Friday was the one-year anniversary of the night I sat in the historic Jamestown Mercantile, playing chess with my daughter, and received a text message from the Boulder Valley School District saying that classes were canceled indefinitely. The pandemic has been historic, deadly, chaotic and stressful; it’s also been painful and worrisome for almost anyone who's either in the music industry or just relishes live music. So it was a big deal, after my music-loving girlfriend and I received recent vaccination shots, to attend the Pamlico Sound’s socially distanced concert at the Boulder Theater on Friday night – a real concert and a real date.
For months, the Boulder Theater has been slowly reintroducing live music, with local bands that usually play clubs and bars getting the chance to headline the beautiful 115-year-old, 850-capacity theater in a scaled-down setup that accommodates an audience of just under 150. The Pamlico Sound, led by multi-talented frontman and head honcho Will Baumgartner, aka Reverend EverReady, was a perfect fit for the theater’s incremental return, using its energetic big-band funk to remind people, no matter how awkward it might feel for some at first, what it’s like to dance in public.
As we entered the venue, a Boulder Theater employee took our temperatures, another scanned our tickets, and another was waiting to escort us to our first-row balcony seats. We were one of three couples in the balcony, each very far apart, and a masked waiter made the rounds, taking orders for drinks and food, explaining that ordering at the bar was not an option because of safety concerns. Those who reserved tables received two drinks per person and tacos, along with one vinyl copy per “pod” of the Pamlico Sound’s The Funk Is Not for Sale album.
Before the band went on, a theater representative explained that masks were to be worn except when patrons were “actively eating or drinking.” Dancing, he said, was allowed as long as concert-goers stayed within the “squares” reserved for each party — a new kind of square dancing.
Chatting backstage before the show while lounging in a Mardi Gras-style outfit he procured just for Friday’s gig, a relaxed Baumgartner mused about preparing to celebrate six years of sobriety and working with a new booking agent he hopes will help the Pamlico Sound move on to bigger things when the live-music industry really opens up. Even though the band, which has been together with various lineups for a decade, is still working in new lead singer Jessica Chernila and was missing a backup singer who had been exposed to COVID-19, Baumgartner and company came out swinging on Friday night.
“Tonight is a celebration of the healing power of pure funk and soul,” Baumgartner told the crowd before the ten-piece Pamlico Sound launched into its original “Let’s Funk,” part of a “Jive Church” set that, before the pandemic, used to feature Baumgartner making his way through audiences spraying them with water and testifying revival-style.
Being the funkiest band in a town as white as Boulder, weekend blizzard or not, is a little like being the fastest snail, but the Pamlico Sound — winner of the 2016 Oskar Blues Battle of the Bands — got its start blowing the roof off of University of Colorado parties and showed at the Boulder Theater on Friday night why it continues to draw dancing crowds in the area.
During a cover of James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing,” numerous concert-goers bounced out of their seats joyfully to boogie their hearts out, having obviously waited an entire year to "get up offa" their couches.
“It is so great to see people dancing,” Baumgartner beamed after the Pamlico Sound finished an extended jam on the Brown classic, complete with dueling drum and horn solos.
“Oh, my fucking God, we missed you,” he said before kicking into a funky original called “Dancin’ Off the Wall.”
The group, which has played some virtual shows during the pandemic and performed to a socially distant parking-lot crowd at Upslope Brewing Company’s East Boulder location over the summer, mixed originals with funky covers all night. With Baumgartner sharing lead vocals, playing flute and sax, and shaking his lanky frame like Fishbone's Angelo Moore or Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne, the Pamlico Sound landed somewhere between Parliament Funkadelic, a wedding band and early Red Hot Chili Peppers tracks like “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes.”
Baumgartner, who has been living in Boulder for more than twenty years, idolizes Sly Stone, whose music the Pamlico Sound worked into its second set Friday. Baumgartner spoke to the band and audience at the Boulder Theater as if he’s studied every Stone word at legendary gigs like Woodstock, and he has. Sadly, although Baumgartner’s father took him to Woodstock, the singer missed Stone’s iconic set.
“I could die happy if I’d seen Sly that night,” he told me backstage at the Boulder Theater, “but I was eleven. I was asleep at 10 p.m.” Sly and the Family Stone went on well after midnight.
Baumgartner remarked that he sees the Pamlico Sound as “a high-energy party band,” and perhaps that’s the kind of act we need as more people get vaccinated and live music slowly returns. The “raging parties” that put the Pamlico Sound on the local map a decade ago will be a bad idea, if not illegal, for a long while, but the Boulder Theater is doing a wonderful job welcoming music lovers safely back to very sparsely (but enthusiastically) attended gigs. It will be particularly special to see exciting up-and-coming local bands such as Foxfeather, on Saturday, June 26, headline such an incredible venue, whereas without the capacity cap it would take much longer for even the best local group to earn a headlining date there.
Former Pamlico Sound lead singer Sarah Sariah brought the night to a fever pitch when she emerged to lend her big, soulful voice and presence to a few tunes, having recently undergone what Baumgartner called “invasive spinal surgery that pulled her vocal cords from her neck.” Her impressive performance seemed liberating and heroic, and for a moment it didn’t feel like such a big accomplishment just to have attended a concert again.
Baumgartner summed up the point of the evening beautifully, telling the crowd, “You’re not alone, and it’s not the end of the world.”