When Vulfpeck played the Neutral Zone’s “Live on Washington” festival last summer, bandleader Jack Stratton briefly referenced Twitter accolades his group had received from legendary funk drummer Bernard Purdie. Then he took a moment to tell his youthful audience who Purdie was.
“You may have heard him in ‘MMMBop’ or the Mad Men theme,” Stratton chuckled–referencing two contemporary songs that sample Purdie’s work rather than older artists he’s recorded with, like James Brown and Steely Dan. The choice sums up Vulfpeck, a group of dedicated music nerds ever ready to recontextualize the classic funky sound they adore for their rabidly enthusiastic, mostly young fans. Vulfpeck formed in 2011, when all four players were attending music school at the U-M, with the intention of emulating the irresistible grooves of celebrated studio bands like the Funk Brothers and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Vulfpeck has certainly succeeded in that goal, but the quartet is too talented to merely rehash its heroes’ work. Appropriately, some of its best work comes out of the rhythm section. Joe Dart is a marvel on the bass, almost doubled over his instrument as he plunks out sly walking lines that shiver with personality; given a moment in the spotlight, he can fly off into a wildly proficient upper-register slap bass solo. Drum work is sharp and syncopated, whether Stratton or Theo Katzman is behind the kit. Katzman and Stratton also play guitar, and Stratton frequently backs up pianist Woody Goss on a second keyboard, sometimes adding a comical visual as he exaggeratedly dashes between instruments.
No matter what instrument they’re playing, Vulfpeck’s members are always laser-focused on one another’s rhythms, and they write songs that flaunt those interactions. The band doesn’t devote much time to solos. Commonly, passages showcase two or three instruments working together in nimble, intensely paced harmony. Although the tunes are mostly instrumental, Katzman sometimes adds a breathy vocal and doesn’t hesitate to deliver a music lesson by meticulously leading the audience through constructing a sing-along in three-part harmony. That might sound pedantic, but it comes off as infectiously goofy fun.
The band members banter freely with their fans, inciting fans to dance, clap, and sing along. Their pure joy in the music is palpable, whether playing one of their many originals or trotting out a well-chosen cover (Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder are favorites). Though instrumental ’60s-style R&B isn’t exactly in vogue right now, Vulfpeck has amassed a significant national fan base. On one hand, their popularity is difficult to explain; on the other hand, their work is so good that it’s difficult to imagine anyone resisting it.
Vulfpeck plays the Michigan Theater May 12 and 13.