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Music majors may be good players, but they’re not always good musicians. Even the best music school can’t instill the intuition that makes musicians capable of transcending their training. Of the two bands scheduled to play at Rhythm & Brews on Friday, at least one has that potential.
AFRO, a group of newly minted graduates from Middle Tennessee State University music program, may well be one of the few bands to make it on their own terms. Like Steely Dan, their music is as intellectual as it is emotional—always a problem for a band looking for commercial as well as artistic success.
AFRO’s roots long pre-date the formation of the current band. The founding members—keyboardist Kaitlyn Connor, bassist Chris Conrad and guitarist Adam Mullis—first met at Sandy Springs High School in suburban Atlanta. They formed a cover band one of their friends jokingly suggested they call Afro America. It stuck. Following graduation they went their separate ways. Connor began studying classical piano at Vanderbilt, bassist Conrad went to MTSU in Murfreesboro for the Recording Industry Management program, while guitarist Mullis moved to Statesboro, Ga., and began taking classes at Georgia Southern University. But by the fall of 2011 both Mullis and Connor had transferred to MTSU.
In the interim Conrad met guitarist Blake Gallant, who’d moved from Chattanooga to major in music business management at MTSU. He and Conrad began playing with Connor and Mullis, still calling the band Afro America. Later Gallant invited his friend, Jeff McSpadden, a percussionist from Soddy Daisy, to join them and eventually he too moved to Murfreesboro last fall. This past spring, Conrad left the band, Gallant moved over to bass and drummer Michael Toman joined (replacing original drummer Silas Jackson) and the name was shortened simply to AFRO (in caps, connoting their newfound confidence).
Anyone listening to the band’s just-released album Meat & III might be surprised to read about all of the upheavals because they already play like a seasoned band. Available on bandcamp.com, the six-song collection opens with the rousing “Strife In Stride.” A showcase for their individual chops, it opens with a galvanizing burst of rapid-fire piano and percussion coming to an abrupt halt within a minute. Gallant begins singing after a pause and the band locks in behind him picking up steam as Mullis and Connor begin trading choruses like John McLaughlin jamming with McCoy Tyner. Driven by McSpadden’s and Toman’s furious percussion and drumming, it moves through a series of dynamic shifts in a thunderously melodic madcap dash.
Nothing else on the album reaches the level of that first tune, but the addition of saxophonist David Williford and trombonist Tanner Antonetti on the rest of the album adds to their range and lets them punch like the bands whose fusion of rock and jazz in the 1970s they’ve clearly studied and internalized.
AFRO with Dank Sinatra
Friday, Jan. 4
Rhythm & Brews
221 Market St.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.