On the Rise: Voodoo Visionary
Bret Peretz had repeatedly told me about a band from Atlanta that his company, Don’t Fret Entertainment, was helping to book. This was going to be the first visit south of Georgia for Voodoo Visionary, playing several venues, the prime one of which was opening at the Crowbar in Tampa for Displace, holding their album debut party for Eureka!
Here is what I wrote about them the first time I heard them:
Voodoo Visionary hails from Atlanta, and they are managed by Bret Peretz, who also manages Displace when he’s not falling through roofs. VV had just released their debut album at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta on March 12th, and this was their very first foray into Florida. (It won’t be the last.) I had watched a couple of videos, so I knew I was going to like this. A lot. But…
It took Voodoo Visionary all of three whole minutes to bring the really deep, deep funk. Just WOW! I was hearing elements of Phish and Widespread Panic and… they just crushed it. CRUSHED IT. My thought at the time: they can play with anybody. Anybody. I also confess I thought they should cover some Eric Quincy Tate songs. Well, somebody should, and they sound like just the guys to do it. Never mind.
VV played a number of songs from their album Spirit of the Groove. The rhythm section of Jimmy Lynch and Mac Schmitz pushed the pace the entire set. Add Mike Wilson to your list of fabulous guitar players; he blistered solo after solo. And keyboard wizard Dennis Dowd was simply amazing. This band is so strong.
I love Scott MacDonald’s vocals (and it’s not just because he has a great first name). MacDonald’s face reflected the sheer joy he and his bandmates were having in this environment. VV closed their great set with “Testify” and “Take the Wheel” from the new album.
I liked them so much the first time that I went to see them the following night at a cosy little bar In St. Petersburg. The quintet (female vocalist Vanessa Graniero was not able to make the trip) played a tremendous set, interspersing originals with covers of all sorts: jazz (“The Chicken”), swamp (“Born on a Bayou”), jam (“Feel Like a Stranger”), and funk (“Hey Pock-a-way”).
If this band had been around in the early ‘70s out of Atlanta, they would surely have been scooped up in a heartbeat by Capricorn Records. No doubt. Here is their self-description:
“Voodoo Visionary is an improvisational funk/dance band from Atlanta, GA. A delicate balance of a tight rhythm section featuring deep grooving bass and funky drum beats paired with diverse and dexterous keys and masterful guitar licks create a sound the group calls psychofunk. Influenced by a wide array of artists such as Parliament Funkadelic, the Grateful Dead, Talking Heads, and Medeski Martin and Wood, Voodoo Visionary has a uniquely blended sound that’s guaranteed to put the ‘oogie in yo boogie.”
“The band is made up of Dennis Dowd (keys), Vanessa Graniero (vocals), Jimmy Lynch (bass), Scott MacDonald (vocals), Mac Schmitz (drums), and Mike Wilson (guitar). Wilson, Schmitz and Lynch have been jamming together for over 8 years, during which time they built a unique chemistry that allows for exceptional improvisation during live shows. MacDonald joined the group in July 2013 as the lead vocalist, and Voodoo Visionary began writing new music and playing shows immediately. Dowd was added to the band in March 2014, providing a missing link that enhanced the band’s unique sound, and the group has taken off around the Atlanta music scene since. Graniero is the newest member of the group, lending her vocal talent and adding an extra touch of professionalism to the sound.”
“They released their debut album, Spirit of the Groove in the spring of 2015. Over the past two years, while playing across the southeast, the band has shared the stage with acts such as Col. Bruce Hampton, Zach Deputy, Earphunk, and Futurebirds. The band performed at the RAW Artists Atlanta showcase in September 2014 at Terminal West, made a live radio and TV appearance on WUGA’s It’s Friday program, and in May, made their major festival debut at Counterpoint Music Festival near Rome, GA.”
Dennis Dowd, from Daphne, Alabama, began classical piano lessons at 7 years old. In high school, he picked up the bass guitar and played in bands influenced by groups such as Rage Against the Machine and Led Zeppelin.
While attending Auburn University, he brought his attention back to the keyboard, playing keys in the Auburn group Gypsies With Knives and various others. After graduating and moving to Atlanta, he joined Voodoo Visionary in the spring of 2014, after responding to an ad the band posted on craigslist. It was a perfect match, as he gelled with the group almost instantly.
He brings a style of playing influenced early on by pianists such as Scott Joplin, Frederic Chopin, and Vince Guaraldi, and, more recently, keyboardists such as Dr. John, Page McConnell, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, among others. He plays electric piano, organ and clavinet in concert.
Mike Wilson is a superb guitar player. He said, “I started playing at an early age. In my early childhood I was exposed to a wide range of genre’s including jazz, disco, funk, soul, and rock music. My parents just played everything. I think every kid at a young age attaches to rock n’ roll at some point, and, for me I really became attached when I was exposed to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and ZZ Top. I grew up listening to a lot of that, but my first concert that I actually remember was KC and the Sunshine Band. I loved the rhythm of the music, the horns, and the collective singing which I think directly influenced the music I play today. These days my biggest influences are The Grateful Dead, anything the Nevilles are involved with, Femi Kuti, Talking Heads, Medeski Martin & Wood and anything Jimmy Herring is involved with.
My grandfather actually taught me to play guitar. He was a marine who loved playing music and at one point in time was offered to record with Elvis but decided to join the marines instead. This was way before Elvis was who he was, but the first song he ever taught me on guitar was ‘House of the Rising Son’ by The Animals.
I started playing with Voodoo when I was 17; I’m 25 now. So a lot of my musical career and expression have been developed with Mac Schmitz and Jimmy Lynch, which is nice because we’ve spent years establishing this groove and sound that is Voodoo. There was a period of time I spent away from the group living in other states playing with people, going to college but I always ended up back in GA.
The concept of Voodoo Visonary, I believe, is to leave a certain amount of mysticism in what is possible in a musical medium. There’s so much great music out there, and the most difficult part of being a musician is being unique. I feel blessed in the sense that I’ve found a way to define myself with a collective rather than on my own. We have a team player mentality to everything we do.
Bassist Jimmy Lynch offered this: “I have played for about 12 years. I have played in many bands from ska to grunge to funk to folk and reggae. The reason I started playing the bass guitar was because my buddy had a ska show lined up and didn’t have a bass player, so I got a cheap bass and learned the parts for the show. It was by far the worst performance of my life, but it got me to where I am today. I get a lot of my influence from rhythms I hear in bluegrass music, not just the bass but the sound as a whole.
One of my big influences is Keith Mosely from the String Cheese Incident. He has such a smooth way of layering his thoughts in the music. I like being able to express thoughts and energy through notes; it’s what keeps me coming back and keeps me picking up my bass every day. In my opinion it really helps that myself, Mac, and Mike grew up listening and picking apart music from some of our favorite bands such as Phish, SCI, the Grateful Dead, Steve Kimock, Frank Zappa and many more. We would listen and then play to try and match certain elements of what we heard. This helped us with communication a lot and also helped with writing our original songs.
Mac Schmitz talked about his big entry into music: “I got my first drum set for Christmas when I was five years old. I remember my uncle showing me a swing groove on the high hat. For a long time that was the only real “beat” I could do. Everything else was just sit down and make as much noise as possible, which I imagine is how most young children react behind a kit. As I child I was more interested in playing the saxophone or the violin. For some reason, when it came time for school band tryouts in 4th grade, I put drums as my first choice and got the gig. There was no turning back.”
“So I began drumming (learning rudiments and basic rhythms) in the school band at age 9. I decided to start taking drumset lessons at age 12. My early influences include John Bonham, Travis Barker and a number of other classic rock, punk rock and metal drummers who all played way too fast for me to follow along. In the very beginning I began by playing along with albums by the likes of Steely Dan and Tears For Fears. I continued taking lessons for about four and a half years, during which time I began playing with Jimmy and Mike. We would get together almost every day after school and jam. I feel like we grew up and came of age in music together along with several other friends. There was always a rotating line up in after-school jam sessions, but Mike, Jimmy and I were always the constant. “
“Voodoo Visionary formed as a way to solidify the musical ideas that we were coming up with on the spot. After playing just a few 100%-improvised shows around the Atlanta area with our friend Zach Robinson, we got offered a gig upstairs at Smith’s Olde Bar (which is one of the premier bars in Atlanta for local music) opening for our friends Johnny Awesome. We couldn’t say no and decided we’d better prepare some material. So we called up Scottie to sing for us and got to work. That’s how it all began! My more recent influences include the likes of Stanton Moore, Adam Deitch, Jojo Mayer, Nickki Glaspie, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzman, and Jeffrey Clemens, among many others.”
Scottie MacDonald is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and joined the band in the summer of 2013. He is a lyricist with an array of influences ranging from Bob Dylan to David Byrne and Bradley Nowell, just to name a few. Scott began writing songs in high school and wrote songs for artists before joining Voodoo Visionary. As roommates in college, Scottie MacDonald and Jimmy Lynch began writing songs together, eventually leading to Scottie’s introduction to the band.
Spirit of the Groove, the band’s debut album, was recorded live in the studio to capture the raw energy and showcase the improvisational expertise that the band brings to their live show. Repeated listenings reveal layer upon layer of elements. This is simply a superb recording, in terms of composition, performance, and sound.
Voodoo Visionary wastes no time slamming into the groove on “The Heathen.” This song is a perfect summary of the album and the band’s live performance. Wilson’s guitar and Dowd’s organ introduce themselves first. Then MacDonald joins in. He is the perfect singer for this band and a great front man in concert. On the chorus parts, Graniero sings in unison with MacDonald; they do this on a number of tracks, very effectively. There is a guitar intro to Dowd’s electric piano solo, then the guitar works its way underneath, and then Wilson crushes the first of many great solos (every song, actually). Like Graniero and MacDonald, Wilson and Dowd often play in unison, also very effective. Dowd comes back with a brief clavinet foray before the tune’s end. WOW.
“Salt” begins with a great funky vamp, and Graniero takes the lead vocal. She has a smooth voice that works atop this funky backdrop. Again, on the choruses, MacDonald joins in. Dowd has a really nice electric piano solo. On this tune, and throughout the album, the rhythm section is huge. Jimmy Lynch is laying down monster bass lines, and Schmitz is simply killing it. Wilson hits the mark again as well.
MacDonald’s voice is revered on “Kang Gang,” another great rocker with Dowd on electric piano, and Wilson has another tremendous solo. He is a perfect example of why ‘top ten’ lists of guitar players — or any thing else — are just popularity contests. There are thousands upon thousands of terrific musicians out there, and we’ll never get to hear a fraction of a fraction of them.
“Kang Gang” slips so quickly into “Dancin’ Feet” that you don’t notice the transition. Lynch sets this up with a great bass figure on this funk rocker. Wilson has a huge solo, and it is amazing how very much like Displace they are at times, which may be why Peretz, manager of Displace, was attracted to them. the electric piano solo is really trippy, with chunky, funky guitar underneath. Then Dowd moves to organ, and Wilson flashes again. Lynch and Schmitz are blasting on this one.
Like every track on this disk, “All Week” would have been a perfect Capricorn Records song. You could see this right alongside ABB, Marshall Tucker, Sea Level and Cowboy. Maybe not White Witch. Graniero is in charge again, and she and MacDonald have a nice vocalese break, and then wah-wah guitar stirs the pot.
“Parasite” is the most unusual track on the album. After a bouncy electric piano and guitar intro, MacDonald does a Trey-like talkie, then Graniero sings, and back and forth. Wilson delivers perhaps the best solo on the record after Dowd’s electric piano break.
“Take the Wheel” could have been a rocking hit single. This is a tune the band throws down hard in concert. MacDonald’s vocals are powerful. There is more great organ/guitar unison work before Wilson takes off again.
Finally, we get to “Testify,” another strong Southern rocker in this band’s mold. It’s also a concert staple. Funky guitar and electric piano introduce it, the Dowd solos on organ with Wilson working underneath, and then it is Wilson time once more.
And Spirit of the Groove gets better and better each time through. You can listen below on Spotify, but you need to own this music and support Voodoo Visionary. Especially you folks in the ATL who haven’t checked them out yet!
The band’s Florida trip this time finds them in Dunedin this Thursday, then Deland and New Smyrna Beach before playing the official Umphrey’s McGee afterparty Sunday in St. Petersburg with Displace and Roosevelt Collier. Check out the entire current tour here:
Voodoo Visionary Press Photo courtesy Meg Gheesling Photography
Smith’s Olde Bar Photos courtesy Drew Stawin Photography
Smith’s Olde Bar Feelin’ Alright photo features Jose Rivera on percussion, Austin Cobb from Johnny Awesome on vocals, and Thomas Garret from Lucidea on guitar
Album cover artwork by Breze Schmitz