rotating speaker cabinet—while occasionally grabbing a trombone to wail Fred Wesley-like riffs.

And center stage—dear lord—stands a diva/goddess, luxuriant in outrageous wiggery and footwear, motoring the funk with effortless rhythm guitar, singing with soul and a range that would probably give Chaka Khan nightmares. Think that’s hyperbolic? Well, have you ever heard the last song on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the one where the female singer vocalizes (some might say, uh, orgasmically) over the mellow track “The Great Gig in the Sky”? Well, this singer can nail that. In fact, she’s done it many times on tour. With Pink Floyd.

It’s a small town venue for sure, but don’t tell the band Phelonious Phunk, because even though the musicians’ collective resume reads like a Rolling Stone Hot 100 list, they’re clearly enjoying the sweaty gyrating roadhouse vibe surrounding them. The two aforementioned: singer/guitarist Machan Taylor and keyboardist/etc. Danny Louis have both individually enjoyed illustrious careers in music, but The Phunk brings husband and wife together in a band for the first time, along with some of the region’s best players. And tonight it’s a marriage made in boogie heaven.

Truth is, we could easily do full features on both Danny and Machan; their individual accomplishments would certainly warrant it. But together they are a unique combination; a great example of how two passionate and artistic people can live, love, and yes…..even work together. While keeping it real funky.

“I need to find a place of peace,” says Danny when I call. At the moment, he’s on the road with Stockholm Syndrome, a side project which—with Danny—features Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, Jerry Josephs from Jerry Josephs and the Jackmormons, drummer Wally Ingram (Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne), and guitarist Eric McFadden. Danny’s main band is, of course, Gov’t Mule, which is on hiatus until next year, so he’s using the free time to get into new projects, keep a creative mindspace. Unlike the tour bus/roadie world of Mule or Panic, Stockholm Syndrome goes low dough with van/trailer conveyance, sharing hotel rooms, old school lean and mean. Danny is clearly having fun.

Born and raised in the Rondout Valley, Danny took to the trumpet when instruments were being handed out in the fourth grade, and followed that trumpet all the way through middle and high school, eventually to Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music. Meanwhile, the somewhat trumpet-deficient sounds of rock ‘n’ roll were ascendant, so Danny picked up the bass. “We had, oddly enough, power trios: bass, drums, and guitar. Which is funny, because I ended up ruining a power trio!” Danny laughs, in reference to his ten-year tenure with Gov’t Mule. (Very few Mule fans would agree with that assessment.)

Danny attended Berklee in the early 70s, with a double major—education and composition/arranging—and was getting a good amount of bigger jobs playing trumpet. “There was so much work in Boston at the time. The climate in the country was much more conducive to live music at the seedbed level. That started to catch up with me.” Teaching music looked less and less attractive, so he dropped that major, and little by little, eased out of school into the professional world. A series of original bands followed, all going for “the deal” with varying degrees of success, all making use of the vibrant Boston music media to develop followings, each running its course after a couple of years.

Danny left Boston in ’79, and after a brief stop in Ulster County, relocated to Manhattan, where he stayed until 2004. The goal: find some players, start another band. “That was the way that I looked at music. I felt for me the best thing would to be in a band, and branch out (from it), but always return to the band. When I moved to New York, that era was coming to a close.” The drinking age went up, venues started booking multiple acts, diluting any chance of building a following. “I became a freelance musician by default.” Composition and arrangement work for demos and commercial work helped him develop his keyboard skills. “The reason why I’ve learned how to play so many instruments over the years, was to support my writing habit.”

This being the 80s, drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers were paramount in commercial music. Danny had an Atari computer—with built-in MIDI interface—in a road case, and not a whole lot else. “There were a few keyboard players in New York City who had such elaborate rigs, that the studios began to get used to that convenience. And I was poor, I didn’t have (that)! There was a period of time when all I had was two synths…and three empty cases!” Danny made the most of his “primitive” setup, and kept getting commercial gigs, while developing some phenomenal keyboard chops in the process.

It’s well that he did. One morning in 1989, he picked up the horn to practice and….nothing came out. Checking the mirror, it was apparent that half of his face was paralyzed, and he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, which effectively grounded his career on trumpet. Danny redoubled his efforts on keyboards, grabbing any gig that came near him. One such gig was with Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes, who had moved to New York in ’92 with a solo record deal, and soon Danny was in the Warren Haynes Group, opening for the Allmans on tour. Danny and Gregg Allman hit it off, and Gregg took pity on Danny’s not-quite-making-it synthetic organ sound, insisting that he make use of his personal Hammond B3, with rotating Leslie speaker cabinet, sparking a life long love affair with the instrument. Warren and Allman’s bassist Allen Woody—along with drummer Matt Abts—formed Gov’t Mule in 1995, and though Danny was not at that time invited to join the group, he and Warren were still close, living nearby each other and doing a lot of writing together, including the title track for the Mule’s Life Before Insanity (2000). Meanwhile, Danny worked steadily doing commercial work, partnering with New York Noise, a studio owned by Rick DePofi.

Feeling like his playing was starting to atrophy creatively, Danny decided to pull away from the studio demo grind in 2000, when he got a call from none other than Gregg Allman. Then Warren called in 2001; Allen Woody had just died, and the band was pulling in friends to help finish out the tour, using both bassists and keyboardists: different guys, different shows. Would Danny come out for two weeks? Danny cleared it with his studio partners, and made the run. For the next year or so he made the duality work, as Warren kept calling him for more quick tours.One day in 2002 they made the inevitable official: Danny Louis became the fourth member of Gov’t Mule, and has been for six albums, and ten years of tours ever since.

But just before that happened, a jingle session of note occurred. Danny had written a spot for 7-Up, and Rick DePofi hired a group of background singers. It was a deadline date, so the chorus hit it quick and split, very professional. But after the session, Danny asked Rick about one of the singers, a striking raven-haired woman, and Rick told him she was a friend. Six months later Danny got a call from Rick, who was producing the same singer. “He called me up, which was very atypical, and said ‘hey, you might find this interesting. Why don’t you come down to the studio, give it a listen?’ He said, ‘she’s not just some chick singer, she’s a real musician.’ And that got me.” Danny went down there, met her again, and listening to playback next to her on the couch, “I knew something was up.” Indeed there was.

It’s one busy, almost breathless Machan Taylor answering the phone; it’s been an insane couple of days trying to sort out the details between artists, publishers, and record labels for her Motherland Project, a CD compilation of Japanese-American artists titled Offerings, to raise funds and awareness for Japanese earthquake/tsunami relief. The album includes songs by Machan, Rachel Yamagata, Jackie Green, Keiko Matsui, and her old band Hiroshima, and Machan is scheduling a release party (featuring Hiroshima) at B. B. King’s in New York on September 21. Plus, she’s trying to get the website online by the first of the month, where the record will be available as a download. All this plus writing for music libraries and film/TV projects, taking courses at Empire State College in pursuit of a degree, and teaching up to 20 vocal students. Oh, and she has Vocal Coach and Associate Producer credits in the upcoming Vera Farmiga film, Higher Ground. She is no lollygagger, that’s for sure.

Machan and her older sister were born in Yokohama, Japan, where their U.S. military father was stationed after the war. Being the manager of the Officer’s Club on the Army base there put him in the position of booking the musical acts—one of which was Machan’s mother’s jazz trio, which also featured world-renowned pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. The family moved to New Jersey—where Machan’s father was originally from—when Machan was five, and that’s where she grew up. Music was part of the picture from the start, and she developed quickly. “I started in high school, playing guitar and singing in little coffeehouses. And then, of course, joining some bands during that time, being in ‘battles of the bands’, all the typical kid gigs! I was around 14 at the time, and working, actually making money.”

As a result, Machan became a proficient self-taught guitarist with a decidedly unique flavor, and formidable technique. She honed her craft on the road, having graduated early from high school at 16, and was ready to go out into the world. Machan expanded her base to the Tri-State area with her band Za Zu Zaz, playing five nights a week. “At the time, there were so many clubs around that artists could play and actually get paid! It was such a great developmental breeding ground for performing artists; there were so many opportunities back then. Because I knew what I wanted to do, and I had such a clear vision about what I wanted my life to be, I skipped college to go on tour, even though I was accepted at Berklee.”

Though her guitar chops were excellent, Machan was getting more calls for her voice, a powerful instrument that seems to have an almost unlimited top range. And not just ordinary calls from local bands: we’re talking Pat Benatar, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Pink Floyd, Sting. “There was a lot of luck involved, but there were many very opportune connections that came about. Honestly, my first road gig was with the Glenn Miller Orchestra! Which you would think would be so unrelated to working with Pink Floyd. But the old saying is still true: it’s really who you know.”

“After working with the GMO, I met certain people that led me to certain situations, and in 1984, a friend of mine was working as a stage manager for the Jackson’s Victory Tour. He called me to see if I was busy, and would I be interested in coming to work at Giant Stadium as a production assistant? It was supposed to be for a week, but it turned into six months. That was because that tour was so massive…it was an over 300 man crew!” That tour resulted in some really good contacts, leading to singing on the Pat Benatar tour, and beyond, carrying her into the 21st Century with the aforementioned mega-stars. “That’s why my philosophy is: everybody you meet is important. Because you just never know who’s going to open the door to the next opportunity.”

But then there was this guy, this friend of Rick DePofi’s, who she sat on the studio couch with, listening to playback of some of her music one night. Six months after that, she was invited to see Rick’s band at a club in the city. So was Danny Louis, on his way back from a Yankees game. This was no coincidence; Rick knew “what was up.” Third time was the charm. After a nice evening together at the show, Danny walked Machan home, bid her goodnight, and from that moment on they haven’t missed a day of speaking to each other. First date was opera: Tosca at The Met; she had the tickets. Of course, Danny was an opera fan. OK, not really, but for Machan he was, for a few hours.

After the rigorous Sting tour, Machan wanted to be making her own music, and when the new couple made their home in Ulster County—tying the knot at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra temple outside of Woodstock—she worked to realize her new goal. Though it took a year or so, she completed her first eponymous release in 2004—only to have her label go bankrupt, effectively killing the record. Though that was a bitter setback, Machan rallied, and three years later produced Motion of Love, with some help from folks like John Scofield, John Medeski, and Danny. It’s a lush and lovely recording, Machan’s deft guitar work playing off her pitch-perfect voice, classic and unapologetic adult contemporary music for modern times.

How to describe the music? “When I started sitting down with my guitar and writing songs, the Brazilian influence really came out in my writing. I’ve always been a fan of that style of music: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Joao Gilberto. And that’s from very early on, when I was a teenager.” Strong jazz and world music elements are present, as well as traces of the artists she has toured with over the years. “I know already that it’s evolving, and what I’m going to do next is pretty different!”

For instance, Phelonious Phunk, born from Machan’s love for funk and soul music, and the opportunity to play with some of the regionally-based musicians from Motion of Love, all of whom were lifelong friends and colleagues with Danny as well: Randy Ciarlante, Charlie Kniceley, Matt Finck. It seemed like the ideal vehicle for the couple to collaborate, even to the point where they are writing for the project together. And it’s brought an additional mutual respect for each other’s formidable musicality. While having major fun.

And there’s been a nice surprise recently for Machan. While surfing online one evening, she came across a pop-up for the Wilhelmina 40+ Model Search. “I checked it out and said ‘hey, that could be fun,’ so I entered the contest, never in a million years thinking that I would be chosen. A couple of months later, there I was in the top 30, and suddenly I was in the top ten, going to New York City to do a finalist fashion show. Quite a surreal experience really!” Observing the fashion industry from behind the scenes—while participating in it briefly—was revelatory, giving her much to think about.

“There’s a discussion that needs to be had, in that there’s a whole baby-boomer generation of women—and men, but I think primarily women—that I think are not really being paid attention to in terms of the media, advertising, and fashion. The largest generation in history, and there’s a lot of us out there that are not being marketed to. And it goes across the board: music, fashion, literature, art…on every level. American media and corporations still tend to weigh heavier on youth-oriented marketing. Which doesn’t speak to me, or anyone I know at all.”

Despite the thickening corporatocracy of music, art, and life in general, both Machan and Danny stay positive and optimistic, enjoying being artists together on this life’s journey. Machan: “I think that music—number one—is what keeps me young, my spirit alive. In terms of practical things, I do a lot of yoga, just try to take care of myself. But I also just live in joy, try to be happy. I think happiness is a choice.”

Danny: “Storytelling is an integral part of the human experience, in every culture. We as musicians aren’t just providing dancing and cheap entertainment; we’re also telling stories. And because of that, I don’t necessarily worry about which form it’s going to take. I just know that if I make myself valuable to music, then there will always be a place for me.”

Machan Taylor will perform with Hiroshima on September 21, in a benefit concert for Japan earthquake/tsunami relief, at B. B. Kings Blues Club & Grill, 237 W. 42nd St, New York, at 8 PM. Please visit for more information.

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