Adam Isaac & the People don't care much about labels. But all four members are sure about one thing: The groove rules. Born from the ashes of Universal Sound, the 18-month-old Madison quartet gets its spark from singer/bassist Isaac, a tall, effusive Wisconsin native with an unquenchable jones for the Prince songbook. He's got a knack for penning urgent pop-funk grooves that often rise above the usual dance-floor fodder, and his bandmates are smart enough to realize that his eclectic musical vision pulses with a special kind of energy.
"I don't worry about styles," says Isaac, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. "I'm more in it for the perfect song. What I like about this group is that everyone is bringing something different to it. It's a new group, but there's a great magic in the air right now."
Isaac and company haven't reached perfection just yet. But a headlining slot at the Crystal Corner Bar earlier this month found them funking things up with purpose. Isaac's urgent, vein-popping embrace of every lyric was clearly informed by Prince's neo-pleading, and yet there was also something strangely innocent and original about his approach. If he hadn't been encumbered by his big five-string bass, you could imagine him dropping to his knees, grabbing the mike close and shaking a shower of sweat on the small crowd that danced to simmering, self-penned love cries like "Unspoken" and "Tug of War."
While Isaac flayed his soul for the benefit of the audience, drummer Joey B. Banks cruised effortlessly through febrile rock, funk and reggae beats that surely would have provoked plenty of dancing on their own. He was a sinewy rhythm machine, and whenever the music threatened to flag, he pushed Isaac's popping bass and guitarist Joe Niesen's digitally processed funk riffs a little harder. Berklee-trained saxophonist Gabe Turner wasn't nearly as up front in the mix, but his elemental tenor added jazzy R&B colors to much of the set.
While Banks and Isaac are quick to say that they're not simply a funk band, it's plain that the local audience really gets off on their funkiest material. Even the hardcore tipplers at the Crystal's packed bar sat up and took notice when Isaac & the People flipped the switch on the Ohio Players' "Skin Tight" and added more bounce to the ounce on their own ass-shaker "Funkified."
The pure funk tunes also helped to draw attention away from the glitches that occasionally cropped up in the quartet's 90-minute set. Pacing and segues from song to song sometimes posed problems for the foursome. And whenever Isaac began fiddling with his bass rig between songs, you could feel the energy getting sucked out of the room.
Since all the members of Adam Isaac & the People have long histories in music (at 42, Banks is the oldest in the group, and at 30, Turner is the youngest), they're open about the band's shortcomings. Indeed, Banks admits that they need to get several more gigs under their belts before their live show has a seamless flow.
But Banks is also convinced that this is "a band that could do something." Both he and Isaac note that strong out-of-town appearances in Door County and elsewhere have demonstrated that they certainly don't need local love to connect with an audience.
"We're right on the cusp," says Banks, who's now booking the band as far afield as Minneapolis.
"We had people in Door County saying that we were the best band they'd heard in years," adds Isaac.
In part because the memberships' school days are far behind them, they've found that it's been hard not to be viewed as a townie band. College kids don't know about them, and gigs on the margins of the isthmus don't help spread the word to campus. Still, guitarist Niesen remains hopeful that UW students in need of some funk therapy will eventually find them.
"We definitely want to get that crowd," he says. "WSUM called and asked about getting a recording from us, but unfortunately we don't have one yet. But it's coming. And then I think we'll get some interest down there."