By Dave Hoffenberg
Tis the season for holidays, snow and the kickoff of the Killington concert scene. This Thursday make sure you head to the Pickle Barrel for Kung Fu’s first Killington appearance. I had the pleasure of speaking to Rob Somerville, saxophonist for the band, who has been playing up here since the early 90s. His other band, Deep Banana Blackout, used to tear up the Wobbly Barn and the mountain in the late 90s and early 2000s. Somerville reflected on those days saying, “Oh I remember those days when I was a little younger and Deep Banana used to come up there. We were a little crazy back then. We would go skiing all day and then hit the gig at night and then go skiing all day the next day and then hit the gig again at night.” Kung Fu might not hit the mountain this time around but they will definitely tear up the Pickle Barrel.
Kung Fu hails from Connecticut. The band is made up of Adrian Tramontano on drums, Chris DeAngelis on bass, Tim Palmieri on guitar, Todd Stoops on keyboards and Somerville on Sax. This past spring, the band released their second album, “Tsar Bomba,” which followed after their self-titled album.
The band recently celebrated their fifth year anniversary with Somerville joining the band nine months into their start. “I guess they left me in the womb for 9 months and then I was back on the scene,” Somerville said jokingly. When they got together, fans said they were “a super group for a super jam.” It’s members are all well-known individually and had been in three popular bands on the jam band scene.
Adrian Tramontano, Chris DeAngelis and Tim Palmieri are in “The Breakfast,” a hard-hitting jazz rock experimental quartet. Stoops is from “Raq,” a psychedelic, progressive rock jam band quartet from Burlington and Somerville “DBB,” a New Orleans style Jazz-funk band from Fairfield County, Conn.
The band got it’s name from Kung Fu Panda, a movie Stoops was watching with his son at the time of the conversation. Stoops simply said, “What about Kung Fu?” and it stuck. When Somerville first heard about them on the scene, he was surprised that nobody had ever named their band “Kung Fu” before.
“I asked Rob to describe the band and he said, ‘Well it’s not a movie, haha. It’s a very aggressive, educated, funk-fusion extravaganza. We’re steeped in that tradition of funk and jazz but there’s a lot of rock. The band definitely knows how to rock out. Most of the time we can’t help it, we’re just full throttle. It fits right in on the festival and club scene because it’s dance music. We have a lot of experience and the musicianship in the band is very seasoned and very polished sounds that we go for,’” Somerville remembered.
The band is influenced by the fusion side of funk and jazz, like early Herbie Hancock in the 70s.
Kung Fu has a lot in store for 2015. The band will be heading back out to the West coast, they’ll be playing on the Jam Cruise in Miami, hitting Key West and playing all over the East coast as well. They’re just coming off their fall tour which saw them go down south then over to New Orleans for Halloween and then out to Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois.
“In 2011, we started doing the summer festivals and getting up into Vermont, up into Mass., hitting the New England scene and reaching down into Philadelphia,” said Somerville. “The last few years we opened it up and went out to Colorado a few times. Colorado has been very good for us. Southern Florida, but Florida in general, has also been very good to us. Obviously New England and New York City, too.”
Somerville graduated from the University of Hartford in 1994 with a music degree and has been playing professionally in Connecticut for over 20 years. He joined the band Tongue & Groove in 1993. (That is how long I’ve been seeing Rob Somerville play. I used to go see that band almost every weekend at the Municipal Cafe in Hartford, or the “Muni,” as it was called.)
“I really cut my teeth with that band. That was like funk boot camp,” Somerville recalled. “Everybody was very serious and very young. We wanted to be very authentic and we covered every funk and soul classic. We nailed them and played them note for note. That first summer in 1993 was like the best year of my life.” He’d play gigs to put enough bread in his pocket to pay the rent and put gas in the car to get to the next gig.
“It was just so easy and free and fun,” he added. “We’d play for anything at anytime and anywhere. That band Tongue & Groove played every weekend without fail… and all in Connecticut which is unheard of. All in your own market is crazy.”
Half of that band went on to become Deep Banana Blackout (DBB) who started playing at the Wobbly in 1998.
Sortly after Kung Fu began, Somerville knew he wanted to join. “People ask me how do I know that a band is good? Because I want to play with them,” he said. “They were smokin’, they were just killing it. I told them that I didn’t even have to play the sax, I could just get up and sing a few tunes. That’s how much I wanted to be in the band. It’s been a wild ride, it’s been great to be back on the scene in another band. After DBB I didn’t really sit around and think if I’d be in another touring band. It just came out of nowhere.”
Today, all the band members have kids and families to juggle with their touring schedules. “We’re grown men with families and growing families. We’re smart about where we play and we plan our tours out as best we can, working around everyone’s schedules. There’s a lot of pieces that come into play to enable us to go out on the road. It starts with your families at home, being able to support you and encourage you to go out there. There’s a lot of sacrifices,” Somerville said. “Life is a lot different but it’s still awesome out on the road. It still feels the same, you never get tired of that feeling. Being on stage and being in front of a crowd. I can’t think of anything else I’d wanna be doing. I’m very glad I’m doing it. I’m very grateful. What makes it all worth it is I have no regrets.”
The greatest compliment Rob Somerville has ever gotten came just a few weeks ago. He was playing at the Suwannee Hulaween show in Florida when a kid from his hometown named Jamie Newitt, came up to him and told him that his old band director, for the past 25 years, had been following Somerville’s career. He has all the records Somerville has ever been on and talks to the students at the school about his path in music.
The band director uses Somerville as an example encouraging his students to also pursue their musical ambitions. Somerville never knew; he hasn’t been back to the school since he graduated.
“That made everything worth it to me in my whole life. I knew that I’ve been doing the right thing,” he said. “It’s most gratifying, humbling. I can’t even describe that feeling.”