Free Radicals Celebrate 20 Years of Power to the People

Free Radicals
Free Radicals
Photo by Joux Bonier, courtesy of Free Radicals
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In the spirit of their fast-approaching 20th anniversary, we asked Free Radicals to tell their story in 20 words or less. The answer could have come off an FBI “Wanted” poster:

“Horn-driven instrumental dance band, committed to supporting members of targeted communities for whom ‘apartheid’ is not merely a metaphor.”

That sounds a little dangerous, raucous, kind of sexy and powerfully committed to the people. Nominally a jazz group, the Radicals have been all those things and more for two decades, a milestone they’ll celebrate Friday at Eastdown Warehouse with special guests Metanoia and Disfrutalo!

Even interviewing Free Radicals resembles receiving missives from an underground cabal. They responded to our written questions in unison, preferring to be attributed as “the band” rather than directly. Further investigation revealed that drummer Nick Cooper, bassist Jacob Breier, and saxophonists Pete Sullivan (baritone) and Aaron Varnell (tenor) had a hand in their replies. That sense of togetherness is a prevalent theme.

“About 120 musicians have recorded on the CDs,” they say. “Nick Cooper and Pete Sullivan are the longest-lasting players, but Jason Jackson on alto and Al Bear on guitar have been in the band for over a decade.”

Best to let the Radicals, who have won a staggering 20 Houston Press Music Awards (13 for Best Jazz Act), explain their convoluted origins in their own words.

“From 1996-'98, we were a loose group of people jamming together with Nick Cooper on drums,” they begin. “From '98 to 2001, we had a solid line up with Jon Durbin, Marcos Melchor and Pete Sullivan leading the horn section. Then we became a loose group of people jamming again during the period when we recorded our third CD, Aerial Bombardment. You can hear it on that disk; there are all kinds of crazy jams recorded at warehouse parties mixed together with studio stuff.

“Then, starting in 2006, we coalesced around another lineup with Jason Jackson and Pete leading the horn section, [and] Theo Bijarro and Al Bear on bass and guitar,” the Radicals continued. “In recent years, we've added in a bunch of younger guys – Jacob Breier on bass, Aaron Varnell on tenor sax, Tom VandenBoom on trombone and Matt Serice on trumpet. When Harry Sheppard, our 89 year-old bandmate, plays with us, we have a 60-plus-year age range onstage.”

Band members come and go, but constants with Free Rads have been advocating for social justice through their actions and their signature blend of musical genres, most prominently jazz, funk and ska. From oil wars and immigrant rights to Standing Rock and regressive political policies, the band’s music has always been timely, dating back to John Kitses’s artwork on 1998’s The Rising Tide Sinks All. (They’ve always been down to play benefits they add.)

“Over time, pro-war musicians tended to stay away from our project,” the Radicals explain. “Now, any musician that records with us knows that their music will end up being used for some political theme, so they’re either down with the cause or they're indifferent and are just down to be part of the project.”

Free Rads marching
Free Rads marching
Photo by Hannah Varnell, courtesy of Free Radicals

One of the group’s most moving aspects is its ability to express discontent or create calls to action solely through instrumental music. There are no lyrics to misinterpret or spin; the Radicals surreptitiously create comrades when listeners first tap their toes and bob their heads. Once that happens, they’re part of the movement.

“If you take a ska tune and turn down the volume, it could be the most chill music ever, appropriate for an art opening or whatever,” they say. “Then you crank it up and it could be punk-rock house-party music. Or, if you switch out drum set for marching drums and the bass for a sousaphone, it becomes great marching protest music. Since we don't have a vocalist, we can just experiment with different volumes, styles, and energies to fit the event.

“We've found that it's been effective using an all-instrumental group as a backdrop to spread social awareness through supporting causes we feel passionately about, the Radicals add. “It gives it a wide appeal and allows us to reach people who wouldn't necessarily listen to explicitly protest music. Our hope is that we can reach people first through our music, then once they start delving into or Googling song titles they start to discover the rich social messages that stand behind each album.”

That approach allows the band to infiltrate the enemy, and not just in a figurative sense. Besides their legendary 24-hour set at Notsuoh, they list a most unlikely gig as a career highlight.

“In 2005, we were paid pretty well to play at an oil corporation party, and then we got up early the next morning to play at the Halliburton Annual Meeting protest in downtown when protesters were getting tackled by the cops and arrested,” they recall. “We were just out there thinking, ‘Hey we're probably protesting some of the same people whose party we worked last night.’"

Here, tenor saxman Varnell breaks the veil to say, “A highlight show for me was Free Press Summer Fest 2014. We were playing the part of roving second-line band and I struck up conversation with a blue-eyed beauty. Three years later, we're married with a newborn daughter. Definitely a personally significant show."

The Radicals have no plans to slow down, either. They hold public rehearsals Monday nights at AvantGarden, which will continue at least through May before they head out to support new album Outside the Comfort Zone. The title, they explain, “describes a not-unfamiliar white-supremacist apartheid society in which consumers are oblivious to human rights abuses going on right outside the window. Nick and his wife Angela, who is a kick-ass artist, collaborated on the cover to capture this really dangerous moment we are in.”

Does anyone recall their very first show? Where was it?

“Probably at Fitzgerald's,” the Radicals reply. “You know, we really loved that room, we've had some of our best shows there, and it sounds great, or at least it used to. However, shit, if they're telling off black people, who wants to be part of that anymore?’”

Unapologetic, dangerous, sexy and fun, Free Radicals have long established their role in a scene they love.

“We're really happy to be part of a music scene where people who used to play with us are playing with other bands we love, and horn players from other bands come and sit in with us,” they note. “The Houston music scene is awesome. There are lots of great groups and musicians, and we particularly dig the jazz scene and the free-jazz/experimental-music scene. Support live music!”

Free Radicals’ 20th anniversary show and CD pre-release, featuring special guests Metanoia and Disfrutalo!, occupies Eastdown Warehouse (850 McKee) on Friday, April 28. Doors open at 8 p.m. $10 at the door; Advance tickets available for $8 at http://freerads.com/tickets

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