Dumpstaphunk: United We Stand
“We miss y’all a whole lot,” an emotional Ivan Neville told a socially distanced Florida crowd on Feb. 12. “The part that you play in this is so important.”
The comeback gig, which took place during the two-day Funky Mardi Gras “Mask”erade at Florida’s Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, marked Dumpstaphunk’s first in-person performance since Feb. 22, 2020.
Needless to say, the musicians assembled onstage—Ivan on keys, bassist/ guitarist Tony Hall, bassist Nick Daniels, guitarist Ian Neville, trombonist Alex Wasily, trumpeter Ryan Nyther and drummer Devin Trusclair—were elated to be performing for a crowd of smiling, albeit masked-up faces.
For the encore, Dumpstaphunk even welcomed Florida resident Oteil Burbridge for a 20-minute version of “Shakedown Street.” And for just a few moments, it felt like the pre-pandemic world again.
It’s an understatement to say that the last 12 months have been a challenge for almost every touring professional, including the members of Dumpstaphunk. From a whiplashinducing halt in live gigs to a COVID health scare to the preparation of their first studio album in seven years, the New Orleans musicians found themselves in uncharted waters, doing their best to move ahead.
And that conundrum brings to mind the very question that Dumpstaphunk’s new LP, Where Do We Go From Here, ponders.
“Everybody wonders: Where do we go from here?” Ivan says while calling from his home in New Orleans, just a few days after the Florida gigs. “Especially after all that we’ve gone through in this past year, where do we go? What do we do now? The fear of the unknown motivates you to either have more faith or to be more frustrated. So which one do you choose? And I would choose to have more faith. Like the lyrics [to the title song] say, ‘Where do we go from here?/ Let’s take it slow, no fear, what we don’t know becomes clear/ Baby, let’s go somewhere.’”
Ivan originally formed Dumpstaphunk as a one-off band for New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2003. But, during the past 18 years, the group has slowly grown into one of the Big Easy’s most cherished funk ambassadors, thanks to their signature double-bass, B-3 sound.
As anyone who loves NOLA music knows, the members of the ensemble are true working musicians, churning out tour dates and club gigs as quickly as they could book them. Before the pandemic, when Ivan wasn’t playing with Dumpstaphunk, he was sitting in with Widespread Panic and Dead & Company, collaborating with any number of supergroups—his work with The Meters offshoot Foundation of Funk has been particularly well-received—and adding his name to star-studded charity benefits across the U.S.
Ivan participated in one such benefit, New York’s Love Rocks, alongside Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Leon Bridges, Dave Matthews and many others on March 12, 2020, right as the world stood still. And, what was set to be a memorable night of music quickly became a flashpoint in the COVID-19 crisis, as Ivan watched New York City shut down in real-time.
“The show ended up being more of a livestream event,” Ivan recalls. “There were supposed to be 2,000-3,000 people at this event, and they ended up doing kind of a family and friends admission— only 200-300 people there. When I got home, I felt like shit, like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel right’ and I had a fever. So that was the beginning of a six-week little ordeal that I had to go through.”
Since tests were in short supply, Ivan was told to assume that he had the virus, and he self-quarantined in the back room of his New Orleans home. It wasn’t long before the classic symptoms emerged— fever, exhaustion, shortness of breath. He even got an oxygen machine from a friend-of-a-friend to help him breathe more easily. At one point, the keyboardist clocked his blood oxygen level in the 80s—a dangerous number considering the CDC considers an oxygen saturation of 95 to 100 percent to be normal or healthy.
“I was pretty much in bed for almost three weeks,” Ivan says now, his voice rife with relief. “The fever took about two weeks to subside.”
Throughout the ordeal, Ivan continued to speak on the phone with friends like Hall. “He didn’t tell me [about his COVID] for a minute, but then he told me he had the oxygen and stuff,” Hall recalls. “I talk to him a couple of times a day. We’re like brothers. The problem is that I’m older than him but he wants to be the big brother. [Laughs.]”
With his friends in his corner and his keyboard only a few feet away, Ivan hosted his first quarantine livestream just a week or two into his illness, establishing a virtual connection with his fans. In hindsight, Ivan believes the sessions actually played a key role in his recovery.
“Little did I know, I was exercising my voice and it helped my lungs,” Ivan says. “I had pneumonia in both lungs, along with COVID, all of that stuff. I was told, ‘You need to exercise your lungs and reteach them what they’re supposed to already know.’ When I would do an hour-long livestream, I would play and sing. I would be worn out after doing that, but it would actually help my lungs. I would do the stream every week for maybe four or so weeks, and I was still sick. The second or third time I told everyone, ‘Oh, by the way. I have COVID.’”
Once Ivan recovered, the members of Dumpstaphunk assembled to partake in the flood of pandemic livestreams, offering plug-in-and-play performances at empty New Orleans venues like Tipitina’s. And while it was nice to have some semblance of normalcy, Hall confirms it just wasn’t the same as playing for an audience.
“The livestream thing is like playing in your house or playing a rehearsal because there’s nobody there,” Hall explains, noting how good it felt to be back onstage in February. “We were laughing and said ‘Man, we’re so ready to get back on the road that we’ll probably be at the spot two hours before showtime—just out there waitin’ to play!’”
In a band full of personalities, Hall is one of the brightest. Despite being a consummate bassist—who has worked with Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, Maceo Parker, Trey Anastasio and many others— he still has a few quirks. Before the pandemic, he was often ribbed by his bandmates for his aversion to germs. Of course, they now view those behaviors a bit differently.
“Tony’s overabundance of caution for touching any surfaces was halfway ahead of the curve, so I will give it to him on that one,” chuckles guitarist Ian. “We used to laugh at the degree to which he would do that sometimes. But once COVID kicked off, it was like, ‘Tony was right. There ya go.’”
Hall retorts, “They used to give me all kinds of crap. I don’t touch salt shakers at restaurants and stuff. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, pass the salt!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, lemme get a napkin!’”
And, considering their varied ages, experiences and complicated familial dynamics, those unique personalities have clashed more than once over the years. But, according to Hall and Ivan, it’s all part of the game.
“It’s a democracy,” Hall notes. “There’s no bandleader, so everybody has a say and sometimes it’s like, ‘No, I think it should go like this!’ But it always works out where the music speaks for itself. We play off of each other so, once we start playing, it’s like an automatic thing. It flows together.”
“It’s like when you have several chefs trying to make a meal together,” Ivan concludes. “Sometimes you bump heads with that dynamic. But overall, we seem to get through it. And that’s basically how we operate. It’s like we are just chopping up salami, chopping up some onions and adding some garlic—whatever. That’s the New Orleans signature dish of gumbo. And, when I was growing up, gumbo was basically when you put everything you had in the pot and you mixed all up. Then, you cooked it, and it came out tasty. That’s kind of what we do. Everything works together—all of our tools, everybody’s ideas. We try to put it together and, hopefully, it can all work in that same pot.”
Thankfully, the band managed to record most of Where Do We Go From Here before the pandemic hit and stitch together the audio while social distancing.
“It took some years to complete this stuff,” Ivan explains. “We had some pieces in the can, unfinished songs and unfinished pieces of music. So when everything kind of shut down, we said, ‘OK, now we can sit down, edit, listen and make sure everything’s good.’”
The new LP includes a mix of new material and covers. The band also reimagined their rallying 2017 anthem “Justice” as the standout single “Justice 2020.” With guests like rapper Chali 2na and NOLA brass staple Trombone Shorty, the song calls attention to the never-ending cycle of police brutality and systemic violence against Black Americans, even garnering the attention of The New York Times, who dubbed it one of the “Best Songs of 2020.”
“That was inspired by some unfortunate events,” Ivan says of the song, invoking names like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain. “That shit was going on [when we initially released ‘Justice’] four or so years ago, and it’s been going on way longer than that. I was a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s and I saw a lot of shit. I saw a lot of civil unrest, a lot of injustice going on, and a lot of social injustice is still happening in the civil rights movement now. Some things have changed but not enough. A lot of shit’s still really fucked up.”
Adding to the awareness of Where Do We Go From Here, the covers on the album include socially conscious compositions like Blackmail’s “Let’s Get at It,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “In Time” and Buddy Miles’ 1973 track “United Nations Stomp.”
Clearly, from their countless hours of entertaining crowds in New Orleans and beyond, Dumpstaphunk have mastered the art of the cover song, stretching and manipulating the music to make it something entirely their own. According to Ivan, “United Nations Stomp” isn’t any different.
“What a great title for a song,” he says. “We need [‘United Nations Stomp’] right now; we need to move to this. And it’s hard to get through some of the bullshit that goes on in this day and age and the shit that people are exposed to, like the conspiracy theories. People get so fucking whacked out and so divided, let alone the systemic racism and all of that. And we got people—families—pissed off at each other because of their political beliefs. It’s fucking crazy. To navigate through all that shit is difficult in itself. So it’s cool to write music, and perform music, that can make some sense out of somebody’s shit. That’s why I love that ‘United Nations Stomp.’ It’s talking to everybody. No matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, no matter who you love, no matter what you believe in, no matter how much money you’ve got— or how much money you ain’t got— it’s for everybody. We want to remind people of that. Sometimes, even though situations vary and you’re not in another person’s shoes, you gotta just try to walk with them with some civility and respect and have some compassion for your fellow man.”
As always, Ivan speaks with the kind of experience and gravitas many Americans wish they had in their elected officials. Could a run for local office be in his future?
“Nah, I’d probably get too weird with speaking in public,” he chuckles, adding that he’s far more comfortable behind a keyboard than a podium.
And maybe that’s the way it should be. Though, in recent years, the members of Dumpstaphunk have emerged as New Orleans royalty in their own right, their mission was straightforward and pure from the very beginning.
As Hall explains, “The groove of the song—it’s soulful, it’s funky, it’s danceable. There’s no way that you’re just gonna sit still if we’re playing. We have two bass players so it’s pretty powerful. You definitely will dance. That’s our job: to make you dance!”